BY LINDSEY ZILIAK KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Melissa Gross ate biscuits and gravy at Ducky’s Family Restaurant for years.
“I loved their breakfast menu,” she said.
Her mom, on the other hand, preferred a sandwich called The Marilyn. Gross had no idea what was even on it. But her mom always ordered it when the family stopped at Ducky’s after church on Sunday.
Gross created so many memories inside that restaurant.
“Ducky’s has been a staple around Kokomo for 50 plus years,” she said. “With me being raised here, I was part of it.”
The restaurant struggled, though. So much so, in fact, that it was chosen to be on the Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible.”
The goal of the show is to save failing restaurants across America. Chef Robert Irvine has two days and $10,000 to come in and transform them. He looks at things like menus, pricing, management and décor.
He and his crew can’t do the work alone, though. He enlists the help of people in the community.
Gross knew this because she and her husband love the show. So when she found out Irvine and his crew would be filming at Ducky’s late last week, she wanted to be a part of it. She volunteered to help with the makeover.
Gross was not alone. She said so many people in the area showed up to help out.
“Robert Irvine said this is the most volunteers he’s ever seen,” Gross said. “That just tells me our little town of Kokomo steps up when it needs to.”
Those volunteers worked from 8 p.m. Thursday to 2 a.m. Friday and then again from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday — right before the grand re-opening.
A line snaked out of the restaurant long before the doors opened at 7 p.m. to those with reservations.
Danielle VanNess wanted to be a part of that exclusive group that got to see the restaurant and the cast of the show. She called Ducky’s four days before it re-opened.
“I was blowing up the phone trying to get reservations,” she said. “They were booked through Sunday.”
So instead, she, her sister and her friends stood for hours outside Ducky’s Friday night while people ate. The girls wanted to meet the cast of the show and maybe get a glimpse of the new restaurant.
After all, everyone was being tight-lipped about the improvements. Volunteers and restaurant patrons signed papers saying they won’t discuss the makeover until after the Ducky’s episode of “Restaurant Impossible” airs in August or September.
VanNess thought she might be able to see what was going on through the restaurant’s windows.
Most of them were covered. VanNess and her posse couldn’t see inside the dining area. But there were no curtains covering the two small windows in the Ducky’s kitchen.
The group hovered by those windows for hours, screaming and snapping photos with their phones every time Irvine walked by.
“Will you look at me, just look at me,” Ashley Carpenter said as Irvine stopped near the window.
Of course, he didn’t. He was preoccupied with the Ducky’s staff. Carpenter and VanNess could only imagine what he was telling them.
Irvine is known for being brutal on the show.
“He’s really mean, but he’s straight up honest,” VanNess said. “He speaks the truth.”
Gross said Irvine is completely different off camera. He’s sweet and really, really awesome, she said.
He showed that side Friday evening. Irvine stepped out of the kitchen for a few moments, and VanNess and her friends spotted him.
They ran to the back of the restaurant, asking for autographs and pictures with the chef. He made time for all of them.
Afterward, the girls were screaming. Carpenter was fanning herself, and VanNess was crying. She wiped tears from her eyes.
“That made my year,” Carpenter said.
They never got to see the inside of the restaurant. But they didn’t mind. VanNess said she would be back to eat there when it slowed down.
Gross said she wants to eat there, too. As a volunteer, she didn’t get to try the new menu items.
“Once the dust settles, me and my mom will go in there and eat again,” she said. “It’s going to be jam packed for a while.”
She said she thinks people will be happy with the changes. She just wishes she could talk about them. It’s so hard keeping a secret, she said.
Before she ended the conversation, though, she gave one small hint.
“This is going to improve it 100 or 110 percent,” she said. “They’re going to have a turnaround. I believe it will happen.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org