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Blue Tractor

Al Parker - August 24th, 2006
Following in the footsteps of a legend
is never easy.
Just look at George Lazenby, the one-flick wonder who tried to replace Sean Connery behind the wheel of James Bond’s “Aston Martin.” Or Andrew Johnson who succeeded Abraham Lincoln and ended up getting impeached.
It’s pretty much the same in the restaurant game. But the 100-some employees of Traverse City’s Blue Tractor Cook Shop are working hard to forge their own distinctive niche among area eateries.
Traverse City natives Jon Carlson and Greg and Marty Lobdell purchased the former Dill’s restaurant on Union Street near Eighth Street in historic Old Towne and last month opened the Blue Tractor.
Their company, Mission Management, is working from a simple premise – Dill’s simply cannot be re-created – and they are crafting their own new Old Towne tradition with the comfortable, brawny Blue Tractor.
“We’re Traverse City’s best new local secret,” laughed General Manager Mary Pat Compagnari, who managed the company’s popular North Peak Brewing Company before moving to the Blue Tractor.

ROAD HOUSE
With its overhead gears and large agri-industrial tractor photos, the Blue Tractor is a 21st century version of the classic American Road House, a salute to the working class men and women of northern Michigan.
Done in tones of black and brown, its high-backed booths allow privacy, while its tables are roomy and comfortable. Lighting is bright, but not harsh, thanks to inverted metal buckets serving as lampshades. Background music simmers at a comfortable level, inviting conversation.
It’s a place tourists will enjoy, while locals can kick back after a hard day of work and savor a beer, a burger, and a bit of conversation with friends.
“We learned the history of the place, how it was founded by Antoine Novotny, and it was a gathering place for the town’s hard-working people who would come by for a beer, good food and fellowship,” explained Greg Lobdell. “We felt the tractor is a good symbol of those hard workers.”
Chef Rick Fetter’s dinner menu boasts an impressive collection of barbeque, including the popular North Carolina pulled pork made from house-smoked Berkshire pork shoulder that is hand pulled and simmered with a special sauce. It’s served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and wilted local greens.
Barbeque lovers will also be tempted by the smoked beef brisket or a rack o’ ribs. For a BBQ smorgasbord, opt for the Big Barbeque platter that includes ribs, smoked chicken, beef brisket and pulled pork, along with mashed potatoes, mustard slaw and overnight baked beans.

SIRLOIN BURGERS
But the most popular menu items have been the satisfying Blue Tractors burgers, according to Compagnari. “We use fresh-ground sirloin and serve it on a sesame seed roll with shredded lettuce and secret sauce,” she said.
Hearty appetites may try a Tractor Burger – 3/4-pound of beef, topped with Velveeta cheese and grilled onions. Or maybe taste test a Cuban burger – grilled sirloin topped with pit-smoked pulled pork, jack cheese, and house-made pickles.
Mac and cheese gets an appetizing twist at the Blue Tractor. Lovers of this comfort food can get their favorite side dish one of four ways: a three-cheese version with herbed bread crumbs, a blue cheese and scallions style, a Swiss cheese and mushroom serving or a tasty blend of smoked chicken, sweet corn and jack cheese. “It’s turned into one of our most popular side dishes,” said Compagnari.
At the request of customers, two other classic comfort foods – fried green tomatoes and meat loaf – have been added to the menu.
The Blue Tractor is dedicated to serving local products and produce whenever possible, according to Scott Joling, Mission Management’s vice president for operations.
“We’re using local wines and beers,” he said. “We use Moomer’s ice cream and items from the Grand Traverse Bagel & Bakery. We’re very interested in using produce from local farmers whenever it’s in season.”
Grand Traverse area farmers interested in selling their produce to The Blue Tractor should email localproduct@2mission.com.

LATE NIGHTS
The Blue Tractor is open until midnight on weeknights and til 1 a.m. on weekends. They serve menu items until 11 p.m. and host a late night happy hour – from 9 p.m. til closing – seven days a week. There’s also a regular happy hour each day from 3-6 p.m.
“We want to become known as a late night place,” said Compagnari. “A place where friends can get together and talk, maybe after a movie, and get good food.”
The legacy of Dill’s dates back to 1886 when Antoine Novotny opened his Novotny’s Saloon at the site. It served as a “social center of the city’s south side” in the late 1800s, according to state historians. In 1939, it was purchased by Bill Dill, who operated a meat market and vegetable stand at the site.
A fire gutted the building in April 1978, but Dill’s re-opened just 10 weeks later in time for much of the summer tourist season. Three local businessmen later bought the eatery, and under their guidance, Dill’s became entrenched as a Traverse City landmark, famous across the Midwest for its talented Golden Garter Revue, Princess Laura karaoke and tasty fried dill pickles.
Six years ago, Dill’s was sold to restaurateur Barry Boone who did extensive renovations on the restaurant, changing Dill’s come-as-you-are atmosphere into a stylish, but sterile, environment. Boone closed the place in 2004. Carlson and the Lobdells purchased Dill’s from Northwestern Bank following bankruptcy proceedings. “This is a place where folks will want to come after work for a beer and a burger or for an excellent, affordable lunch,” said Greg Lobdell. “It’s a place that’s going to be comfortable, familiar, and fun.”

The Blue Tractor Cook Shop, at 423 South Union in Traverse City, is open Monday - Thursday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, call (231) 922-9515 or go to www.bluetractorcookshop.com.

 
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