Roundtable: The Restaurateurs

Owners of some of northern Michigan's most recognizable restaurants gathered for another TCBN roundtable discussion. Attendees included Jeff Wiltse of 310 and Bubba's; Andy Case of The Cherry Hut; Barry Haven of Bowers Harbor Inn, North Peak Brewing Company, and Blue Tractor Cookshop, and Skip Telgard of The Bluebird.

TCBN: Tell us a bit about yourselves.

Wiltse: Well, first I had Exquisite Edibles, then opened The Dish Café in 1998, which I sold in 2002. I opened Bubba's, basically a burgers and beer place, in 2000, and 310, a tapas restaurant, in 2002-although we no longer say 'tapas restaurant' because some people thought we meant 'topless restaurant.' 310 serves sushi, steaks, martinis, and more. I am also in the process of purchasing Giovanni's in Interlochen. Catering is also a big part of our business.

Case: The Cherry Hut in Beulah was established in 1922. My father purchased it in 1959, and I have been taking over for him past few years. I worked in a restaurant for Disney in Florida, and learned a lot there. Cherry Hut is family-oriented…we have no alcohol…and we are open from Mother's Day to the end of October.

Telgard: We own The Bluebird and also own the Early Bird restaurant next door. This is a family business opened in 1927 by my grandparents, but has morphed into something much larger. My wife and I took over in 1996, and it is now an elegant restaurant with a casual tavern.

Haven: I am a partner in North Peak, Bowers Harbor Inn and The Bowery-which a group purchased from Howard Schelde in 2006-and a partner in the Blue Tractor Cookshop, at the site of the former Dill's. We also operate restaurants in the metro Detroit and Ann Arbor markets. But I know Traverse City and the [Bowers Harbor] Inn very well…in fact, I managed it in the 1970s. North Peak is obviously very successful, and Blue Tractor is a family/retro concept that is just getting started.

TCBN: Some of your restaurants have really evolved from what they used to be.

Wiltse: Absolutely. I mean, chasing the market is toughest thing; Trish and I opened 310 as a place we would enjoy, instead of a place everyone here would enjoy. So we started with no sandwiches, and a very epicurean, gourmet approach. But now we have ten sandwiches, salads, and we've removed the reference to tapas cuisine. To succeed here-I want to be politically correct here-you have to deal with a diverse crowd, both uncle Bob and aunt Bella and with people with who live on Lake Geneva for six months and the Bay the other six months. You try to get the core middle of the market but still have a little flair.

Haven: No doubt that northern Michigan lags a bit in culinary tastes compared to the east side of the state, where they are a little more adventuresome. We'll see where Blue Tractor ends up…it is always up to the customer. It was aimed to be more retro, which is very trendy in much of the country, and it has been well accepted here, but Jeff is right-you can't take too many risks.

Telgard: Our concept was in place 30 years before I got there….in fact, we still serve fried whitefish the way we did 40 years ago…but you've got to experiment with high cuisine a bit, too. But boy, don't ever turn away from what got you there.

TCBN: Your businesses would seem to be so highly seasonal.

Case: You just find the costs are so high in off season, that we close down. We are expanded the months we are open, but you can just see the weather affecting the business in November and beyond. And, so many of our customers head south in the winter. We have a little different perspective in Beulah – it's not a mecca like Traverse City. So yes, we are highly seasonal. But overall, we choose to focus very heavily on service. We provide lots of training for all our staff and we believe the experience will be what makes the difference for the customer.

Telgard: I'll tell you, we're still reeling from the lack of thousands of people who used to come up every weekend to ski Sugar Loaf. And not only those visitors, but the 250 employees…that's a big number of folks without jobs right down the road.

Haven: But this town is less seasonal than it used to be. The summer season is now basically July 1 to August 15, while fall has expanded. The shoulder seasons are stronger.

Wiltse: Well, you remember when the week between Christmas and New Years was 'hell week,' just like another summer…but I haven't felt one of those in many years.

Telgard: November is one of the worst. We close in November.

Wiltse: Boy, you're smart!

Telgard: Well, my accountant says we should close for entire winter!

Haven: I just think the state is fixated on industry, and seems to have forgotten about us, the third largest segment of economy. We do not do enough promoting the state as a tourism destination. I think we should play on our assets…

Wiltse: I totally agree. I just rarely have the time to step back and reflect on things like that.

TCBN: What about the high number of restaurant openings?

Telgard: Numbers say half of them will be closed in two years.

Wiltse: So many people have a romantic idea… 'Honey, I will cook and you wait tables'…and then…ugh.

Telgard: It's an industry with lots of ways to fail. Guests expect perfect experiences, and the one thing that is not perfect will tend to stick with them.

Wiltse: People usually have one aspect of a great restaurant…like being a great chef…but not the other 20 parts necessary.

Case: Or they don't realize the costs wrapped up in operating something like this. The cost can be staggering. It takes passion and hours. When we're open, I'm there. We have a great core of people, but I always feel the operation is going to do better when I'm there.

Haven: There's a perception that ours is a low pay, low skill industry, but it's not necessarily true…

WILTSE: I think there is a perception that we are bottom feeders of the employment market, but we are paying $10-$15 per hour. People ask me how an increase in the minimum wage will affect us. Sure, there will be a trickle down, but not immediately.

Haven: We can rarely talk a server into transitioning to management because they would take a pay cut.

Wiltse: Here, here!

Case: Right. Even though we're small, nobody on our staff makes minimum wage.

TBCN: What about the controversies surrounding trans fats and smoking?

Telgard: We are 100 percent nonsmoking now.

Wiltse: Why?

Telgard: It just reinforced how we feel about it. I was real nervous and thought I'd lose people, and I've lost a few, but gained a few more. The reaction has been amazing.

Haven: At one restaurant downstate, we have two bars – one nonsmoking, one smoking. The smoking one does three times the business. It's just what more people want. But I think it's the individual owner's right to make the decision, not the government's. We will do what the customers want.

Wiltse: I don't think government should mandate that, either. It is a market driven thing. But if we went nonsmoking tomorrow, we'd feel it.

Case: We've been smoke free for a long time, but we have no liquor license. But I'm curious-what does your staff say about the smoke?

Wiltse: A lot of them are smokers. Smoking has just seemed to go with restaurants and bars. Back when I was a server for 12 years I'd say give me a scotch drinker and smoker, because they were great tippers!

Telgard: It's interesting. I never had a staff member with a problem, because they expect smoke coming in. But when we floated the idea of nonsmoking, I was surprised by the enthusiasm, even from smokers.

Haven: As for trans fats, same thing. It's based on shaky science, and they've been wrong before. I just don't think the government has the right to dictate.

Wiltse: It's not a big deal for us. It's more of a problem for fast food places. It's just a matter of a few products like the oil we buy. We are now zero trans fats.

Case: It's something we will have to look into for next season.

TCBN: Last question. Why can't we have a healthy or organic fast food place here?

Case: Our restaurant for many years served the beef and potatoes approach, but I credit my wife with adding veggie sandwiches, salads, and more. It's helped our business tremendously.

Telgard: It's not the majority of the market, but you have to have an alternative for those who want something more healthy.

Wiltse: Fast and healthy was the concept at Exquisite Edibles. But I have to say, when we added a fryer, our business jumped 30 percent. It's what we talked about before-someone who wants an organic drive-thru is not the bulk of the customers. It's all market driven. BN