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Willie‘s Rear

Al Parker - October 4th, 2010
The View from Willie’s Rear
By Al Parker
Jim Rowland was a just a kid in junior high school down in Clawson
when he began dreaming about owning his own restaurant.
And in 1989, the first time he strolled into the unassuming little
diner on South Airport Road between Barlow and Garfield Roads, he had
a vision. “It was just how I imagined it,” says the outgoing Rowland.
“It was my dream restaurant.”
Launched in 1978 by Bill Sternberg (hence the Willie’s name) the
restaurant is discreetly tucked along the backside of a strip mall.
It’s not the type of place that attracts tourists, but it sure lures
in locals.
“I’d say 95 percent of our business is locals,” estimates Rowland, who
bought the place in 1990 and ran it for nine years before selling and
taking a job in the building industry. “I had one lady who got so
emotional about us re-opening that she started crying and said ‘Thanks
for giving us a place that we’re comfortable eating in.’”
After Rowland left, the building became a Mexican restaurant, then sat
vacant until he got the itch to rejoin the restaurant game last year.
He spent six weeks refurbishing the eatery, putting in new ceilings,
cleaning and painting the place, which seats 60 comfortably in three
rooms. There’s also a spot for outdoor dining.

After being gone for 11 years, Willie’s Rear re-opened Nov. 1 with
much of the original décor and almost an identical menu. Regulars soon
showed how happy they were to have Willie’s return.
“I truly felt like a drug dealer,” he says with a laugh. “I had guys
come in and say ‘I NEED a Willie’s Special. I haven’t had one for 11
years. And I sold so many Eggs Benedicts that I could have renamed the
place ‘Bennie’s. It’s great to have so many of our regulars back
telling the same stories, the same jokes with the same punch lines.”
The Willie’s Special ($5.69) is the most popular sandwich on the menu,
featuring shaved rib eye beef, piled with grilled mushrooms, onions
and green pepper on a custom-made Willie’s bun from Potter’s Bakery.
It’s topped with Rowland’s “Special Sauce” – a mayo, sour cream and
secret ingredients blend.
“It’s good on everything but ice cream,” he says. “But that’s only
because I haven’t found the right flavor of ice cream yet.
Like all sandwiches, the Willie’s Special comes with potato chips and a pickle.
Other popular lunch choices are the Marv’s Burger, a half-pound of
grilled ground beef topped with Swiss cheese and grilled onions on a
Willie’s bun ($5.89) and Lanny’s Tuna Melt featuring tuna salad with
tomato, lettuce and Swiss cheese on the grilled bread of your choice.
“I’ve been pounding out tuna melts like mad,” laughs Rowland.

Rowland does all of the cooking. His wife Joan, a retired Traverse
City West Middle School special education teacher, helps out a few
days each week. Two other employees round out the staff.
To say Willie’s has a casual vibe is like saying Lindsey Lohan has
issues. It’s so relaxed that if Rowland isn’t there promptly by 6 a.m.
to open, he has a cadre of regulars who will get the coffee going,
turn on the grill and call him to make sure he’s on his way.
That breakfast bunch has made the Eggs Benedict, complete with
Rowland’s homemade Hollandaise sauce, a popular choice. With a side
order of Jim’s potatoes, it’s only $4.99.
Another top breakfast choice is Brent’s Mess, a concoction of
scrambled eggs, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, ham, bacon and
shredded cheese with toast and Jim’s potatoes ($6.50).
For lighter appetites, there’s an every-day breakfast special of two
eggs, potatoes and toast ($3.38) until 11 a.m.
“The economy is totally different from when we had the restaurant
before,” notes Rowland. “And it’s tough to change people’s dining
habits, but we’re doing well so far. We’re probably 75 percent of
where we want to be, but we expect things to pick up in October.”

Willie’s Rear, at 1315 South Airport Rd. in Traverse City, is open
Monday through Thursday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sunday closed. For
more information or takeout orders, call (231) 421-5506.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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