This year’s snowmageddon was a piece of cake … for those who’ve endured an Arctic Circle winter.
Chad and Victoria Conklin, owners of Sam’s Graces in Harbor Springs, fled Northern Alaska’s negative 65-degree temps in 2012 for the milder climes of the 45th parallel.
The two Michigan natives (she’s from Bloomfield Hills, he’s from Chesaning) met at the Coldfoot Café 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Victoria was cooking and baking in the kitchen, and Chad was working in the cafe and coordinating tours.
“We were both just looking for adventure and fell in love with the region,” said Chad Conklin.
Eventually, though, the bitter cold outweighed their love for Alaska’s natural beauty.
That combined with the fact they missed their families convinced them to pack up their belongings, including six dogs, and head back to their home state.
“We figured why put in 16-hour days for someone else,” Chad Conklin said.
The Conklins wanted to be in Northern Michigan, which would have seasons similar to what they’d experienced in Alaska. They sold 21 of their 27 sled dogs and bought a home in Harbor Springs, planning their restaurant even before finding a location.
“Victoria knew what she’d want on the menu,” said Chad Conklin.
Located on State Street just north of Main Street, the cafe is an unassuming eatery formerly home to an antique shop.
They originally saw the cafe as something they could run themselves with one additional part-time person.
Now with a staff of eight they are looking forward to summer in their 30-seat cafe.
“We’re being told by other restaurant owners that what is happening at lunch with the two-hour rush will happen all day,” he said. “Bring it on.”
Sam’s Grace’s offers breakfast and lunch items, along with a constantly rotating selection of baked goods.
Early eaters can opt for eggs Benedict prepared traditionally with smoked ham, or with smoked trout, or a vegetarian version with quinoa patties. An Italian breakfast sandwich includes fried egg, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, and sopressata (Italian salami). Pancakes, French toast, and various sides round out the menu.
Lunch offers salads, including quinoa with radishes, red onion, feta and tomatoes; roasted beet with chevre, mustard greens, and roasted pine nuts; Mediterranean pasta salad; and green salad with garbanzos and pecorino cheese. Featured vinaigrette dressings are lemon, orange and balsamic.
There are five different baguette sandwiches, such as ham and cheddar, beef with arugula and gorgonzola spread, and herbroasted chicken.
In lieu of a marinara sauce, many of the half-dozen crispy flatbread pizzas on the menu feature a base of tomatoes roasted with olive oil, thyme and garlic. That includes both traditional pepperoni and one prepared with fennel sausage, fresh mozzarella, and ovenroasted peppers. Another option is the white pizza with sautéed spinach, garlic, pine nuts, and chevre along with the mozzarella.
The number one seller among pizzas is the margherita, boasting mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes. Its slightly salted crust richly complements the savory roasted tomatoes.
“The salads have been the surprise,” said Chad Conklin. “People have a pizza and split a salad. Roasted beet salad and the white pizza, that’s the best.”
He is also a fan of the quinoa salad. “It’s different, fresh, and has lots of flavors,” he said.
For a spicy treat, the sopressata sandwich brings Italy to the fore with pecorino cheese, roasted peppers, basil and aioli dressing the peppery salami.
In the morning, baked goods all tend to rapidly disappear.
“We do three or four; what we can handle,” he said. “We make two dozen of everything, and they sell out quickly.”
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Conklin says he and his wife have been hugely gratified by the response they’ve gotten from customers and other business owners.
“I’ve been surprised by how welcomed we were,” he said. “I think everyone thinks the more restaurants in town, the better. It’s not about competition – people need a variety, there shouldn’t be just two or three places.
“It’s a great feeling.” The bakery is named for Victoria’s father Sam Founteas, who was killed 18 months ago by a drunk driver. The accident left Victoria’s mother hospitalized for three months.
Conklin says their original plan was to name the cafe after one of their sled dogs, but following the accident they decided to honor his father-in-law. Sam had been an avid gardener, and they decided to surround him with the three Graces of Greek mythology, who were the attendants of nature and agriculture and represented joy, charm and beauty.
No doubt Sam would be pleased.
Breakfast starts at $6 with the breakfast muffin; sides start at $3. Sandwiches are almost all $10, salads start at $4, and pizza ranges from $9 to $12. Sam’s Graces is located at 339 State Street in Harbor Springs.
Sam’s Graces is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7am-3pm; Sunday from 9am- 3pm. Visit samsgraces.com or its Facebook page for more.