Esquire Lounge has been a staple in Downtown Champaign since it’s opening almost 50 years ago. Known for having great food and drinks and a fun, welcoming atmosphere, Esquire Lounge has been the perfect hangout spot from the start. Because of it’s great reputation, I was excited to be able to sit down with Esquire’s Kitchen Manager, Darren Kammin, and get the inside scoop on what to order from their secret menu and the real reason why once you get a job there, you’re in it for the long run.
Tell me about yourself and how you got involved with Esquire Lounge.
I grew up just outside of Champaign Urbana in Sydney and went to high school at Unity. I started at the Philo Tavern, which the previous owners of Esquire owned as well, when I was 17 and worked there for eight years. I then attended some school, but soon realized that what I really wanted to do was work in the restaurant industry as it had brought me out of my shell a little bit from high school. I continued to work at Philo Tavern but then had a friend who wanted me to move to St. Louis with them. In St. Louis I worked at restaurants namely, Texas Roadhouse. After St. Louis, I moved to West Virginia with another friend and worked at a few other restaurants there. I stayed there for a while and then moved back to Champaign and began working at Philo Tavern and Texas Roadhouse here. Some of the employees from the Esquire at the time were regulars at Texas Roadhouse and told me that I should come work at Esquire. It took me a while to apply but then Covid hit and some spots opened up at Esquire, since pre-Covid you had to know multiple people in order to get a job here as there really isn’t turnover here. So I started here as a bartender and then six months ago I moved into the kitchen and here we are.
What is your official title and what would a day in the life be for your position?
I think the correct title is a kitchen manager which is equal to the daytime and nighttime bar managers. As for a day in the life, I usually get here around 7 or7:30am. Technically I don’t have to be here until eight but there is usually a lot of extra prep work to do. When I first get in, I have to start cleaning all of the surfaces right away. Then we are getting everything ready with the oven and turning on the grill. Then we begin prepping what they went through the night before and the items that we will need to keep up with during lunch and dinner service as well as making the soup, which we make every day from scratch. That usually takes us until 10:30 and then we have lunch service that starts at 11 and goes through 1:30 or 2. After lunch we begin cleaning to prepare for when the night shift gets and then I spend about an hour or so working on order for the next couple days and the weekend. Me and my co kitchen manager sort of switch back in forth between the two of us with running the line and cooking while the other person oversees the prep work and getting everyone ready for the night shift. Sometimes we will get a helper to get us through the lunch rush, but it is mostly just me and the other kitchen manager doing the cooking.
All of the food at Esquire is great but what do you make yourself when you are hungry at work?
This one is off menu, but we’ve recently started making a buffalo sauce because we’ve been getting a lot of requests for it. With that buffalo sauce I have been creating this buffalo chicken pizza. It has a buffalo sauce base and then I put some barbecue sauce on it to add a little bit of sweet to it. Then I add mozzarella and cheddar cheese to it. Next is adding either grilled or fried chicken and some more buffalo sauce. I then top it with Cheddar and pepper cheese and then yesterday I finished it off with a drizzle of siracha hot honey. It was absolutely delicious. Like I said it is off menu but who knows, one day it may be there.
Most restaurants have a secret menu. Besides the pizza that you just revealed, what is a good item that people should order from Esquire’s Secret Menu.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily a secret, but I know we had one guy that did this salami sandwich on our onion roll bun and then he threw three different cheeses on top of it, some grilled onions and bacon. That was a very good sandwich. Other than that, there are tons of secret pizza recipes that you can order. Like on Wednesdays if I have leftover Italian beef at lunch, sometimes I’ll make an Italian beef pizza. We also started making a buffalo chicken sandwich on Saturdays that started as a secret menu item but became extremely popular so now it is a regular menu item.
Esquire is a great place to host events! What is on the horizon for events happening at Esquire in the coming year?
We have several coming up. We are going to have three bands here for our New Year’s Eve celebration. And then in January last year we debuted our Pineapple Fest with different variations of pineapple themed food and drinks so we are going to bring that back this year. In February we will celebrate Fat Tuesday by having special menu items like gumbo, po boys and Creole pizza and then in March we will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by offering Corn Beef, Mushroom Soup, and Irish Nachos. Those are four of our biggest events other than Street Fest and they are all happening one right after the other, so it is about to get exciting here at Esquire!
Is there anything else you would like us to know about Esquire?
Just that I love being here and it has been like that from the start. I think in the first month of me working here I was traveling to Chicago with some of the other workers from here to catch a Cubs game and it has just continued from there. We are always hanging out off the clock because we genuinely like being around each other. Everyone just works well together, and it is like a family here. Jackie and Paul (the owners) really take care of all the workers and like I said treat us like family. I definitely don’t see me leaving here anytime soon – I mean there are people that have worked here for 15, 20, even 40 years because that’s how it is here. You stay because why would you leave your family?