One Illinois couple has taken curbside dining to a whole new level.
With a spare Ford Transit cargo van — freed up from a nature education business that’s stalled amid the pandemic — Kim and Doug White came up with a unique way to use it to support local restaurants and enjoy a different approach to dining.
The Lombard locals took the wheel when the shutdown in their state forced restaurant owners to switch gears and operate for takeout and limited outdoor dining only due to new COVID-19 restrictions.
“Oct. 23 was when the mandate was gonna go forward to shut restaurants back down again — and here, it’s too cold to sit outside,” Kim White told “Good Morning America.” “We were driving around on the 21st — both really bummed out that we wouldn’t be able to go into the restaurants, because we really enjoy going out to eat and have a deep connection to the restaurant industry and felt bad for them.”
Doug White said to her, “I just wish we had an RV that we could put a table in the back, have our own dining room and just go from restaurant to restaurant.” She immediately thought, “we can make that happen” with the unused van, and the two collaborated to create a cozy, safe eatery right inside the vehicle.
On the Friday after the mandate took effect, the Whites drove their new setup, complete with a folding table and chairs, decorative Edison light bulbs, an indoor/outdoor rug, a tablecloth, candles and music to a favorite local restaurant.
“We love what Mission BBQ stands for and that they support our troops, so we decided that would be our first place to go. We showed up, parked in the parking lot, ordered, brought the takeout boxes back to the car, brought our own plates, plated it, and Doug took pictures,” she described of their inaugural auto-centric culinary setup. “We kept the back doors open, because it was a fairly decent evening, and people would walk by, and they were smiling. Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve seen so many people smiling? They were getting just as much joy out of it as we were.”
From there, the Whites created a Facebook and Instagram to share Doug White’s professional photos of their delicious meals and help highlight local businesses that are in need of community support.
“Doug was absolutely giddy doing this, which was extra special for me to see, because Doug is undergoing treatment for colon cancer, and it’s going well so we’re hopeful, but this is one of those little joys,” Kim White said.
The next place on their list was Elmhurst’s Courageous Bakery, which first started out as a food truck selling cupcakes to raise money for cancer research. “We wanted to support her, and we had people knocking on our door, waving and saying, ‘we love this,'” Kim White said. “It was that encouragement that kept us going.”
At another local favorite — Lily’s Cafe, where her husband gets his favorite corned beef hash — Kim White said a server, who saw on Facebook that they had plans to visit, came outside to greet them.
“That gave us the idea that when we decide to go to a restaurant, we’ll call them and let them know we’re coming, so they can have the option to do it in boxes or plate it,” she explained. Now other restaurants who have followed the Whites’ culinary chronicles online have “squealed with excitement” when the Whites gives the word that they’ll be driving by to dine.
Another special spot was a restaurant in Downers Grove called Gatto’s, which supports Ride Janie Ride, a foundation that gives 100% of funds raised directly to a family dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Doug White has been the official event photographer for the annual ride for years.
The owner told the couple when they enjoyed their curbside meal, “this is just as good for our soul as it is for yours.”
“When you say you want to have a restaurant, you don’t envision that it’s going to be takeout. You want to hear the sounds of a restaurant — the dishes, the occasional breakage, the voices, watching people take pictures of your food — that’s why you’re in the food industry. You want that. And that part has been missing,” Kim White explained. “The restaurants are doing a great job of doing what they can, but it’s never going to be the same.”
The two self-described cheerleaders of the industry will continue to highlight a mix of area restaurants on their van dining journey to help get the word out, because, Kim White said, “you can have restaurants that grow to be part of your family and community, and we just can’t lose those.”
“We have an insight into what’s going on in the industry,” she said. “Our daughter was a server while she was in nursing school, and now she’s a nurse in a hospital working with COVID patients, and our son-in-law is a chef.”
Kim White said she has received positive feedback from various restaurant owners who have had new customers and additional business after the Whites posted about their visits.
Others have drawn inspiration from the Whites’ idea, and she hopes it continues to trend in a positive way for restaurants.
“One place around here is in the process of converting some RVs. If they got that from me, that’s awesome, I am so happy. I hope they run with it and keep that restaurant going,” Kim White said. “This year has been so overwhelmingly negative, but we have been so blessed, because we have been able to see so much good in people, and that has been really amazing.”