Local restaurateur remembered as ‘Mayor of Main Street’

Local restaurateur Jim Lopez, Sr. died last week at the age of 82.

The man with the signature mustache, who was known as “The Mayor of Main Street,” was laid to rest over the weekend at Ferncliff Cemetery.

For more than 40 years, Lopez was a fixture on Springfield’s east side, at various times operating Jim’s Coney Island, Jim’s Pizza and numerous other ventures.

He’s remembered by family, friends and former patrons for his constant smile, generous nature and unflappable work ethic.

More than 60 people have left condolence messages on an online obituary.

Many shared fond memories of his restaurants and their favorite foods, including Bell burgers at the original Taco Bell on East Main Street.

Others thanked Lopez for giving them their first job.

“I started working for him at Jim’s Coney Island during the summer when I was 15 years old and continued working for him for about eight to 10 years,” wrote Barbara Forshey-Call. “I can remember him telling me that he would rather make a slow nickel than a fast dime, meaning that the quality and appearance of his food was of the greatest importance to him, because his customers were equally as important.”

His son, Jim Lopez Jr., said he couldn’t believe the number of people who showed up for a visitation Friday at Richards, Raff and Dunbar Memorial Home who said his dad gave them their first shot.

“I think he helped a lot of people,” Lopez said. “My dad always instilled in me and my sister to have a good work ethic.”

Others recalled Lopez giving free food to hungry children and letting veterans eat on the house.

“He told my brother every time he came home on leave from the Navy the tacos were free to him,” Linda O’Neal Jones said on the condolence page. When her brother ordered 15 tacos, “Big Jim” just laughed.

Although many people assumed he was Mexican because of his last name and owning a taco business, Lopez was actually of Italian heritage, raised in Clarksburg, W. Va

After serving in the Navy, he was discharged in California and began his family with wife Edith in San Diego while running a Taco Bell franchise there.

When the company was expanding east in 1968, Lopez jumped at the opportunity to be closer to his roots and traded his Taco Bell for a brand new prototype store in Springfield — the first franchise east of the Mississippi River.

“If you went into that Taco Bell between 1968 and 1975, he made your food,” his son said.

He followed up that restaurant with several different Jim’s Coney Island locations and then Jim’s Pizza on Mitchell Boulevard.

Lopez Jr. now run’s Big Jim’s Coneys & Subs on Mitchell while his ex-wife run’s Lee Ann’s Dairy Delight on East High Street.

Their youngest son is involved with the businesses and has talked about opening up a food truck to carry on the family tradition.

“He lived here and worked here and believed in investing his money here,” Lee Ann Lopez said of her father-in-law’s love for Springfield.