ROSELAWN – It started with a garage fire.
For David and Sarah Thompson, this was as close to a “sign from the universe” as they could expect. “Either do it now, or it’s not going to happen,” says David. The loss check was a ticket to a brighter future — one in which they could live out their dream of owning and running a restaurant. From the ashes of that garage fire rose Tank’s Pit Stop.
The Thompsons are no strangers to fire. During their honeymoon in Maui, a 2,000-acre wildfire ravaged the area just outside of their hotel. They were forced to evacuate in the night. Maybe that was part of the motivation in using this fire to change their lives for the better.
“I wanted to make something good out of the next fire I had,” says David.
David, the eponymous “Tank” — so-called by his coach in junior high football, who said simply that he “looked like a tank,” and the name stuck — has been working in the restaurant industry since the age of 15, as has his wife Sarah. Born and raised in Roselawn, David got his start at a little sandwich shop called Marge’s, serving up burgers, Chicago dogs, and Polish sausage. The diner happened to be right across the street from the restaurant he runs now.
The job lasted less than a year, but David’s passion for cooking has lasted a lifetime. Soon after, he moved on to Shorty’s Bar and Grill down the road.
“I was only there for like a month, helped the guy drop fish on Fridays. One Saturday, I came in, and he got fired. They told me I’d be the new head cook.”
At 16, David ran an entire bar and grill — a trial by fire if ever there was one. To say that he has experience in the restaurant business would be the understatement of the year. Sarah also has extensive experience, with almost 14 years working at restaurants and baking for fun. Naturally, they decided to open the Pit Stop together. Still, it took a leap of faith — where he worked, David had job security, good insurance. But he had to take a chance on his dream.
In March of 2020, the Thompsons opened Tank’s Pit Stop. To start, the restaurant would seat 40 people. David purchased a vast quantity of dishes and silverware, not knowing then that they would be completely useless — three days after opening, the state closed all restaurants. That Monday, the Pit Stop became takeout only.
The coronavirus has presented many challenges that have served to make the restaurant even more resilient. For starters, Sarah could not be in the restaurant at all for months, out of an abundance of caution. The Thompsons are expecting a child in July and keeping Sarah healthy has been priority number one. Bringing a restaurant and a child into the world in the same year has made 2020 nothing short of a roller coaster for this family.
“I haven’t really been able to run the place like I’m supposed to be,” says Sarah.
Another difficulty brought about by coronavirus has been a lack of supply. Soon after moving to takeout only, David had to remove beef from the menu due to nationwide shortages. According to him, the last two weeks have been the hardest — with so many restaurants opening back up to full service, the already-limited supply has been completely exhausted. Stocking the freezer has become nearly impossible.
“If you need two cases of meat, you have to buy 10,” he explains, and priority goes to established restaurants with huge amounts of storage space — mostly Chicago-based and other urban eateries who have been “bullying the small guys” to feed a ravenous public.
In a strange way, however, the unusual circumstances have jumpstarted their restaurant.
“The community has been so supportive and understanding,” he says.
“We almost became one of the only restaurants open,” adds Sarah, and that crucial factor has led to rapid and shocking expansion — David outgrew his kitchen in a mere three weeks, and the phone has been ringing off the hook.
“It was like everyone was trying to call at once,” says David. Well-intentioned customers informed them that their phones were not working, not realizing that the only issue was too many hungry patrons — never a bad problem to have.
In a way, the circumstances have been a “huge blessing,” according to Sarah. “If we can handle this, we can handle anything.”
One strength throughout the hard times: an excellent kitchen staff. “Can’t wish that I had better employees,” David says. “90% of them are from the start. It makes a huge difference. There’s a lot of passion in that kitchen, and you can tell.”
The restaurant itself is the embodiment of who David and Sarah are as people: family-friendly and community-oriented. David’s lifelong passions for cars and cooking have combined to create a one-of-a-kind racing-themed restaurant, one that someday soon could offer car shows and cruise-ins. Other future entertainment may include open mic nights and large cookouts.
The menu is the culmination of their combined 30-plus years in the restaurant industry. David has worked everywhere from simple mom and pop diners to five-star restaurants. The latter often shows in the restaurant’s exquisite specials. Meanwhile, Sarah’s baking expertise lends itself to colorful arrays of flavorful and creative cupcakes, part of her full-fledged bakery that offers an assortment of delicious baked goods.
“I have a really good variety of things I know the locals want because I’ve cooked here my whole life,” says David. Being part of Roselawn’s community for so long has been an asset to David and Sarah. “I really believe that if a stranger moved in and tried to do what we did, I really don’t think it would have worked out.”
“They’re cheering us on,” Sarah says of the surrounding community. “[David’s] becoming something of a local celebrity.”
“They’ve all been great,” says David. “Everywhere I go, they just tell me they’re so proud of us. It makes a huge difference. It makes it worth it.”
For now, the plan is to grow, survive these trying times, and thrive in the wonderful community of Roselawn. David would like to own his own building in the future, and Sarah hopes to one day move the bakery to its own location so that they can stop competing for the same resources. “Keep getting bigger and better,” David simply says.
He offers some advice for future restaurant owners. “Sit down and make sure you plan it for how you want it. You need to make sure you’re ready for it.” The commitment, he says, is huge. “It has to be the most thing you’ve ever wanted. That’s what it is for me.” When a restaurant is a passion, he adds, “It’s not really work. It’s just building a future.”
Tank’s Pit Stop is located in Roselawn at 5935 E 1015 N, open from 11-8 on Tuesday through Saturday, and 11-5 on Sunday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. For now, the restaurant will operate as takeout only with no current timetable for a return to indoor dining. They can be reached at 219-251-0169, and their website is located at www.tanks-pitstop.com.