Ready for liftoff: A resurrected Route 66 diner serves up hot fudge sundaes with a side of grief counseling

The Launching Pad—and its iconic astronaut muffler man—gets a second chance at life

As you round the curve on East Baltimore Street and prepare to cross Forked Creek, he’s the very first thing you see. Beyond the “Welcome to Wilmington” sign, you’ll spot him up on the right—a massive, dark green figure creeping out of the surrounding trees.

This is the Gemini Giant, a 28-foot-tall fiberglass statue of a man in an astronaut helmet (although, he wasn’t wearing the helmet when I visited, but we’ll get to that) holding a rocket emblazoned with the words “Launching Pad.” And while this may be a story about iconic statues and roadside history, it is also a story of love, devotion, and second chances.

Close up of the Gemini Giant's feet outside The Launching Pad diner.
A close up of the Gemini Giant’s platform in Wilmington, Illinois. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

A rocky history for the rocketman

The Gemini Giant found his way to Wilmington, Illinois in 1965 when local couple John and Bernice Korelc bought him for $3,500 at the annual National Restaurant Association convention. Back then, he was just a simple man in a green jumpsuit. But the Korelcs decided to outfit him with a space helmet and a rocket, and place him in front of their restaurant, The Launching Pad—a cheeky tribute to the tumultuous Space Race that was taking place at the time.

Such a rare and unusual site, this rocket-bearing giant became a landmark, especially for those driving along Route 66. And The Launching Pad diner was there to welcome his admirers, offering them a hearty meal and a break from the road. Together, the giant and the diner became a cherished destination.

The Launching Pad sign has remained the same since 1965
The Launching Pad sign has remained the same since 1965. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
Pictures of the Gemini Giant are hidden throughout the property
Images of the Gemini Giant are hidden throughout the property. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

In 1986, after more than 20 years of service, the Korelcs decided to retire and sold both the restaurant and the Gemini Giant. From there, the iconic Route 66 attraction went on to see two more owners and some financial ups and downs before it ultimately had to close down in 2012.

“The roof had caved in, the building was actually leaning. It was a total mess,” says Tully Garrett, the newest owner of The Launching Pad. Garrett and his partner Holly Barker were out looking for antiques when they saw the building for sale. “We knew right away we were going to buy it,” says Barker. “When we looked at it, we saw our new future together, our next chapter.”

So, in October 2017, after nearly draining their savings accounts to pull together the money, the two bought the restaurant and its giant guardian.

It takes a village

Since 2017, Garrett and Barker have put in countless hours bringing the diner back to life. They completely renovated the inside, added a new kitchen, and even created a small museum in the back. And on May 4, the two were able to make their dreams a reality when the new-and-improved Launching Pad diner reopened to the public.

“The launch went really, really smoothly,” says Barker. “And we have our incredible staff to thank for that.”

The front counter, and official reopening sign, inside The Launching Pad
The front counter, and official reopening sign, inside The Launching Pad. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

What started as a small group of six people has since grown to 23 regular employees. Garrett and Barker make a point to hire diverse staffers, including high school students, retirees, and  those with special needs. One employee named Ray—a senior citizen who has been busing tables at The Launching Pad for years and is affectionately nicknamed “the bouncer”—has become particularly beloved by the locals. “People will come in and specifically ask for him,” says Garrett. “They’ll be like, ‘Where’s Ray? I want to see Ray!’”

And this sense of community isn’t just found among the staff; it’s fused with the food they serve, as well. One month before The Launching Pad reopened, Garrett and Barker did a test kitchen, where they experimented with different menu items to see what would resonate most among customers. Unsurprisingly, the dishes that did the best were all local fares. From Chicago-style hot dogs featuring Vienna beef, to Italian beef sandwiches wrapped in Alpha Baking Co. bread, most of the menu items include ingredients from neighboring businesses.

“Local is our halo,” Barker proudly tells me.

Chicago-style hot dog with Vienna beef
Chicago-style hot dog with Vienna beef. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Italian beef sandwich and a side of slaw
Italian beef sandwich and a side of slaw. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

A shared past, a shared love

Garrett and Barker are not only business partners and co-run the restaurant together, but they’re also life partners. Both lost their spouses to cancer—Barker lost her husband, Jordan, in 2014, and Garrett’s wife, Nancy, died in 2015. The couple ended up meeting on a website devoted to grieving spouses in 2016. And after a year of long-distance, Barker made the move from North Carolina to Illinois and the two started their next chapter together.

Barker, who studied restaurant management in college, had always dreamed of owning a restaurant, while Garrett hoped to have a place where he could host events and show off his love of cars, music, and movies. “It’s crazy because I had always wanted to open a cafe and Tully is such a car fanatic, he always wanted to show off his passion,” Barker tells me.

Tully Garrett (left), Holly Barker (right), and the Gemini Giant
Tully Garrett (left), Holly Barker (right), and the Gemini Giant. | Photo courtesy of Garrett and Barker
Barker and Garrett inside The Launching Pad diner
Barker and Garrett inside The Launching Pad diner. | Photo courtesy of Garrett and Barker
The couple on their first trip to Wilmington, Illinois
The couple on their first trip to Wilmington, Illinois. | Photo courtesy of Garrett and Barker

And while the diner is clearly a very special, very fortuitous place for the couple, it has become an equally meaningful place for others who have lost someone. Every Wednesday night, The Launching Pad hosts a grief support group, where members of the surrounding community can get together, tell stories, and connect over the shared experience of losing a loved one.

“[The support group] is very important to me,” says Barker. “We’re not only trying to start a restaurant and blend a family, but we’re also grieving.”

Hitting capacity

Walking into The Launching Pad really does feel like walking into a fond memory—like I’ve been here before in a dream or a past life. There is a constant stream of customers filing in; an eclectic mix of soccer moms and leather-clad bikers. It could be the Saturday lunch rush, or it could be an attempt to escape the warm afternoon rain that has started to fall, but Garrett reassures me that this is standard: “We’ve hit capacity every single day since opening.”

Route 66 spills out of every corner of the small space, from the table tops to the magnets on the wall to the sugar cookies for sale at the cash register. There is so much to look at, it’s hard to take it all in.

“I think we’re having a renewed renaissance of Route 66. People want to go back to simpler times. They want a journey.”

And Garrett and Barker are right in the thick of it. In between sweeping the floors, carrying boxes of produce to the kitchen, and wrapping up sandwiches, they still make time to shake hands and welcome everyone who steps inside. When I speak to them, Garrett is wearing his latex kitchen gloves and Barker has an apron tied around her waist—physical proof of how much dedication they put in.

After placing my order, I wander around the tables and booths and find myself following a series of yellow arrows directing me to a museum. To my surprise, tucked away behind the bathrooms, is a room filled with guitars, signed records, cases of old soda, neon signs, toy cars, and a plethora of Star Wars memorabilia, including a lifesize model of R2D2.

“It’s all mine,” Garrett says with a grin. The accretion of a true entertainment aficionado, Garrett wanted people to be able to eat good food and see cool stuff. “People will sometimes spend two hours here.” With countless items to scour, endless pictures to look at, and a short video about the history of The Launching Pad playing on loop, it’s easy to see why.

An astronaut without his helmet

Back out in the dining area, as people order hot dogs, Dole Whips, and cases of Green River (a popular lime-flavored soda native to Chicago), everyone seems to be asking the same question: Why isn’t the Giant wearing his space helmet today?

And the answer is simple: He needed a paint job. The last time the Gemini Giant was painted was back in 1995. So, to prepare for the upcoming busy season, Garrett and Barker decided to give the giant some much needed TLC (including new glow-in-the-dark eyes) to ensure he looks his best for the countless pictures that will be taken this summer.

The Gemini Giant with his iconic astronaut helmet.
The Gemini Giant in December 2018. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
The Gemini Giant in May 2019. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

“You should’ve seen him when we took the helmet off,” Garrett tells one of the customers. “Some new fiberglass and two coats of fresh paint, he’ll be ready to last another 50 years.”

The Route 66 renaissance

People don’t just come to The Launching Pad for the food, the museum, or the Gemini Giant—there’s something entirely transcendent about being here. “I think we’re having a renewed renaissance of Route 66,” Garrett tells me. “People want to go back to simpler times. They want a journey.”

Barker agrees. “To me, there is positive and there is negative. And I think people today want so badly to see what’s good and positive about the U.S. It’s things like community and local businesses. The simpler things in life.”

The Launching Pad hot fudge sundae
The Launching Pad hot fudge sundae. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

Sitting down to eat my Chicago dog and hot fudge sundae, I feel the quiet peace that comes from simply enjoying a moment for what it is. I look around and am proud of this little slice of American history. Good music, smiling customers, raindrops on the window—I get why someone would travel far and wide to come here, to experience something pure like this. It feels good.

As I say goodbye and step out into the rain-soaked parking lot, I am greeted once more by the smirking green giant, helmet resting at his feet. And while he may be the motivation behind visiting The Launching Pad in the first place, I think you’ll find yourself sticking around for much simpler reasons.

If you go

You can stop and visit the Gemini Giant any time. The Launching Pad is open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Just make sure you say hi to Holly and Tully.