Once upon a time there was a young man named Steve Geffen, whose dream was to be named a sports psychologist for a professional team. He played baseball for Wheeling High School, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at Indiana University and was about to seek a doctorate degree when his father, Gerry, fell ill.
Gerry Geffen — owner of the Once Upon A Bagel restaurant in Highland Park — asked Steve to fill in for him. Steve did just that, found his calling at the popular deli on 1st Street and lived happily every after.
The end, right?
There’s more to Steve Geffen’s story than that.
So. Much. More.
“I was scared out of my mind,” the 45-year-old Geffen recalls. “I knew the business at that time, because I had worked for my father when I was a teenager. But I had never had a job where I had to work closely with people and make sure they were happy, productive people while working for us.”
Gerry Geffen returned to work six months later. Steve Geffen stuck around. The father and son ran the restaurant together, starting in the late 1990s. Other Once Upon Family establishments then popped up steadily in the next decade-plus — in Highwood (The Mean Wiener, Lucky Fish); in Northbrook (Once Upon A Grill, Once Upon A Deli, Once Upon A Café); and in Winnetka (another Once Upon A Bagel).
Restaurant No. 8 in the band of eateries — Lucky Fish in Northbrook — is set to hold its grand opening in early June. Like the Lucky Fish in Highwood, it will serve New Orleans- and East Coast-style seafood fare with a Mexican flair. Unlike any of the first seven restaurants, Lucky Fish in Northbrook is Steve Geffen’s “first born” in the business.
Gerry Geffen, 74, is serving the company mostly as a consultant.
“My wife [Shana] has been a godsend,” Steve Geffen, of Northbrook, says of the woman whom he met at Navy Pier in Chicago, in 2000, and married seven months later. “She’s our VP of marketing, and she designed the entire restaurant. When you’re in there, you’re going feel like you’re in a restaurant in the city.
“Our kids [Andrew, 15, and Nathan, 12] are the way they are because of how my wife brought them up; she has taught them excellent values. Great kids, great athletes. My typical work day is long, yes, but it’s important for me to do everything I can to see their games [baseball, soccer and lacrosse].”
Geffen — smart and outgoing as a teenager — caught for varsity baseball teams, sang tenor for the show choir and landed play roles at Wheeling High School. It’s hard to achieve more balance than that at the high school level. The young man could throw out a base runner at second base and nail a tune on stage.
Crowds never daunted him.
“I enjoyed performing in front of people,” says Geffen, who had requested a traditional lox plate with a whole wheat bagel to accompany his glass of water at Once Upon A Grill in Northbrook.
As a first-year graduate student at Indiana University, Geffen learned — from a professor of kinesiology — of a job opening for a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Training Center staff in Colorado Springs. Geffen thanked his professor, got in his car and headed due west.
Twenty hours later, he was in Colorado, fielding questions from an interviewer.
Alas, somebody else got the job.
Geffen gets his sports fix these days as the travel director for Northbrook Baseball. He somehow finds the time to manage the rosters and schedules of 14 youth teams.
His father remains his hero, his mentor, his inspiration.
“ ‘Treat people with respect’ — that’s what my dad encouraged me to do more than anything else when I was young, and it’s what I’m mindful of today,” the son says. “My dad was ambitious when he started the business, always looking to grow it, always pushing for more. He’s a fighter.”
Steve Geffen enjoys biking and running when he’s not making sure things are running smoothly at one, two, three, four — sometimes more — restaurants each day. He is more than happy to donate his restaurants’ day-old bagels for local 5K and 10K walks/runs. Raffle items for an organization like the American Cancer Society?
Geffen provides those in a heartbeat.
Steve Geffen enters one of his restaurants early one morning. He smiles at the first employee he encounters. The employee responds with a smile. Geffen runs into another Once Upon worker, then another. More sunny exchanges.
“Knowing I’m taking care of so many people and their families is one of the many rewards of my job,” Geffen says. “Everybody who works at our restaurants is family to me.”
Lucky Fish in Northbrook is located at 1349 Shermer Road