Tell us about the Brownstone Inn.
The Brownstone Inn is a family business serving comfort-style food in a really beautiful area—Au Train, Michigan, at a nearly-historic site. Twenty-nine years ago, we resurrected a sweet old business that hadn’t had much care, and ever since we’ve worked to keep it consistent historically and add modernizations where it doesn’t show.
It had been a restaurant with an inn that had rooms upstairs and cabins that were rented until the mid-60s. The upstairs became a large apartment for subsequent owners. We got to raise our two kids here. They got to grow up in this village called a restaurant, which is an unusual way to grow up. Community came to us in a lot of ways.
I grew up on a family farm. It was really similar in a lot of ways—everyone worked together. There was a lot of care for everyone who worked for us, and a lot of their children worked for us over the years.
Some of our staff members here have been with us since we opened. Without the really talented, experienced staff we have, as well as a community that’s super-supportive, we wouldn’t be able to do this right now. People that would not go out because of health concerns order takeout and tip our staff. Those outside the area don’t see it, but there’s community here, and it’s super-important to us.
Our menu is based a lot on the kind of food both of us grew up with, having really talented moms in the kitchen.
Our chef, my husband Jeff, has his own sense of it, creating layers of flavors and textures. He’s an artist who has to have every color in the crayon box. And he uses them all. He wants a nicely composed food plate, and gets excited about anything fresh. At times, we’ve had Hawaiian fish flown in, which is amazing, but the core of our menu uses local products as much as we can. Sourcing is not easy, but we’ve made that a point over the years.
Having a place with a bar in the dining room, we had to decide early on which way to go. My husband was all about the food. Plus there’s a highway out there. It didn’t feel responsible to focus on a bar in this location. That shaped the clientele and the people who work for us.
We were able to expand into the upstairs and create private dining space for weddings, funerals, memorials, anniversaries, birthdays…. You get to know people in another way when you’re part of their celebrations. Some have come every year for their anniversary for twenty-nine years.
What prompted you to get into this business?
It was a big compromise. I was working at a non-profit mental health organization with emotionally disturbed adolescents in California. Coming from a farm background, I was not super-comfortable raising my kids in Santa Barbara. Jeff had finished culinary school and my parents told us the Brownstone was on the market. It was always my favorite part of the U.P. I had spent a lot of time in the U.P. visiting with friends in the 70s. I always felt like I had to get to Au Train Bay. Then I felt like I was in the U.P. For me, it was the doorway, and it never occurred to me I’d be back here.
The U.P. has become home, and I want to make sure my grandkids who are not up here have access to that.
What do customers enjoy most about the Brownstone?
They like the way the building feels. They come in and go Ahhh! It’s old and you can see the dents, and that there’s been a lot of living to it. It’s something the building exudes. It’s warm and accepting, and customers like the food. We’re known for our whitefish and steak, and the burgers are really popular.
We always do our best to be responsive to those with limitations—vegetarians, and those with food allergies.
A lot of our customers have relationships with our servers—baby blankets are made and Christmas cards exchanged. People will come in and ask about someone who waited on them before and through the years. They’ll find out a younger server they had has graduated from college. People notice and care.
Our local customer base is from Newberry to Michigamme, Gladstone. People on their way to Marquette make a point of stopping; they plan the trip so they can have lunch here. For young people going to college here, we become a stop a couple times a year. Typically, we have lots of residents, but this year, it’s been heavily tourists because it feels safe in U.P., and they feel safer here because of the care we’re taking. Our staff was insistent on coming back safely masked. We sanitize all customer contact surfaces. We are distanced. We control the number of people coming in the door, and have balanced it by taking reservations when requested. And we’ve done a lot of takeout.
We close for November to have family time and clean up the space. Our hours for the rest of winter have not been determined yet. They’ll be on our website.
What do you enjoy most about running it?
The relationships and the community and feeling appreciated and successful overall in keeping people comfortable and happy and fed. That’s a primary motivation – feeding people.
What do you find most challenging?
Keeping up with all the tasks that are part of the business. If it were just food and people, staff and customers, that would be easy. Getting enough help is a chronic issue. That’s another reason why I’m so grateful for the staff we have.
Future plans for the Brownstone?
We’re continuing the takeout and working on creating a deli menu featuring smoked items. We’re considering possibly offering lodging. It’s all under discussion. Stay tuned.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about?
Our intense gratitude to the community that supports us. We’re in an intensely beautiful location but not a downtown one. Without the community responding the way it has, it would not work. This really was a dream.
Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2020, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.