Omnivorous: Fuel for Food | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Fuel for Food 

The city's last coal hauler is down to just two customers—both in the restaurant biz.

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Used to be coal yards were like taverns—practically every neighborhood in the city had them. But today Paul Schoening is the last person in Chicago who retails the fuel, and he only has two customers: D'Amato's Bakery and Coalfire Pizza.

"The ironic thing is coal should be used for power," he says. "But they're using it to make food. And the food from the corn and stuff in the pizza is going for power in the car." That may not be exactly what's happening, but it expresses the fer-cryin'-out-loud exasperation of a guy born into the coal business who's gone from hauling 10,000 tons all over the city annually to hauling about 72 tons along a two-block stretch of Grand Avenue.

Schoening runs the 115-year-old Gruene Coal Company, smack in the middle of Englewood, with the help of his older brother, Ed, and a friendly, doddering rottweiler named Niko. An abandoned rail spur looms over 14 concrete walled stalls where cars once dumped some 14 different types of coal. Now most of the stalls are used to store rusting junk or are rented out for storage at 50 bucks a month.

But three of them hold piles of coal trucked north from a mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. One stores the fist-to-head-size lumps of bituminous that J. Spillane uses in his pizza oven at Coalfire. Another stores a smaller, crushed version that Victor D'Amato feeds the 100-some-year-old stoker furnace in the basement of his bakery. The third stores a small pile of hotter, cleaner-burning, pricier anthracite coal that Schoening can't get rid of.

"Now here's the worst part," says Schoening. "You take D'Amato's and you take Coalfire. I gotta buy 25 tons of this—he decides tomorrow he's going out of business, what do you do with this?"

That question probably never occurred to Schoening's dad, who owned the much larger Old King Coal company, in Bridgeport, long before he bought Gruene in 1967. Paul and Ed say their old man got into the business for $25,000 and it paid for itself in one year. But by 1976, antipollution legislation, the rise of natural gas, and the endless bureaucratic nickel-and-diming his sons rail against to this day had driven the elder Schoening out of the business. He moved to Michigan, and Paul, who's now 60, took over the property, did a lot of coal-to-gas conversions, started a heating-oil business, and got into contracting and selling paving stones. He quit coal altogether for a time.

For all their customers in the good old days of coal—at one point about 100—neither brother can remember having a restaurant or bakery as a client. But in 1991 Schoening got back in the business when another dealer sold him a pair of dump trucks and his client list of about a dozen businesses, including D'Amato's. The deal also came with a "hiker," an employee whose job it was to shovel the stuff.

The hiker is long gone, but every three weeks or so Schoening hauls a dump truck full of coal up to D'Amato's. He attaches a small engine to a conveyor and positions it in front of the chute that leads to the bakery's basement. Every day the baker goes downstairs and loads the coal into a hopper above the lit stoker, which feeds the furnace. For the next five to seven hours it burns, until they close the chimneys and start baking with the heat retained in the bricks. D'Amato shows me the lightly charred undersides of two loaves. One baked earlier in the day is lighter than the other. Compared to conventionally baked bread, the difference, he says, is "like, cook the steak in your house, cook the steak in a barbecue pit."

Next to D'Amato's oven, Spillane's rig is primitive—it's just a wood-burning pizza oven, and his method is relatively simple. Still, he won't talk on the record about the exact process he follows to fire the coal and regulate the temperature throughout the day. He spent nearly a year and a half figuring out all the little tricks it takes to make the oven work consistently, and he's determined to maintain Coalfire's status as the state's only coal-fired pizzeria as long as possible.

The symbiosis among coal hauler, baker, and pizza maker may not be as delicate as Schoening thinks. Spillane, who buys about three tons of coal every quarter, says he's not going anywhere. Part of the reason he chose his location was because of its proximity to D'Amato's—he wanted to be sure Schoening would deliver to him too.

D'Amato seemed taken aback when I asked what he'd do if Schoening got out of the coal game. He guessed he'd have to buy a truck and haul it himself. "I promised my father I'd keep this thing going as long as I could," he says.

Selling at about $200 a ton, coal makes up about 2 percent of Schoening's business. He calls it a hobby—which is what he told the Tribune 14 years ago, when he had more customers and was already the only game in town. He scoffs at the idea that with energy costs exploding, coal is making a comeback as a heating fuel. Coal is too much work, he says. "The people are too lazy. They don't wanna mess with it."v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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