September 20, 2018

Dine at Kewadin's Pine Hill ... Nursery?

Beer, wine, meals, and music at your local garden center
By Ross Boissoneau | July 14, 2018

There aren’t many restaurants where you can order a pizza, a glass of beer, and a forsythia bush. But that’s the thing at Pine Hill Nursery in Kewadin: What started as a nursery has morphed over the years into a gift shop, greenhouse, music venue, and yes, a restaurant. It offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner; beer and wine; and live music three nights a week — just like a real restaurant. Only with dahlias, kids’ plant workshops, and landscape design.

That wasn’t what owners Ralph and Sandy Naples set out to do. They opened Pine Hill Nursery with Ralph’s sister, Sandy Rubert, in 1978, as a source of summer income while they searched for teaching positions. It became more successful than they’d dreamed. Be careful what you wish for.

“We are all educators,” said Ralph. He taught at the TBA Career Tech Center in Traverse City, his wife taught at Elk Rapids, and his brother-in-law Fred Rubert was a teacher in Kalkaska. “We wanted to do it on a part-time basis. Eventually everybody left [education] and came to work [at Pine Hill] full time,” he said.

In fact, the concept became so successful that the Ruberts opened Pine Hill South in Traverse City. But while the southern outpost boasts a greenhouse area, plants galore, seeds and related garden goods, alas, it lacks a restaurant.

That distinction belongs to the Kewadin location and it alone. The business there has grown from a “dig-your-own” concept to one that grows its own plants from seeds nurtured inside 30,000 square feet of greenhouse.

“We grow all our own annuals and a lot of perennials, some trees and shrubs, and all the vegetables and herbs,” said Naples.

And what better to do with the vegetables and herbs than use them in their own restaurant? Naples said that like the nursery itself, the concept started small and grew.

“When people came in, they’d ask where to eat,” he said. They saw customers who would stop in briefly and then leave because they needed to get something for their hungry kids. Naples said they started offering ice cream, then thought, “Why don’t we have some baked goods?” That led to breakfast, then lunch featuring salads and sandwiches. “Five years ago we added dinner,” he said.

That grew as well, from pizza, burgers, and brats to whitefish and other specialties, too, all under the watchful eye of chef Natalie Williams. “We have a quarter-acre garden for vegetables. The chef bases the menu on what’s available, what’s in season,” said Naples. He said Williams also creates her own specialties. “She makes crab cakes to die for, a meat and cheese board that will knock your socks off. We have a wood-fired Italian pizza oven.”

With the addition of wine and beer, it seemed only a logical step to bring in live music. The current schedule has Robin Lee Berry and Glenn Wolff on Thursdays, Peter Tolias and Laurie Sears Fridays, and Jim Crockett and friends on Saturdays.

The café offers the ambience of the surrounding nursery, as it is a mostly-outdoors operation. In the even of inclement weather Naples said they move some tables indoors to the gift shop area.

The café is open Sunday and Monday 11am–4pm, Tuesday through Saturday 11am to 9pm. It opens for the season the first week of May for lunch, then expands as of Memorial weekend to include dinner hours Tuesday through Saturday.

Naples is quick to credit the staff for the success of the nursery and restaurant. “Nothing happens without a great staff,” he said, whether that is the restaurant, the nursery or the gift area. What other operation employs a chef, waitstaff, and landscape designers? All told there are some 45 people on the payroll.

It’s clear Naples is enamored of is operation, and that must hold true for the staff as well, many of whom have been onboard for years. He said that’s the case for those providing the music as well. “The musicians will tell you it’s their favorite place to play. It’s not like playing in a bar — people come to listen, and because it’s outdoors they can listen and carry on a conversation without bothering the band.

“I get out there every night,” said Naples. “I see my customers in a different light, and they see me much more relaxed.”

“It’s a unique place,” he added. “I had a customer last year who said it was Santa Barbara-ish.”

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