Carey Cook has been working since she was 16. Her first of many food service jobs was at a McDonald's in Davenport.

For almost as long as she’s been working, the now 38-year-old Quad-City native has dreamed of owning her own restaurant.

For years, she considered opening a bar or late-night eatery. For years, she put the idea off.

Then, in January 2016, her mother passed away after being diagnosed with brain cancer. She was 61.

“I just thought, ‘Life is so short,’” she said. “That was my moment.”

She told herself: “Whatever you want to do, you just got to do it.”

The result is Panini & Friends, a breakfast and lunch spot Cook opened on 3rd Street downtown Davenport on Oct. 13. It shares a building with Ruby's Beers, Bikes & Brats, which opened the first week of September.

“I dreamed this place into being,” she said, sitting at a table inside her 1,500-square foot space earlier this week. “I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.”

On the menu

As the restaurant’s name suggests, the menu is predominantly packed with paninis. There are 18 breakfast (served all day) and lunch (starting at 10:30 a.m.) options total.

Cook said she wanted to offer “something we didn’t have already.”

“It’s so random,” she said. “Paninis are something I always enjoyed. A lot of people come in and say they love them or have never had them before.”

Each traditional pressed sandwich comes with a nontraditional name to “add some fun,” Cook said.

You can get a panini with ham and eggs called “Rush Hour,” or a pressed peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich coined “All Shook Up,” to which Cook says, “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

The “Why So Sour?” panini is filled with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread. The “Pulled Piggy” is packed with barbecue pulled pork and homemade coleslaw on Texas toast.

On the dessert side, try a "S'mores" panini or one filled with toffee and apples on cinnamon bread. Sides include homemade soups, pasta salad or coleslaw.

The owner shares cooking duties with head chef/manager Brandon Kimmons. The two previously worked together at Sam’s Club, where Cook would sometimes share her dream — and panini recipes — with Kimmons.

“Everything she came up with sounded amazing,” Kimmons said. “I didn’t know what to think of it at first. Then, she got more serious about it.”

The standard list of paninis isn’t set in stone. They’re open to suggestions and aim to offer a panini of the month. November’s special is the “Turkey Day," filled with sliced turkey breast, stuffing and a cranberry mayo on sourdough bread.

Panini & Friends also offers a full coffee bar, including seasonal specialties such as a peppermint mocha or eggnog latte.

If you're craving a beer, Cook says customers are welcome to cross over to Ruby's with their panini. 

And friends

During Panini & Friends’ first week open, several bouquets of flowers — each accompanied by “Congratulations”-themed notes — lined the cafe’s counter by the window. They were all from Cook's friends. 

"They just wanted to let me know they were happy I actually did this," she said. 

Cook envisioned this place with her oldest friends — and new friends — in mind. 

“I want it to be a place where people can bring their friends and family and get together and sit and talk,” she said. “I like interacting and talking to different people. You add food on top of that? Hey, it’s a win, win.”

At least one person close to her was skeptical of the idea.

“My boyfriend thought it was a little risky," she said. "And I just kept telling him, ‘You'll see. I will prove you wrong.’”

For opening day, on Friday, Oct. 13, he sent a dozen roses with a simple message, “Congratulations. You proved me wrong.”

After all, she had only been planning it for 20-plus years.

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).