The Comeback Kids: Zak Rotello and The Olympic Tavern
ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - Natives of Rockford’s west side know The Olympic Tavern all too well. Our next Comeback Kid is one of the familiar faces you will see in the restaurant, as he continues his family’s legacy.
Zak Rotello is the General Manager of the tavern and left the Stateline to live in Portland, Oregon for many years. He says he always knew he’d eventually come back home. “I’ve got two younger brothers and a younger sister and I knew that I was probably the only one crazy enough crazy to get into the restaurant and bar business,” Zak says.
The roots of the west side staple can be traced back to Zak’s grandfather, Tony, who opened the restaurant 76 years ago. His dad, Tom, continues to run the business behind the scenes with Zak bringing a unique twist to its day-to-day operations.
He says, “Hospitality is just kind of in my genes. I think some of us just kind of have the bug. I kind of make it my own fun every day. If there’s nothing going on a Tuesday then let’s do a little beer tasting night or let us do a beer or wine school for our customers.”
The restaurant has undergone many changes over the years and some came with big risks. While living in Portland, Zak continued to learn the restaurant industry while at the same time learning the art of brewing beer before returning home.
“Sometimes you just have to do stuff that maybe doesn’t appear to be the smartest move right away like putting a bunch of money into a restaurant at Main and Fulton, which is clearly not the growing side of Rockford. I’ve had a lot of people ask when are you going to move to the Olympic or open the Olympic east. I say no this is our block, we aren’t going anywhere,” Zak says.
Attempting to stay open at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was no easy task. But, as Zak says, the pandemic only emphasized the importance of being there for the public.
Zak says, “It was good to get to know Paul at Abreo, Pat at Octane and Josh from Lucha a little bit better and bounce ideas off each other when all of this COVID information is coming at us. It kind of got us all talking a little bit more where we would normally be competitors.”
The restaurants still compete during the week. But, as Zak says, they all understand they must present a united front for the greater good of the community. “I think people slag on Rockford, I think a lot of times, people slag on wherever they are from. I think in Rockford, you have the ability to make your own fun a lot easier than you might in other places. That’s kind of what I view my job here as,” Zak says.
He hopes to continue spreading positive messages about the Forest City and help others love it as much as he does.
Zak says, “Rockford exports good people to a lot of other places. I’m hoping we can retain some of that human capital in the future and keep some of the Rockford people around so we’re not all boomerang kids.”
The Olympic Tavern, as Zak says, was able to retain about 95 percent of his pre-pandemic staff and hopes to gradually expand the restaurant’s food service hours to open again for lunch soon.
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