CHICAGO - An Illinois couple has created the ultimate dining experience in their van as a way to support local restaurants in their community while also spending time together in the midst of a difficult year.
Doug and Kim White, of Lombard, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, recently turned their Ford Transit van into a private dining room on wheels. It includes all the little touches one might find inside a restaurant, including a checkered table cloth, soft lighting and a husband and wife sharing food and conversation.
Together in their van, the couple has visited more than a dozen restaurants and bars.
Like many others, the Whites have faced challenges this year. Work has significantly slowed for both of them — Doug, a professional photographer often hired to help with corporate conventions, and Kim, the owner of a nature education business.
Then in June, Doug was diagnosed with colon cancer and has since been undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
"When he got the diagnosis, of course with COVID, I couldn't be there with him and he got the word by himself, which was very difficult," Kim recalled.
The couple has been married for 26 years, and Kim describes them both as "natural born cheerleaders." In search of ways to bring light to themselves and others during the coronavirus crisis, they turned to their van. The idea came to them in October, when the state issued an order against indoor dining at bars and restaurants for their region, effective Oct. 23.
"On the 21st, which was a Wednesday, we were just driving around and we were talking about it and just kind of lamenting that we wouldn’t be able to go out and eat and support our restaurants and see our friends that run the restaurants," Kim said.
"And Doug just goes, ‘I wish we had an RV and we could just put a dining room in it. And just drive around and park at restaurants and eat there,’" she recalled.
The suggestion sparked an idea for Kim, who already had the van for her business and was seeking to spark some joy for Doug. With all of her scheduled programs canceled, the vehicle was just sitting there unused. So, she cleaned it out, put a rug in the back and bought a folding table and chairs.
"By Friday, we were ready to go," she said, adding that they spent less than $100 to create their mobile dining experience.
(Photo credit: Doug White Photography)
Supporting establishments in their community is important for the couple, whose family has several personal connections to the restaurant industry. Kim said her first job was at a restaurant. Their daughter worked as a server through nursing school, and their son-in-law is a chef.
In a previous recession, Doug started bartending to earn extra income when his work with conventions dried up.
"He was able to keep our lights on by being employed at a friend’s restaurant as a bartender. So it was very important for us at that point," Kim explained. "We have a lot of connections, family and friends and neighbors, that are all in the restaurant industry."
Word of their dining van has spread in the community, thanks to their posts on Facebook and Instagram. At first, the couple would call ahead to place an order for carryout, and bring their own plates and silverware for the full experience. But some establishments have even offered to serve the couple in their van.
(Photo credit: Doug White Photography)
Kim and Doug, eager to keep their van dining experience safe during the ongoing pandemic, opt to look at menus online and order ahead of time.
They have their table set up in the van so that there is a greater than 6-foot distance between them and any server, Kim said. They also crack the doors for ventilation, and sanitize inside the van.
"It’s actually probably safer than going to outdoor dining and eating at a table that somebody else has sat, holding a menu that somebody else has held," Kim said.
The couple had anticipated each having one of the busiest work years they’d ever had. Kim said she was supposed to be traveling to Europe a number of times and had many scheduled nature education programs on the calendar. Doug similarly was gearing up for several jobs in 2020.
"All canceled. And because of that, we were able to be here for each other during this time. So that’s definitely the silver lining. We’re able to be together," Kim said.
Since Doug’s cancer diagnosis, the couple has also been showered with support by their community of friends, neighbors and loved ones. One friend started a GoFundMe for their living and medical expenses, while another created a special playlist for Doug to listen to during his treatments.
"In this year, when there’s just been a lack of joy, and then to be thrown a diagnosis like this, and you have this urgency. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring," Kim said. "So we can sit here on the sofa and wait for it all to happen, or we can still try to find ways to live and to bring joy not only to other people but to ourselves as well."
This story was reported from Cincinnati.