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Slabtown Burgers

Al Parker - August 10th, 2009
Bag It!
Burger in a bag recipe is a hit for Slabtown Burgers

By Al Parker 8/10/09

So what does a property owner do when his tenant, a restaurant, falls victim to hard times and has to close its doors?
For longtime Traverse City realtor Jeff Pownall the answer was to roll up his sleeves, remodel the building and open yet another restaurant, Slabtown Burgers.
“I’ve been in the real estate business for years, but I’ve never run a restaurant,” says Pownall. “I was real nervous.”
That nervousness subsided when Slabtown Burgers drew an out-the-door line of customers at its April opening.
“We went through 700 pounds of beef and 1,000 pounds of potatoes in six days,” recalls the affable Pownall, who once tended bar at Dill’s Olde Town Saloon, a Traverse City landmark.
Known at various times as Baghdad, Little Bohemia or Slabtown, during Traverse City’s formative years, the west side was home to hard-working mill workers and skilled woodcarvers who built tidy cottages for themselves out of scraps or “slabs” from the sawmills.

Once one of those private residences, the restaurant’s building was the site of three failed eateries – City Kitchen, The House and Vinnie’s West Side Eats, which closed in February.
Despite that ghastly gastronomic track record, Pownall and his partner and restaurant co-owner Toni Dye were optimistic about running a classic burger joint. They’re joined in the effort by managing partner Bill Barnes.
For inspiration and advice, Pownall turned to long-time friend Jeff Wiltse, who owns and operates three successful area eateries, Firefly, Giovanni’s Roadhouse and Bubba’s. He also borrowed a couple of ideas from restaurants featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” hosted by hipster/chef Guy Fieri.
Pownall offers Slab Grab Bags with a single burger dressed with ketchup, pickle, onion and mustard, French fries and a large drink in a convenient paper bag for only $4.90.
“It’s all about the volume,” says Pownall. “We couldn’t do it if we didn’t get the volume that we do.”
Other bag meals include an olive burger, bacon burger, mushroom burger, a chicken sandwich or a west side burger, stacked with ham, Swiss and American cheeses. All are under $6.50.

One of the most popular Slab Grab Bag meals is the Double Bypass Bag, which features two double cheeseburgers, French fries and a large drink ($7.70). Couples often can be seen sharing this tasty lunch for a very reasonable price.
“We got the bag idea from a joint in Alpharetta, Ga,” says Pownall. “But one common theme we got from watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is that the successful restaurants offer fresh, quality food at fair prices and fast. That’s what we do.”
In fact, on one recent Friday (the busiest day of the week) Slabtown Burgers provided customers with 250 bag meals during a frenzied three-hour lunch period. Or about one meal every 45 seconds!
During a typical six-day work week, the restaurant goes through 1,000 pounds of beef and 1,200 to 1,300 pounds of potatoes, estimates Pownall.
Diners, who are mostly locals, place their order at the counter where their name and order is written on a paper sack. Visitors are invited to take a seat and the meal is delivered to them in minutes.
“Our goal is to take the order, freshly grill each burger, then deliver it to our guests in 10 minutes or less,” says Pownall. “Everything is fresh. We do our own hand-cut fries and use a special seasoning on those.”
In addition to burgers and fries, Slabtown’s menu features four different wraps ($5.95-$6.50), four different salads ($5-$5.95) and Pownall’s father Gary Pownall’s famous hamburger soup ($2.25-$3.25). Other fresh soups are made daily.
Designed by Dye, whose family has been in the restaurant business in Benzie County for decades, the restaurant’s cozy interior pays homage to the neighborhood’s past by displaying dozens of photographs illustrating Traverse City’s history.
“The positive response from everybody has been really neat,” says Dye, who also designed the restaurant’s sign and logo.
Despite the success of the restaurant, Pownall remains an active realtor as part of the Pownall Group, housed upstairs from Slabtown Burgers.
“Our success with the restaurant has exceeded any volume we ever thought of,” says Pownall with a smile. “Our goal was to save the building. Well, we’ve saved the building.”

Slabtown Burgers, at 826 West Front St. in Traverse City, is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 9p.m. For more information or takeout orders, call (231)932-1760,” or

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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