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Aunt Bea's is food for the soul

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Jam Hoefle

Bea Harrington, owner of Aunt Bea's Cafe, 2429 9th St., Rock Island, serves breakfast to one of her regular customers, Corey Smith of Rock Island. Besides the standard hamburgers and tenderloins, Ms. Harrington also serves soul food such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, red beans, chitterlings, pork or beef neck bones and sweet-potato pie.

ROCK ISLAND -- A visit to Aunt Bea's soul-food cafe in Rock Island nourishes the spirit as well as the body.

Owner Bea Harrington looks nothing like Aunt Bea of Andy Griffith fame, but her cafe at 2429 9th St. serves southern home cooking that would bring Mayberry's sheriff back for seconds.

Much younger than her television namesake, Ms. Harrington, 39, serves a variety of food based on memories of her Mississippi childhood. In those days, collard greens, black-eyed peas and okra filled her plate. Besides the hamburgers, chicken fillets and tenderloins on many local menus, Aunt Bea's Cafe offers red beans, chitterlings, pork or beef neck bones and sweet-potato pie.

The average price of a meal is $5.

One of Ms. Harrington's regular customers, Corey Smith of Rock Island, stopped by one recent winter morning to order Breakfast C for $3.75.

Ms. Harrington adjusted her white apron, turned to the grill and began frying potatoes and scrambling two eggs. She knew Mr. Smith preferred a double portion of bacon, rather than bacon plus a sausage patty, links or ham. He also could have ordered grits instead of the potatoes.

As the food sizzled, Ms. Harrington slipped two pieces of bread into the toaster and topped the eggs with cheese. Moments later, she placed Mr. Smith's favorite breakfast on the counter in front of him and gave him the choice of homemade apple or grape jam.

``It's the best,'' Mr. Smith said, picking up his fork. ``I usually come with two or three of my friends and try to eat here as often as I can get here.''

Ms. Harrington opened the cafe 4 1/2 years ago after earning an associate's degree in computer science from the American Institute of Commerce in Davenport.

``While taking computer classes, I thought, `I absolutely hate this,' but I'd gone too far into the program to change my mind, so I started basing my classes around business,'' Ms. Harrington said.

``I wanted to market my apple and grape jams, but when I researched it, I thought it would be easier to open a restaurant.''

The restaurant business was not as simple as she expected. She found out the hard way, working 80 to 90 hours a week, despite a staff of three who can feed up to 32 people at one time.

``I didn't realize how many hours it would take,'' Ms. Harrington said. ``I'm here seven days a week. When I take time off, I go to the Rock Island Fitness Center, and every other Sunday I go to church.''

The convenience of living upstairs allows her brief naps between busy times.

Each year Ms. Harrington sets a new goal for herself. In 1996 she began Aunt Bea's limo service, picking up customers in a six-passenger Lincoln Town Car.

``I wanted to provide something for senior citizens and the physically challenged,'' she said. ``You wouldn't believe the different mood it puts people in.''

Last year Ms. Harrington resigned from her job at Iowa American Water Co. after working there more than 12 years. ``I knew the only way this cafe could grow and prosper was for me to be here full time,'' she said.

This year she plans to begin selling jars of her jams, including a new flavor: pear apple.

Throughout the cafe's life, its black, white and red color scheme has given the place a crisp, fresh feeling. The room's layout recaptures some of Ms. Harrington's earliest years. In one corner, for example, the tall bar and stools remind her of sitting at a lunch counter and ordering a milkshake.

``Kids like it, and so do a lot of other customers,'' she said.

Customers also do not seem to mind the sign along the back wall: ``This is not a fast food restaurant but a good food cafe.''

Life sometimes goes by so fast that people do not appreciate it, Ms. Harrington said. Her cafe, however, encourages people to take their time. To serve them meals worth fully enjoying, she prepares all the cafe's food while they wait. Those facing short lunch breaks are encouraged to call ahead and place their orders.

Sunday mornings are among Ms. Harrington's favorite times to work. She tunes the radio to spiritual music, and its soothing melodies bring her customers together into one big family.

``I ask the Lord for strength,'' Ms. Harrington said. ``This business has been a great challenge that I couldn't have done without the faith I have. I'm very thankful I have that inner faith that God would take me through this.''

The expressions of gratitude do not stop with Ms. Harrington.

``People come here and say it always makes them feel so good,'' she said. ``Most of them come not only for the food, but for the unique feelings.

``When Augie students graduate, they stop by to tell me they're moving,'' she continued. ``On Christmas Eve, I said to the regulars, `OK, everybody has to give me a hug before they leave.'|''

Cafe hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

-- By Carol Loretz (January 22, 1998)

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