Taps, Tables & Teamwork: Food and Drink Worth Writing Home About
For a handful of small towns in the Midwest, Saugatuck, Douglas, and Fennville have more than their fair share of carefully crafted food, beer, cider, and wine. But no one’s complaining–in fact, we’re celebrating.
Once a month, our community of local chefs, restaurant owners, and managers get together for a meeting of EatDrinkSDF. They talk, drink wine, and laugh like friends because, well, they are.
EatDrink SDF chefs
Kim Bale, Co-Owner of Borrowed Time, explains how the group started. “I think we all just kind of went into each other’s businesses, got to know each other a little bit, and decided maybe we should do something fun together. No one was really focusing on the fact that there was some real culinary talent here. When we started eating each other’s food and thinking, ‘Wow, you’re super-talented at this,’ we decided we could get together and show people what we can do as an area.”
In fact, many visitors are surprised to discover how creative and committed to quality the area’s restaurants are. Sue Chaitin, Owner of The Mermaid Bar & Grill, says, “In a lot of vacation towns, you don’t have to be that good to be really busy. People get kinda like, ‘Let’s just serve the frozen coconut shrimp because no one’s going to really know or care.’ But here, but we all have a sense of pride in what we do, and we are all putting forth something we are proud of.”
You may not find coconut shrimp, fast food joints or a tired old family-style restaurant that serves meatloaf every night. But you will find upscale Southern food, waterside dining, farm-to-table cooking, independently owned breweries and craft cideries, a local coffee roaster, and more–all nestled into a small group of lakeshore communities. And many of these businesses know each other and work together through EatDrinkSDF.
The famous fried chicken and biscuits from The Southerner
One of group’s first projects was a collaborative dinner at The Southerner several years ago. Mindy Trafman, General Manager at Coast 236 Restaurant and Bar, says, “That’s when we realized how fun it was to work together. Then Borrowed Time did a dinner series where they invited chefs to come in and cook, and that was a load of fun and very successful. Each time we do something, we just find that it is a lot of fun and develops a lot of camaraderie.”
Since then, the organization has also banded together on charitable projects, including their ticketed Harvest Dinner, which is coming up on October 5. 2018’s event raised $900 dollars for the Trevor Nichols Research Center in Fennville, which studies ways for Michigan farms to keep fruit pest-free while preserving the environment.
Protecting the harvest is near and dear to the restaurant owners’ hearts. Some, like Martha Wicket Schrock of Salt of the Earth, have their own plots where they grow vegetables and herbs for their tables. Others take advantage of all the farms within half a day’s drive, supplying everything from asparagus to berries, peaches, pumpkins, and goat cheese, along with grapes and apples for wine and cider.
The area is home to two craft cideries, four craft beer breweries, and something of a rarity–two women brewers. Kim Collins is the owner and head brewer at Guardian Brewing Company, and Hannah Lee co-owns Waypost Brewing Company with her partner, Chuck Steinhart.
“How many female brewers can you name in Michigan?” asks Collins. “I can only name three, and Hannah and I are two. To be a head brewer and owner, like Hannah and I, that’s ridiculously rare.”
Hannah Lee, owner and brewer at Waypost Brewing Company
Collins says the spirit of collaboration is strong among area brewers. “Saugatuck Brewing and Mitten and Waypost have been nothing but good to us. We’re friends with all of them, and the GM at Mitten is even in our Mug Club. We’ve already brewed with Saugatuck, and I actually owe them a collaboration brew. People are always worried, like, ‘What does Saugatuck Brewing say?’ And I’m like, they say, ‘Welcome home.’ That’s what we do in the brewing industry. We take care of each other.”
Lee agrees, “There’s a few of us women kicking around, but Kim and I didn’t imagine that we would be down the road from each other! But I think that’s really a testament to more women in leadership roles within the industry, and I like to see that.”
While the breweries are just a short drive apart, they see themselves as part of a community, not competitors. Collins explains, “If you had five plumbing businesses, they’re going to all provide the same thing, but the brewing industry’s different. We don’t have a berry farm, and it’s going to be amazing for Waypost once it all grows and they’re able to use it. Mitten is so solid, they have like 40 beers on tap and they’re all amazing. Like it’s not scary weird beer, just creative beer that’s made really well. Then Saugatuck, I love that they’re like the old-guard. Their run of beers is just fantastic, and they can’t even change some of them because people love them so much. Their brewers now are doing things that they did not offer before. Like that Saison, oh my gosh, so good! And, it’s different than the Saison that I make, and different than the two that are on at Waypost. We’re not worried because we’re all doing different things.”
Lee says, “We do have a lot more wineries and cideries around here, so it’s been interesting to have other folks come in and just share ideas and stories. More and more, we’re finding ways that we can make hybrid products because of our backgrounds and because we know so many of the other makers. A friend who works down at 12 Corners in Benton Harbor called and said he just harvested some gewürzt and its cold soaking right now–do you want some? And we were like, sure! So he gave us this unfermented fresh gewürzt juice, and we just dumped it in the tanks, and we’ll see what happens!”
Alec & Lindsay Peyleitner, owners of GROW
Collins, Lee, and Alec Peyleitner from GROW Café + Bistro all say the sense of community is an important part of working here. Collins, whose partner Kate serves as her general manager, adds, “This area is so safe, welcoming and open to the LGBTQ community. We didn’t for sure know that when we were looking at it, but what tipped us off was all the art and culture and the flags. So then we knew it would be a very open place to live. I want our staff to be safe when they leave here. I want us to be safe. We’ve lived places that feel very differently than here, so we’re super happy to be here.”
Lee adds, “There’s a lot of creative people in this area, and not just in beverage production. People who come through this door don’t ask where you get your furniture, they ask who made it. And with the beers, they know it’s made here. I like feeling like you’re not just consuming this experience, you’re part of it–because someone made this table, someone made those chairs, someone made the beer.”
Looking around at the culinary and brewing talent that surrounds him in the area, Peyleitner sums it up. “None of us are doing the same thing,” he says, “but we’re all in it together.”