December 9, 2018

The Buck is Back

Gaylord’s Big Buck Brewery reopens, refreshed and ready to impress, under new ownership
By Janice Binkert | Nov. 17, 2018

Outdoor sports are a huge draw for both locals and visitors in the area around Gaylord, including golfing, fishing, boating, swimming and skiing, as well as snowmobiling and hunting. The ubiquitousness of the latter pursuit no doubt influenced the naming and logo of the Big Buck Brewery and Steakhouse when it launched in Gaylord over 20 years ago. And it wasn’t only sports enthusiasts who mourned the end of an era when the popular venue closed its doors in 2017. But happiness (and customers) returned last month after a large sign went up behind the restaurant at exit 282 on I-75, announcing “The Buck is Back.”
 
New owners Shawn and Cathy Smalley have big plans for the future of the Big Buck Brewery (they dropped “Steakhouse” from the name), which they purchased early in 2018, and then spent several months renovating, refreshing, and rebranding before reopening at the beginning of October.

“The building needed a lot of TLC and a considerable investment in new equipment, both for the restaurant and the brewery,” said Shawn. “We took our time, because we wanted everything to be perfect. Of course, we know that it will never be 100 percent perfect, but we want to make sure that we’ve thought things through before we do something, because as a customer, once you get an impression, whether good or bad, that’s what you’re going to remember.”
 
GOOD CHEMISTRY
Shawn grew up in Plainwell, and Cathy is originally from Gaylord. They met as students at Michigan Tech (he has degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering, and she in environmental engineering). Although neither of them has any experience in the craft beer or restaurant industries, home brewing was an early hobby for them.

“Once you get married, have children, and get into your career, you stop doing it,” said Shawn, “but the interest was still there. The idea of one day being our own bosses and working together was always in the back of our minds.”
 
Over the years, while living abroad for seven years and most recently in Ann Arbor, various opportunities had come to them, but for one reason or another, they didn’t leap.

“And then this opportunity presented itself, and it seemed like the right one,” said Shawn. “We had vacationed here in Gaylord often, and we loved the area, but I think the lure this time was the brewery — it just happened to have a 327-seat restaurant attached to it! And we’re also licensed as a winery and a distillery, so we can do all three … that was it for me. As a chemist and a chemical engineer, I feel there’s kind of a connection there.”

Cathy agreed, smiling: “He’d actually like to be a brewer.” Shawn laughed and admitted, “Yes, I like to get in there and see what’s going on!”
 
Right now, head brewer Doug Mehl is producing more than a dozen different beers, including several ales, a pilsner, a lager, a Belgian wheat, and two stouts, incorporating hops from Williamsburg and Elmira. Big Buck is also already making two wines in house (a red blend and a white blend), as well as two ciders and three sodas (cream soda, root beer, and black cherry soda).

“We haven’t done anything on the distillery side yet,” said Shawn, “but that’s in our future plans, too. And when we do, I’ll take on a stronger role there.”
 
The Smalleys are very involved in Big Buck’s day-to-day operations, each wearing a multitude of hats. Their years in the corporate world taught them necessity of having the right processes in place. “Coming up with a standardized process and finding the right people to give you input and work with you is crucial,” said Shawn. “And we’ve been very lucky in that respect — we have a great staff.”
 
BIG TIME
As the brewery’s website shows, the Smalleys also have a great sense of humor: “With a name like Big Buck, you know what you’ll find here. Big brews, big tastes, big stuffed heads on the wall, and a big, friendly Northern Michigan attitude.”

Indeed, “big” is an apt description for everything about this place. It starts outside the building with a giant grain silo posing as a Big Buck beer bottle. Inside, a grand entrance hallway is flanked by life-sized carvings of bears and lit by a huge, multi-tiered antler chandelier. This space opens up to a sprawling dining room with a soaring post-and-beam vaulted ceiling and massive stonework pillars. Generously sized, cushioned bentwood chairs slide up to heavy lacquered wood dining tables arranged on the polished concrete floor. Elevated slightly from the main level and illuminated by yet another huge antler chandelier, the bar — a 360-degree expanse of black granite — boasts an impressive, custom-carved mahogany surround that, upon closer inspection, reveals all manner of woodland creatures.

Beyond it all, visible from every angle, looms the massive brewing room with its huge gleaming copper-and-stainless steel fermentation tanks.  And yet, despite its imposing scale, the interior of Big Buck still feels cozy. And Cathy wants to make it even cozier. “I envision a big stone fireplace in here — that’s what I want Santa Claus to bring me,” she said. “I just feel like this space lends itself to having one.”
 
The food menu is also big (read: both extensive and large-format). “It has totally changed from the former version, and we think our guests will find it includes something for everyone,” said Shawn. “We set some guidelines when we were developing it — we wanted to have unique, fresh items — and then our executive chef, Randy Troy, and his crew took off from there. We try to use Michigan products as much as possible, and they are represented in many of the dishes we serve.”
 
MICHIGAN-CENTRIC
The very first item on the menu is Pierogies (the potato and cheese variety from Srodek’s in Hamtramck, topped with grilled onion, bacon, and melted Cheddar Jack.) “Cathy has a Polish background, so we wanted to acknowledge that,” said Shawn. The house-smoked Sausage Duo features sauerkraut from The Brinery in Ann Arbor (along with sautéed Brussels sprouts leaves, spicy mustard and marbled rye).

Plath’s meats in Rogers City (“They’ve been around for 106 years,” notes Shawn) provides pork chops, bacon, and other pork products to the restaurant, and all seven Big Buck burgers are made with Michigan Craft Beef — a non-GMO, antibiotic- and hormone-free blend of ground chuck, brisket and short rib from Moraine Park Farms in Zeeland and Ontonagon. One rather unusual entry in that category, which Cathy insists is delicious and has many fans, is the Asian Pacific burger (with peanut butter and kimchi). Venison from the Big Rapids area is also featured as a burger, and is one of the key ingredients in Buck Wild Chili (topped with cheese and fried pearl onions).
 
One of the top picks in the entrées section is the Blackened Lake Huron Steelhead (with fresh mango salsa, grilled vegetables, and wild rice). “And what has surprised me is the popularity of our ribeye, and our steaks in general, which are all hand-trimmed and hand-cut here,” said Shawn. Recently, Big Buck added a weekly prime rib special as well. 
 
“Pizza has been very, very big for us, too,” he added (a new double-decker brick pizza oven was part of the kitchen remodel). “We incorporate our Red Bird Ale into the crust, which is house-made and hand-tossed.” Beer also makes its way into the cheese dip for the restaurant’s Bavarian pretzels. And should you choose blue cheese or ranch dressing to top one of the menu’s eight substantial salads, they also incorporate beer. The Antipasto salad (romaine, salami, ham, fresh mozzarella, banana peppers, black olives, tomatoes, fire-roasted artichokes and red onion) is a customer favorite.
 
In the month and a half that they’ve been open, the Smalleys said weekday lunches and dinners have had good crowds, and the weekends have been fantastic. “We’ve gotten very positive feedback from both locals and former customers from elsewhere, telling us ‘We’re so glad this place is open again!’ They love the new menu, and they really love the beer, too.” Looks like the Big Buck really is back, and better than ever.
 
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Big Buck can accommodate large groups easily — and also large vehicles. The main parking lot off Wisconsin Avenue is enormous and easily accessible — a plus for those who may be pulling a trailer or a large boat. The additional side parking lot is handy for snowmobilers in winter — the snowmobile trail runs right between Big Buck and I-75. There’s also a seasonal deck outside that seats 150. “Because we’re so close to the expressway, we will get visitors coming to the area year-round, but we also want to cater to the locals, so our price point is very good. We get families and others who appreciate that fact — on Friday nights in particular, we’ve been filled with families ever since we’ve been open.”
 
The Big Buck Brewery is located at 550 S. Wisconsin Ave. in Gaylord. (989) 448-7072, www.bigbuckbrewery.com.
 
OFF THE RACK
Shawn Smalley remembers with a smile how when they first took over the brewery, they found a mounted deer head lying in one corner amidst a bunch of piled up chairs. “One of the horns had broken off, and our son was examining it. All of a sudden, he said, ‘This is just perfect — we have to use racks for our beer flights!’ Then he grabbed his phone and called my dad, Jim, who is a talented woodworker, and he said, ‘I have this idea, Grandpa — but where can we get the deer horns?’ And Dad said, ‘Well, you have one, so I can make a prototype.’ Since then, the rest of the horns have come from friends that have a deer farm. They were all drops — the deer shed their antlers naturally every year. Eventually, Dad made 24 racks, and each one is unique — no two are the same.”

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