Ron and Amy McFarlain confirmed the Cajun Connection in Utica has been listed and they’ll close after finding a buyer. Though they narrowly survived the pandemic, an ongoing labor shortage will mark the end of nearly 28 years in business.
“Businesses are looking for people all the time now and it’s taken a toll on our employees,” Ron McFarlain said. “We just can’t get the kids to come in on the weekends to work.”
Amy McFarlain said the decision to sell was difficult — “I cry every day” — but they are optimistic the restaurant’s visible location and access to three million yearly visitors to the parks will spur some interest.
“They think it should happen pretty quickly,” Amy said. “We’re hoping it will, but you never know.”
Ron McFarlain was a pipe fitter who’d learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. He dreamed of opening a restaurant and took the plunge in the mid-1990s at the corner of U.S. 6 and Route 178 in Utica.
Diners were initially hesitant, daunted by unfamiliar terms, such as “gumbo” and “jambalaya.” Ron initially served a conventional menu while letting diners sample home cooking. Within a couple of years he’d met Amy Martin, his eventual business partner and wife, and phased out the burgers and breakfasts in favor of an all-Cajun menu.
Food critics and tourist officials, always looking for a draw into La Salle County, took note of the menu and the irrepressible chef. Cajun Ron, never accused of being shy, welcomed in food writers and film crews and the Cajun Connection began to draw diners from across the Midwest.
The Cajun Connection attained a national profile when, in 2010, a Rockford-area diner contacted ABC and nominated the Cajun Connection for a national competition titled “People’s Plate List.”
Ron and Amy made the initial cut and were asked to submit a three-minute video to advance their candidacy. Amy filmed kitchen workers each introducing themselves as “Cajun Ron” until Ron appeared onscreen and indignantly protested, “No, I’m Cajun Ron.”
That got a chuckle from the ABC producer and won the McFarlains a spot among the 18 national finalists. They didn’t win, but any disappointment was short-lived. Diners stormed in from all corners — long lines snaked around the building — and their sales rocketed 20% overnight.
“People still come in and they go, ‘Oh, we don’t have to wait to come in?’” Amy said.
Despite their success, they seldom missed an opportunity to help a charitable cause.
Lori Christopherson was longtime executive director for the local March of Dimes and raised more than $1 million through the Signature Chefs Auction, in which local chefs agreed to cook for March of Dimes donors. The Cajun Connection was one of the first numbers she dialed.
“They give and give and give,” Christopherson said. “They are generous to a fault and they do it because they want to help. The won’t say no. He’d just say, ‘Sure, we’ll be there.’ And they were.
“My heart’s breaking that they’re giving it up.”
Well, they’re not giving it up just yet. Amy said they’ll stay open until they find a buyer and have no plans to quit working. They will continue hawing their seasonings, available at local grocery stores, Ron has been approached about serving as a consulting chef to advise restaurants that want to incorporate Cajun cuisine onto their menus.
“We’re not done,” Ron said. “We’ll still be around.”