Mackinac Island's hottest hangouts offer a peek into their last hurrah
By Kristi Kates | Sept. 15, 2018
During summer, Mackinac Island receives about 15,000 visitors each day. Come October, the island — whose populations dwindles to roughly 500 permanent residents — comes to a near halt. Horses are ferried to more forgiving climes, the hotels and inns are shuttered, and the usually packed restaurant and bars — well, how do they do it? Closing a place of perishables isn’t as simple as winterizing the pipes and turning out the lights. We tapped some of the island’s hottest hangouts to find out their tricks of the seasonal trade.
FIRST, TRIM THE FAT
While season’s end on the island might conjure up mental images of crates of leftover food and beverages stacked in every restaurant’s back room, the people running these restaurants are savvy folk who have been doing this for decades. So the first plan of action for every restaurant and bar is simply to plan ahead, in anticipation of those dwindling days after Labor Day weekend.
“Basically, we just try and get our food and drink stock way down,” said Jody Chambers, manager at the Pink Pony. “The last couple of nights we try to purposefully run out of everything, and we’ll call it out as we go — ‘OK, we’re out of burgers!’ ‘Now we’re out of steaks!’”
At the Bayside, one of the island’s newest outdoor dining spots, Trey Cosner and his staff move all the leftover food and beverages indoors to Bayside’s companion restaurant, Mary’s Bistro Draught House.
“Also, we’re part of a restaurant group with The Seabiscuit, and they stay open longer than us. They’ll close halfway through November,” Cosner said. “We close the Monday before Halloween, so we take our extras to them.”
To Peter Dewey, 28-year manager of Cawthorne’s Village Inn, end-of-season preparations are a cakewalk.
“We just stop buying food the day before Halloween, then we’re open until November 3, and that’s it,” he said.
Even The Chuckwagon, whose owner calls it “very small” compared to most of the other island restaurants, has a plan in place.
“We gauge out about a month ahead,” said Sharon Reurink, owner/manager. “The stuff we sell less of, we start taking off of our menu. And then on the very last day we sell menu items at half-price. We don’t have much left over because we’re just not that big.”
Whether you prefer pop, beer, wine, liquor, or juice, the question also remains of what to do with leftover liquids. Dewey said alcohol is the easiest to deal with.
“If bottled alcoholic beverages and wine are stored properly, they can last a long time,” he said, “so we don’t really have much to do in that department at all. And for pop, we just send what’s left back to Coca-Cola, so we can get credit back for it.”
For the beer remaining at Mary’s Bistro Draught House, they have a simple solution: Turn it into a promotional event.
“We basically have what we call a ‘kill the keg’ party,” Cosner said. “We, of course, have already stopped ordering a week before the season is set to end, but during the party, we lower prices on most everything, and just get rid of as much excess as we can.”
The Pink Pony takes that idea a step further.
“The last Saturday of October is our closing night and Halloween party,” Chambers said. “There’s also an Island Run here during the day, so it gets very, very busy, and then at night everyone’s in elaborate costumes and ready to have some fun. We burn through a lot of drinks that way.”
A breakfast event at the Pink Pony the following morning uses up more of the remaining food stores and shares what’s left with Mackinac Island Public Schools. “Then, at noon, we lock down the Pink Pony, and we’re officially closed for the season,” said Chambers. “After that, we hold our employee party that night, where we drink all of the open cases of beer and open bottles of alcohol.”
Any unopened alcohol bottles and beer cases get sent back to the distributor so the Pink Pony can get credit for them, and employees leave the island with some major party memories (and, generally, a not-minor hangover.)
So we’ve accounted for the last stores of food, and the last bottles of beverages.
What about the people? When Mackinac Island turns cold, the tourists are gone, and the staff … are now without their island jobs.
Dewey said that some of his staff stick around for a little while at the end of summer — at least long enough to squeeze a few last drops out of their summer employment.
“During Halloween week, some people here take that opportunity to just dress up and go have a good time, and that’s it,” he said. “But others choose to stay and serve those people so they can make a little extra money before they leave. When it gets to November, if they’re ambitious at all, they already have a job lined up for the winter. Most of our people go to the ski resorts or to Naples, Florida — there’s a major connection between Naples and Mackinac Island.”
Cosner, who goes back to San Diego, his hometown, said that no matter where his employees go, most come back — about 95 percent of them. A small skeleton crew — a full-time winter-maintenance team — does remain at the Pink Pony.
As for Reurink, the range of destinations for her crew, like her restaurant, isn’t huge. She said her daughter travels during the winter, but Reurink herself simply moves downstate. “But most of our employees are from Michigan — Middleville, St. Ignace — so they just go home and wait until next year.”
An Amazing Autumn Deal
Close the Grand
During peak season, you can’t get even a single weeknight in one of the Grand Hotel’s smallest interior rooms for less than $329 — and that’s per person, based on double occupancy (It’s $583 nightly if you go solo.) But if your bucket list includes a stay at this iconic National Historic Landmark, consider the annual Close the Grand event. For $314 per couple, or $264 per single, you can stay at the storied manse Sunday, Oct. 28–29 and feast as staff empties out its pantries and wine cellar. A decidedly more casual affair than guests of the 1887-built hotel usually enjoy, Close the Grand has no requirements for dressed-up afternoon lobby or dinner wear, its Sunday dinner and Monday continental breakfasts are buffets, and some of dining staff — though still donning their starched coats and white gloves — give you the feeling they’re just over it, there are many perks besides the price: Bob Tagatz, the hotel’s historian and concierge, does an entertaining afternoon presentation sharing the hotel’s exceptionally fine-tuned closing process and some jaw-dropping facts and wildly funny anecdotes from the previous season. Rooms that aren’t booked are left open for ogling. Guests are welcome to take home — free — any of the signature red geraniums dotting the Grand’s porch. And just about every boutique in town (and inside the Grand) slash prices to clear out their inventory. Truly a weekend for deal-hunters, reservations go quickly: 1-800-334-7263, www.grandhotel.com