June 29, 2022

On a Mission

A dive into the five TC eateries under Mission Restaurant Group’s umbrella
By Anna Faller | June 4, 2022

Whether it’s beer, Irish fare, BBQ, or fine dining, local boys turned business associates Greg Lobdell and Jon Carlson know how to make a restaurant shine. Under Mission Restaurant Group’s operation, the duo have five local eateries in Traverse City: North Peak Brewing Company, Kilkenny’s Irish Public House, Blue Tractor Barbeque, Mission Table, and Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery. 

“Greg and I are the common bond,” says Carlson, “but as a team, we try to give each [restaurant] its own individual personality.”

Here, we’ll dig into the history, the food, and the drinks that make each piece of the Mission Restaurant Group (MRG) portfolio a standout in TC’s foodie scene. Trust us—you’ll be coming back for seconds.

North Peak Brewing Company
Opened in 1997, North Peak Brewing Company paved the way as one of the area’s premier brewpubs. “[Breweries] were fairly new back then, so we put [ours] right in your face,” Carlson says.

Located in the historic building that once housed Big Daylight Candy Company, North Peak’s distinctive, industrial feel is set off by sky-high wooden ceilings and winding paths of metal ductwork. Add to that a central bar and plenty of brewery paraphernalia, and there’s not much left to question that beer is the name of North Peak’s game.

In fact, the brewery’s rotating pints are the peg upon which it hangs its hat. “We’re super proud of what we do as a brewery,” says general manager and North Peak partner Mike Lloyd. North Peak’s locally-focused menu has also taken hold of that traction. “Our menu has really evolved into something that makes North Peak a destination,” Lloyd adds.

Part of that singular dining experience is the impressive selection of beer-infused bites. Such highlights include the Northern Express 2022 “Iconic Eats” nominee the White Cheddar Ale Soup (spiked with Diabolical IPA and topped with honey-mustard pretzels) and the porter-marinated Hanger Steak, which arrives alongside seasonal vegetables and decadent cheddar mashed potatoes. “It has this tremendous flavor,” Lloyd saus of the steak.

Fast-forward more than two decades, and North Peak’s business continues to soar. And with the recent return to their pre-pandemic full menu—“We’ve been so limited for so long,” Lloyd says—North Peak is looking forward to a season of high-capacity service. “We like to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue when talking about what to do in [town],” Llyod says, “and we feel like we’re getting back to that consistent service we’ve provided.”

Kilkenny’s Irish Public House
You needn't go far to find your next MRG stop. Tucked below North Peak’s timber-lined walls lies Kilkenny’s Irish Public House. “What makes Kilkenny’s and North Peak great is that they feed off each other,” says Lloyd. “Once we get [guests] in the building, we keep them here all night.”

In contrast to North Peak’s open plan and polished metal industrialism, the close quarters and private nooks of Kilkenny’s immediately mark it as something special. “You feel like you’ve walked into Ireland, and that’s what it was intended to be,” says Lloyd.

It’s that very commitment to authenticity that sets Kilkenny’s apart from other pubs. “Greg and I drove around the state of Michigan to every antique store we could find. We hand-picked everything in the whole place,” says Carlson. More than a decade after opening, Lobdell and Carlson are still making tweaks. “We keep adding to it,” says Lobdell, noting they have a few pieces straight from Ireland, “so it’s fun to see how it’s evolved.”

That selective concept applies to the menu, as well. Known for its Irish-inspired offerings—which Lobdell traveled to Ireland to help recreate—Kilkenny’s hearty pub-style fare includes Great Lakes Fish and Chips (ale-battered and served alongside tarragon-ginger tartar sauce and slaw) and the classically-Irish Corned Beef Reuben.

Wash it down with one of the pub’s many pints—including MRG’s own ales and lagers, as well as the quintessential Guinness—before tuning into trivia or catching some live music, both of which are offered regularly in the pub.

Blue Tractor Barbeque and Blue Tractor Beer Garden
Opened in 2006, Blue Tractor Barbeque gives new meaning to the family dining sphere. “[The restaurant] was a personal creation,” says Lobdell. An architectural tribute to Lobdell and Carlson’s fathers, the restaurant’s homespun vibe and comfort-food theme are a nod to their roots.

That farmhouse-inspired warmth is apparent the moment guests step through the door. Decorated in a wash of wood-tones and agrarian lighting, Blue Tractor offers a main dining space—punctuated by the barnwood bar at the center—and a side room reserved for private events. Once inside, diners can choose from table seating or one of the cozy paneled booths. “We want you to feel comfortable in the space where you’re eating,” says Lobdell.

The menu will certainly make you feel comfy…and perhaps make you loosen your belt a notch or two. Built around scratch-made barbeque classics, Blue Tractor’s hearty food fills both bellies and souls to the brim. Tuck into the signature Pork Mac & Cheese—doused in tangy barbeque and gouda bechamel and finished with house-smoked pork shoulder—or indulge in a pretzel roll Hay Bale Burger, topped with double-smoked bacon, onions, cheddar, and bourbon chipotle barbeque sauce.

Once you’ve finished your meal, continue to the back of the space for a nightcap in the Blue Tractor Beer Garden. Previously known as The Shed, the garden’s 10 picnic tables are serviced by a 1950’s Chevy “beer truck,” where guests can order drinks and snacks. Choose from one of the truck’s eight Michigan taps—or head back inside for a larger selection—before letting the food coma commence.

Mission Table
It’s with the former Stickney Estate on Old Mission Peninsula that Lobdell and Carlson come full circle. “We grew up on the Old Mission Peninsula,” says Carlson. “[The estate] was this mythical place with a ghost haunting it, and we wanted to keep both spaces going.”

You read that right—both spaces means there were two restaurants operating out of the 1920s mansion: Bowers Harbor Inn and The Bowery. The first was a fine-dining establishment primed for date nights, while the second served up a family-friendly menu and atmosphere.

In 2010, Bowers Harbor Inn became Mission Table. Today, the restaurant’s casually-upscale atmosphere combines the “white linen” elegance of its past with the seasonal spoils of local producers. Helmed by chef and managing partner, Paul Olson, Mission Table’s menu is known for its hand-crafted plates and farm-fresh components.

An onslaught of staffing issues, however—mostly due to COVID-19—has forced Mission Table to adjust. Instead of nightly dinner service, general manager and partner Jim DeMarsh is filling the dining room with private parties. “There are a lot of smaller weddings,” he says, “as well as birthdays and corporate events.”

Though the space remains utilized every day, the menu has also been reconfigured. “We’re capable of making anything the guest would like, but we do have a baseline for our clients to work with,” he says. Guests can choose from a range of selections, like the popular Crispy Cauliflower starter (served with smoked paprika and garlic aioli), as well as a seasonal freshwater fish, including whitefish, salmon, and lake trout.

While DeMarsh anticipates private parties will compose the bulk of immediate business, Lobdell and Carlson remain hopeful for a return to traditional service. “We are ready, and the place is ready,” Carlson says.

Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery
When you cross through Mission Table’s second-floor hall, you’ll find yourself in another world. Once J.W. Stickney’s carriage house, Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery (formerly The Bowery) opened in May 2009.

Featuring original ceiling timbers and a central, oft-lit fireplace, the restaurant’s rough-hewn accents and wooden seats makes for a distinctly old-world mood. “It’s very rustic,” says Lobdell. “We wanted to celebrate the history of the architecture.”

The pair also wanted to celebrate suds and ciders, as well as the talented makers they work with. As such, their rotating tap selection showcases North Peak Brewing beers; Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales (perhaps best known for their sours); Nomad ciders; and recently, Old Mission Beer Company libations. “It’s the only brewery on Old Mission Peninsula,” says Carlson.

In addition to ales and IPAs, Jolly Pumpkin’s artisan series offers plenty of sour selections. For summer, Carlson recommends the newly-released Aquamarine Dream. Fresh from five months in the barrel, this wild-fruited pastoral ale is brewed with bramble berries and lime for plenty of puckery-sour funk.

To accompany your favorite pour, the Pumpkin’s two craft kitchens crank out a dizzying array of beer-friendly fare, including the American Wagyu Beef Burger. Chefs top char-grill Wagyu beef with Wisconsin cheddar, arugula, tomato, and a smear of sriracha-spiked mayonnaise before serving on an Avalon Bakery bun. (Our suggestion: Upgrade your fries with truffle salt and rosemary.)

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