At first, you wouldn’t think the VandeReuben is still alive.
Inside the Moline family restaurant that’s been in Katie Manning’s family for 40 years, you can tell this place used to be something special.
Today, however, it’s dark and a little dusty. The booths and tables are chained off, signaling that people no longer sit and stay a while.
So, you wouldn’t think people travel from hours away or plan their week around coming to the original Belgian Village Inn or that, in the kitchen, Manning and her brother are furiously filling orders.
Until, that is, you start to see it for yourself -- the never-slowing line of people, the stacks of bigger-than-your head sandwiches, the customers saying “thank you for doing this” over and over.
The VandeReuben is still alive, and, if you can believe it, it might just be bigger than ever.
Pulling the trigger
When the original Belgian Village Inn restaurant, which Manning’s grandparents opened in 1977, closed in February 2014, nobody in the family planned to reopen the landmark eatery.
“Devastated doesn’t even come close to describing it,” Manning, 29, said. “We knew the day was coming that it would be gone, but we still weren’t prepared.”
Manning and her three siblings grew up at the restaurant and helped out when their parents took it over. But Manning said she didn’t fully appreciate it until the end.
“When you’re around it all the time, it’s easy to get sick of it,” she said. “You don’t realize how much it means to you and to everyone until it’s gone.”
On the Belgian Village Inn’s final days nearly three years ago, the restaurant was overwhelmed with orders. Manning got an idea to keep up -- serving cold sandwiches for customers to grill at home.
“That’s when I thought maybe I could bring that concept back some day,” she said. “It was way in the back of my mind.”
Manning crunched the numbers, quit her desk job and, in April 2016, launched Belgian Village To Go, serving up legendary favorites from the restaurant, with a twist.
She came up with a new pop-up concept -- hosting walk-ins at the restaurant on Thursdays, giving customers the option of pre-ordering via phone or online, and finding additional hot-spots around the Quad-Cities.
“I just pulled the trigger,” she said. “It was scary, but I had to see if it would work.”
Within hours of creating a Facebook page announcing the return of the VandeReuben, about 5,000 people liked the page.
And, on her opening day, she sold out of those chilled -- not grilled -- rye and raisin bread sandwiches packed with sauerkraut, corned beef, ham and Swiss cheese smothered in a secret sauce.
“It was a hit,” she said. “People just kept saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re back,’ and that was a special feeling. People missed us.’’
Keeping it alive
At 11 a.m. this past Thursday, with more than 200 sandwiches already assembled and wrapped, Manning opened the doors to a small crowd of waiting customers.
“It’s very much a war zone in here on Thursdays,” she said. “We don’t really stop moving.”
By 1 p.m., she had sold out and, with the help of her brother, Devon, was rushing to make more.
“When she told me she wanted to this, I told her it would be impossible to do alone,” he said. “There are so many people who loved this place and this food. … It’s one of those legendary things.”
Manning lives in Cedar Rapids and spends Sunday through Thursday in the Quad-Cities to bake those hubcab-sized loaves of bread, prepare sandwiches and sell them.
Throughout the afternoon, customers line up for sandwiches. One customer asks how many Manning has left -- he’ll take a dozen sandwiches. Another customer asks for two VandeReubens, then gets a text from a friend in Wisconsin and makes the order for three, saying she plans to freeze and ship it there.
“It’s amazing to see people come in here and share memories; it’s where a lot of people went growing up and it has that comfort level for them,” Devon Manning said. “The place is gone, but it’s alive in this other way.”
As a vegetarian, it’s tough for him to pinpoint what people crave most about the sandwiches.
“But it has to be the bread, right?” he said. “I’ve never seen loaves that big anywhere else. I don’t know why they made them that way in the beginning. Maybe they were just hungry.”
That’s the key for one customer, Karen Fuhr, who drove from her home in Edgington, Illinois.
“There’s nothing like the size of the VandeReuben,” she said. “We loved eating here and were so sad to see it go. Now, we’re happy to see it back like this.”
And to answer the question Katie Manning is asked “every day, all day,” this set-up is the only concept she has in mind.
“Reopening the full restaurant is never going to be an option for me,” she said. “I know what restaurant life is like and it’s just not for me. This is more doable.”
For her, Belgian Village To Go is a "good balance of the past and future."
“There’s something satisfying about working your butt off for something your family started," she said. "And doing it this way, I really can't see myself getting sick of making reubens."