The first week in July, the main road leading into town was closed for five days. Runge's business partner, pastry chef Kyle Ballard, couldn't get to work without taking a maze of backroads. "I took the River Road to get to work in Alton and it was shut down for a week. That's how far down it went," he says.
Runge purchased the previously struggling winery in April and decided to change the focus to a cafe, featuring housemade pizzas, sandwiches and locally made ciders.
But the constant rains in early July brought dangerous flooding to the area, filling the streets and spilling into nearby homes and businesses. "When it came up initially, overnight it was up over a foot and a half. At it's highest it was 5 ft in the basement," Runge said. Though the road was closed, many of the businesses remained open. "You could still get up here, but everybody cancelled and it just killed us," Runge said. Fortunately, the waters have started to recede, allowing Runge to continue running the day-to-day operations.
But the slowdown in business has put him and his fellow business-owners in a bind. "We probably lost over $4,000 of business in a couple weeks," Runge said. "I can usually bring a little bit from the farmers' markets, but that initial burn will have to come out of our pockets," he says. He admits that he didn't have this much trouble with his previous business.
Runge worked in human resources for years in various department stores before discovering a passion for experimenting in the kitchen. He wanted to open a restaurant, but he didn't know how to cook, so he began practicing tirelessly with friends and family. "Now, I get ADD in the middle of the night and I stay awake until I get up and make it," he says.
He opened his own pastry shop in Alton, called Pie Town Stompin' Grounds, which was featured on the Food Network. Even democratic candidate Barack Obama made a stop on his campaign trail in 2008. "After that, we were making 250 pies a week," Runge boasts.
He left the business due to illness. But once he made a recovery, he found he couldn't stay out of the kitchen and decided try again this year. But the troublesome waters haven't convinced him to throw in the towel.
"I noticed the water going down on Sunday and we hauled some stuff off to the dumpster. Now it's just time for repainting and doing the basics," Runge said.
With the road reopened, the team is featuring a new brunch menu that is proving to be very popular. "Today, we're raking it in," Ballard says. "But if the river comes up again, we'll make nothing." Their next step is to expand the cider aspect of the business this fall and focus on supporting local cider makers.
But Runge believes there will be at least one more good flood before the end of the year. "The hard thing up here is getting the help," he says, adding, "but I've learned not to put anything heavy in the basement."
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