Spotlight Iowa City: Hungry Hobo owner brings ‘old-fashioned’ service

BY SAM LANE | MARCH 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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Tim Flynn’s “agenda” is to meet five new people every day.

The owner of the Hungry Hobo sandwich shop said he operates his business on a simple principle.
“We sell service,” the 55-year-old said. “Please, thank you, all that old-fashioned shit.”

Flynn and two partners opened Hungry Hobo in 1979. The restaurant, one of 13 locations around Iowa and Illinois, is a small, white structure situated on Riverside Drive near the railroad tracks.

Upon entering, customers are immediately struck by Flynn’s Hawkeye fandom and the smell of freshly baked bread. Sports posters — many containing autographs from famous Hawkeyes such as Tom Brands and Dan Gable — line the walls, and a simple, white menu board hangs above the front counter.

Two and a half years after he opened the establishment, the Rock Island native became the shop’s sole owner, and his operation has attracted an “eclectic” crowd ever since. Flynn’s customers range from Hawkeye athletes and University of Iowa professors to businessmen, lawyers, and construction workers.

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“We get all walks of life,” the bespectacled man said. “Longevity will breed that. It’s certainly what I’ve always envisioned.”

Not only does Flynn try to greet every customer as he or she enters, he also chats with them while they dine.

“We’ve got people livin’ off past glory,” Flynn said, joking with a former Hawkeye athlete sitting in the next booth.

Flynn said some of his most famous customers include UI law Professor Willard “Sandy” Boyd and Hawkeye football coaches Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz. But all his patrons have one thing in common: They know Flynn and know him well.

Stephen Soboroff, the owner of KCJJ and one of Hungry Hobo’s many regulars, said his family has been close with Flynn since their days in Rock Island.

“He does know every customer,” the 61-year-old said. “He’s a real Hawkeye and a true believer. He doesn’t allow for anyone to skimp on the product.”

The father of two runs a “tight ship,” said employee Richard Arnold, 22.

“Tim keeps the line out the door,” Arnold said. “I’ve always got stuff to do. I can’t stand being at a job where I’m just sitting there.”

Flynn likes to keep it simple. He found his bread oven, a hulking, antique metal structure, in a Peoria high-school cafeteria.

And besides the hundreds of sandwiches Hungry Hobo sells each day, Flynn said people clamor for the baked potatoes, specifically the “Taco Potato” — which, he said, he can’t eat because of its plentiful and ultra-rich ingredients.

Flynn added a grill this year and said panini are the next Hobo innovation. He may even add hamburgers in the future, he said, but he’s cautious about changing too much — part of the allure is the comfort of tradition.

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