WEST LOOP — Eddie Tefka will spend Wednesday like he did the day before: posted up at the counter of his West Loop diner, Fast Track, making sure his longtime customers eat on their last visit for free.
The jovial and quick-witted owner is shutting down Fast Track, 629 W. Lake St., for good at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Order whatever you like,” Tefka said to a customer Tuesday, offering up the seat next to him. “After I close this place, I’m going to lose 50 pounds.”
The joint opened in 1991, churning out Vienna Beef hot dogs and Polishes to “everybody that was hungry,” from hardhat workers in the West Loop on lunch break to late-night revelers of The Shelter and China Club, Tefka said.
Fast Track, which got its name because it sits next to the “L” and dishes out fast food, features an overhead model train set, was once a site for a Dolly Parton movie (“Straight Talk”) and is a favorite of generations of fans. It’s set to be replaced by an eight-story building with 49 residential units.
When one man came in Tuesday, Tefka gave him a free hot dog and said, “This is the customer that’s going to be crying the blues.”
“I’m pissed at you, too,” the man replied.
Tefka said the pandemic “took its toll” on the business. Food sales are down while property in the area is gaining value. The offer to sell “felt appropriate,” Tefka said.
The model train whizzed past his head as he told his customers his favorite stories.
“I built that in my basement in sections, then I brought it down here and welded everything in place,” Tefka said. “I’ll tell you what feels good, I got six grandkids now, when they come here and have a hot dog, they can look up and say, ‘Papa built that. Papa built that.’”
Tefka, 72, has long been the neighborhood’s jack-of-all-trades. He plowed snow out of commercial lots and filled gas tanks for Fulton Street market vehicles and fixed Downtown TV trucks. For more than 40 years, Tefka ran Fulton-Desplaines Garage just around the corner. His father, Morrie Tefka, started that business in 1953, and it is now operated by the restaurateur’s son, Matt Tefka.
Eddie Tefka filled the gaps, and “the people were hungry,” he said.
“There was literally nowhere around here to have anything to eat, especially for good fast food,” Tefka said. “And these buildings around here used to have hundreds of factory workers in them. They could garf down a hot dog pretty quick.”
In the 1990s, the lunch line at Fast Track would stretch the full 12 feet of Tefka’s model train set. At night, partiers would ditch the nearby clubs and grab munchies at Fast Track, hanging out on the train-themed patio.
“On the corner I had a band, and even the train would stop on Lake Street to listen to the music,” Tefka said. “It was anybody that wanted to play, they brought their instruments out, they’d sing and they would dance and they would entertain everybody. And we’d sell hot dogs, because those people were hungry, too.”
Tefka gestured toward the photos on the wall of him cozying up to Parton.
“She was very friendly — very, very friendly. She ate hot dogs. And the picture tells a thousand words,” said Tefka, who is happily married to his wife and business partner, Bonnie Tefka. “I had to tell Dolly I wasn’t just a hunk of meat; I do have a brain.”
Tefka held court over one of his many lunches on Tuesday as Stefan Holt, NBC Chicago anchor and son of NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, and Nick Callias, volunteer collector for the Illinois Railway Museum, joined the table for Italian beef sandwiches.
Stefan Holt remembers his dad taking him to Fast Track as a kid so they could check out the vintage train memorabilia after riding the nearby “L.” Callias is working with Tefka to donate the diner’s crossing gates, marker lights and picnic chairs with railroad wheels to the Railway Museum.
“I told people I was building my own railroad,” Tefka told Callias and Holt about his collection. “And I needed all this for a sample.”
Tefka said he’s still looking for a home for his signature model train set, as it’s too big for his house. But he has arranged work for his employees. Dan Raskin, the fourth-generation owner of Manny’s Deli, stopped by for lunch and said he plans to bring on a few of Fast Track’s longest-tenured cooks.
“There’s still a few family-owned businesses in the neighborhood left, but there’s very few,” Raskin said. “Everything around here used to be family-owned, and now it’s corporate America. These types of restaurants get harder and harder to run. And they’re not replaceable.”
Tefka said the residential boom in the West Loop has made it harder to sell hot dogs.
“The neighborhood changed for the better, but not necessarily for the working class people, which were primary to our customer base,” Tefka said. “Those factories with several hundred people are now condos with four apartments, and nobody home during the day, anyways.”
Chef and general manager Kleo Kleopa remembers the glory days. He’s manned the grill at Fast Track since its start. Now 68, the cook, locally beloved for quick wit dished out in a heavy Greek accent, said he’ll “semi-retire.”
“It’s been a beautiful life here. I really love it. I cry with my customers. I cry very easy,” Kleopa said.
Kleopa grabbed a seat next to Tefka and took a look around.
“This place, I know I’m going to miss it, because his name is Jim, his name is Gene, his name is George, he works for CTA, he works across the street, he’s in the movie business,” Kleopa said. “I know everybody by name, if they are married or single, if they’re cheating on their wives or whatever they do.”
Kleopa said more than 90 percent of customers are regulars, some third-generation Fast Track eaters. He’s made food for Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bulls players and neighborhood kids who looked up in awe at the model train that always kept chugging along.
A long-time customer stopped in for a burger Tuesday afternoon.
“We don’t need another high-rise,” she said. “We need stuff like this that has character.”
Tefka gave her a free root beer.
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