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The Dockside delivers

Al Parker - June 14th, 2010
The Dockside Delivers: Torch Lake destination offers dining and good times
By Al Parker
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny May morning, the kind they call “a Dockside day” at the popular restaurant that has been a fixture on Torch Lake’s eastern shore for more than a century.
The crystalline waters of the lake are amazingly calm, the air cool and fresh with the promise of a gorgeous spring day.
Owner Gordy Schafer greets three new employees with a question. “What’s the first thing we asked you when you applied here?” he asks.
“What’s your GPA,” the three young women answer in unison.
“We hire by GPA,” explains Schafer after sending the three newbies on to be trained by manager Stephanie Reid. “All of our staff must have a 3.0 GPA or better to even interview with us. And there’s a waiting list.”
Schafer believes that the GPA requirement results in bright, energetic, friendly employees who have a good work ethic. He also gives his staff a 10-page, 92-question test that quizzes them on everything from the top-selling salad (The Sunset Salad) to the size of the beer pitchers (60 oz.).
“I’ve run one help wanted ad in the 20 years that I’ve owned the place,” says Schafer. “I hired Joe Short as a busboy when he was 14.”
Short is now owner/operator of the award-winning Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire. “A few years back, when he told me he was opening a brewery, I told him to finish college, that it wouldn’t work,” recalls Schafer with a chuckle. “He’s doing just fine.”

More than 100 years ago, The Dockside building began life as Anderson’s Grocery serving the food and equipment needs of the Torch Lake area. It remained a store into the 1940s when the building was split into an IGA grocery and the Torch Lake Tavern. Stan and Irene Orr bought it in the 1950s and operated it for more than a decade. It became The Dockside in the 1970s and went through several owners until Schafer bought the business in 1990.
“Originally a partner and I were going to buy a Leelanau County restaurant, but the deal fell through,” explains Schafer. “I sold everything I had and even took a $3,400 credit card cash advance on the day of the closing to buy The Dockside.”
It was a big gamble for a guy who had no experience in the restaurant business. Schafer, a U.S. Army veteran, had operated a successful hot air balloon business downstate, but never owned an eatery before.
“I figured, ‘What’s the worst that could happen – I’d be broke,” he recalls with a shrug. “And I’d already had lots of experience with that.”
Schafer cleaned up the gloomy bar atmosphere with fresh paint and a higher ceiling. There was a new emphasis on turning The Dockside into a friendly, family-oriented place. He also improved the menu with healthier entrees and changed the focus of the place from being a bar that served food to a restaurant that served alcohol.
“We used to be 70 percent beer and liquor and 30 percent food,” he says. “Now we’re the exact opposite.”

A colorful menu features an assortment of “Quick Starts” including a Smoked Chicken Quesadilla ($8.39), a zingy Basket of Wings ($8.79) and Deep-Fried Pickles wrapped in Swiss cheese and ham ($7.59).
The top-selling Sunset Salad is made with a bed of fresh greens, Michigan dried cherries, Asiago cheese, pecans and grilled chicken ($9.79). There are five hefty sandwiches including a Grilled Reuben ($8.59), a panini-grilled California Club ($7.59) and a new BBQ pork offering ($7.59). Diners can also choose from five deli wraps, including the award-winning Artichoke Chicken wrap, ranging in price from $6.99 to $7.99.
Fans of Mexican fare will not be disappointed in The Dockside’s Nacho Supreme ($9.69), Super Burrito or new Pulled Pork Burrito, both priced at $9.89.
But perhaps the stars of The Dockside’s menu are the burgers.
“We’re really known for our Thirsty Thursdays when we offer all draft beers for $1.50 and our burgers for $1.85,” says Schafer.
The burgers are made with a custom blend of certified ground beef that Schafer orders from the Village Market in Elk Rapids. “Our burger mix is 90-10,” he explains. “We use five tons of this custom ground beef a year.”
The signature burger is the Dockburger, which features two patties, two slices of cheese and a choice of toppings ($6.59). The Smokey Joeburger is topped with grilled onions, smoked gouda cheese and Babys Ray’s BBQ sauce ($5.59). Other hand-pattied choices include the Mushroomburger, Oliveburger and vegetarian Gardenburger all priced at $4.89.

1,000 MEALS
During a busy summer day it’s common for The Dockside’s hustling staff of 20 to serve up 1,000 meals. “We try to out-service everybody else,” says Schafer.
Over the years The Dockside has developed a number of fun traditions. Its interior ceiling tiles are decorated with dozens of colorful drawings and paintings. They range from cute family portraits, to business ads, to college logos. Patrons can add their own designs for only $40.
And outside the eatery’s sprawling wooden deck and long dock feature the names and witty sayings of more than 1,000 visitors who pay $40 for the work. They have been neatly routered into the decking, though divorces and break-ups have caused a few revisions over the years.
“We have a lot of fun here and encourage our friends to stop by and share the fun,” says Schafer. “One of our mottos is ‘Growing Up Is Overrated!”
One thing that the fun-loving Schafer is serious about is a campaign to darken Torch Lake at night.
“Over 95 percent of lake residents turn their lights off at night,” he says. “We use the lowest light level possible to function at night and turn off almost all outside lights when closed. Most people want to see the stars, not be a star. We encourage everyone along the lake to be green and let everyone enjoy the evening sky.”

Located where the Clam River enters Torch Lake, The Dockside, at 6340 Southeast Torch Lake Drive in Bellaire, is open Monday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. For more information or takeout orders, call (231)377-7777.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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