Northern Michigan Dining: You might have eaten at Mabel’s Restaurant, but Jake Bright grew up there. He shares a poignant and memorable story of a place where lessons learned shaped his life
It's not on my resume, but my first job was as a dishwasher at 472 Munson Avenue. My first bosses were the owners, Mom and Dad. On Cherry Festival parade day, our busiest of the year, my family was always there, working the restaurant. As a 10-year-old that day, I was stacking clean plates and sorting silverware. I could hear the clang of Dad’s spatula on the egg grill and his firm voice giving orders down the line. I’d run platters to him, yelling “coming through!” (Dad always adding, “Thanks, buddy,” after each delivery.)
Peeking over the ticket window I could see Mom dashing around the full dining room, a line out the door. My next delivery would be to her, silverware and cups, passing through the doors that separated the front and back of the house. Mom would smile at me in my oversized apron and baseball cap before I’d head back to the dish room, my younger brother and sisters playing downstairs.
Busy days like that became the foundation for my family and Mabel’s restaurant. There was a potent harmony when it all worked. Everyone ate, owners and workers earned, employees and customers were happy. It required coordination of so many people and a special chemistry between Mom and Dad, who directed it as owners, husband and wife, and parents. Named after my maternal great-grandmother, Mabel’s would become a multi-award-winning locally owned restaurant. A landmark business and Traverse City staple for more than two decades. For our family, the restaurant became a second home, a way of life, and like another family member. I did not know it at 10 years old, but it would be the foundation for everything I’d do in life.
Any story of Mabel’s begins with my mom and dad, Greg and Carol Bright. They were natural leaders, dynamic and complex, both of whom ended up in the same place after unexpected detours their final years of high school. Mom’s narrative starts in the early 1960s in a Detroit orphanage. She was the oldest of three sisters, there alone after her two sisters were adopted to separate families. When she was eight years old my Grandpa Frank, a Chrysler engineer and son of Mabel Walter, took her home several days before Christmas. Mom would grow up in Bloomfield Hills where she was an A student, avid water skier, and member of the alpine ski team. Her final year of high school she was accepted and enrolled in Kalamazoo College, where she planned to study advertising and marketing.
Dad was born and raised in the Traverse City area. Most of his formative years were spent at our grandparents’ small farmhouse near Maple City. This is where Dad’s superman ability with outdoor and other sports was shaped. He rode horses, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes, and laid his foundation as an expert hunter and angler. Dad also became a star athlete, lettering in three sports: football, basketball, and track. He had a full track scholarship to run the 400-meter hurdles at Michigan State University, where he planned to become a chiropractor.
Greg did not make it to Michigan State and Carol did not make it to K College. Circumstances his senior year led Dad to pass up his scholarship and get a restaurant job. Circumstances Mom’s senior year led her to pass up K College and head north to the town her younger sister Mary had been adopted to, Traverse City.
After jobs in various restaurants Greg and Carol eventually met working in the Flap Jack Shack restaurant chain. By then some of the freewheeling 70s had worn off, and they each had two kids from short-lived marriages. They fell hard for each other, married, and became inseparable. Mom and Dad were deeply in love, best friends, and determined. Nothing was going to stop them from being together, building our family, or succeeding. They brought us four kids together as one family, became managers for Flap Jack Shack, and made a deal in their 20s to own the 472 Munson unit in a franchise arrangement.
During those early years we all practically lived at the restaurant. Dad put a shower, bed, TV, and playroom in the basement. Even on the worst winter days we’d be up as a family weekend mornings at 6, Mom and Dad loading us in the truck in full winter gear to go to the restaurant. Before we were old enough to go on the restaurant’s work schedule Dad would give us chores: arranging stock, cleaning employee bathrooms, stacking place mats.
Some hallmarks of Mabel’s were laid in those Flap Jack Shack years. First, Mom and Dad combined price point, fast service, consistency, and excellent food into a menu people loved and came back for. Second, they determined people did not like to be told what they could eat and when. At their restaurant you could order anything on the menu whenever you wanted. Finally, Mom and Dad frequently had more demand than space and ran their shop so a high volume of people could be seated and served quickly on any busy day. “Asses on seats, asses on seats,” Dad used to always say. Most important, Mom and Dad were fiercely loyal to their employees and clients, square with their vendors and partners, and absolutely committed to their business. For them success was the only end game; failure not an option.
Still, after several years of seven-day, 70- to 90-hour work weeks they realized that in their youth and inexperience they’d made a nearly impossible business deal. The deck was stacked heavily against their dream of buying out the franchise or making money for themselves. So in what I’ve always admired as my parents’ Houdini business move, they simultaneously plotted a way out of the arrangement and a way to open a new restaurant at the same location. They cut a deal with the property owner, separated themselves temporarily as a business unit (Mom absorbing the liability of the bad deal and Dad securing financing), and launched Mabel’s.
After shutting down for renovation, Mabel’s opened the doors in early 1990. The new restaurant was named and themed after great-grandma Mabel, our New Hampshire matriarch we’d been taking trips to visit for years. She was a Camp Fire Girls leader, master of folk handicrafts, and was active outdoors her entire life, slalom skiing on Lake Winnipesaukee until 88. Great-grandma’s photo, story, and folk art were added to the lobby, her recipes to the menu, and an in-house bakery with fresh bread and other baked goods to the kitchen. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner anytime” and “upscale dining without the upscale prices” became permanent Mabel’s slogans.
The new restaurant was a Traverse City hit. A loyal following developed, most of it driven by word of mouth. Many awards would come, including multiple People’s Choice Awards and Best Family Restaurant for a decade. Tourists were often told it was the authentic Traverse City place to go. This was a time when many of the chain restaurants came into town, so being locally owned and operated became one of Mom and Dad’s pride points.
Mabel’s meant so much to so many people over the years. People had first dates there, job interviews, birthdays, and anniversaries. Business associations, veteran’s organizations, and singles groups held events. Mom and Dad always supported the community, giving special terms to charities, churches, and Traverse City youth sports teams. We were frequently in the media and many celebrities came in: Bob Seger, Michael Moore, Senator Bob Kerry, Tim Allen, Bruce Willis, and Aretha Franklin after her Interlochen shows. Grandma Mabel became a bit of a folk celebrity in her own right. Customers started writing her letters and several even visited her in New Hampshire. Mabel’s made it on Oprah through one of its most popular waitresses, Dorothy Dunville, featured for her compassion to others in the workplace and apron decorated with customer pins from all over the world. Her apron also stashed home-baked cookies and lottery tickets to give back.
After years of backbreaking work, Mom and Dad were finally able to enjoy life, shift some management to a younger generation, take vacations, and spend more time with us and the grandkids that started to sprout up. They were noticed as two successful young business owners and courted by elements of Traverse City’s small upper society. They never really bought into it. After the eight or more hours a day spent with their family in full public view, they retreated back to the privacy of our South Long Lake Road home or Dad would go into the woods or waters to hunt or fish. Our non-restaurant circle was relatively small: grandparents, family, a handful of close friends and Dad’s hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and softball buddies. My parents did not have social ambitions beyond that.
Mom and Dad’s biggest community, where I think they had the most influence, was Mabel’s employees. In some scenarios they played the part of the owners and the people in charge. In others, they were friends and partners with their staff, always arranging shifts to git their schedules and never forgetting they started in those positions. They shared a healthy debate about management, including front-of-the-house versus back-of-the-house principles. Mom commanded the dining room floor with a smile on her face and a tempo few could keep up with. She believed in motivating people through example, positive feedback and warmth, always conscious the front was our face to customers.
In the back of the house, with no customers, 99 percent male staff (many with criminal records), and much more manual work, Dad had a slightly different approach. When he was in the kitchen it was like having the drill sergeant in the barracks. He accepted few excuses and was always the big man in charge with us at total attention. He’d often tell Mom that, unfortunately, a stern approach was the only thing he thought would work back there, all things considered.
Still, Mom and Dad were the most equal opportunity, meritocracy-oriented owners you could find. They did not care where you were from or what your orientation was. If you showed initiative they’d hire you, and if you produced they rewarded you. At the time, that open philosophy made Mabel’s something of an island of diversity in a community that was 98 percent Caucasian. Asians, blacks, hispanics, gays, and lesbians all worked there. And if you had a bad patch in your life, even a felony, you’d still get a chance. My brother and I used to joke that having a criminal record was not an application detractor, rather a requirement for the kitchen. Mom and Dad even offered managers—some of whom had never graduated from high school—health care and 401(K)’s.
My parents also frequently had employees in our home at backyard barbecues or their basement parties, where Dad’s Joe Walsh and Aerosmith would meet Mom’s Stevie Wonder and Motown. And they always went all out on the annual Christmas party, where employee of the year was awarded and a gift often given to someone on staff most in need.
I realize now our parents’ role at Mabel’s went far beyond bosses and business. Employees frequently went to them not just for professional advice, but also for help with personal and family issues and finances beyond their wages. They knew most of Traverse City’s judges after helping so many employees out of jail on work release. There were numerous people they raised up professionally since early teens to become protégées, managers and unofficial family.
Mabel’s became multi-generational, many longtime staff eventually working alongside their kids. That started with my siblings and me. My brother and I started taking shifts at age 10, our two sisters at 12. To this day I consider busy days at Mabel’s with Mom and Dad one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had. We learned how to work under pressure and solve problems quickly. We learned accountability and pride in work, and how little a negative attitude helps any demanding situation.
When I was 14 and would squabble with Mom over cleaning the customer bathrooms she would always give her toilet lecture, “I tell all my employees, ‘if you can scrub a toilet with pride you’ll be able to do any job the rest of your life with pride.’” It took me years to get it, but I eventually did. Over two decades dozens upon dozens of teenagers worked under my parents at Mabel’s and heard similar axioms. This included nearly every one of my friends, my siblings’ friends, kids of family friends, and so many others who just walked in and filled out an application.
Of course, it was not work all the time. We had our fair share of restaurant shenanigans and fun, mostly when Dad was not there. Loads of kitchen jokes and banter. My brother and I spiraling cheese squares from the back lot, over the building, and onto cars on Munson Avenue. Employee bloopers, like when young busboy Ricardo put “Open 25 hours” on the Munson Avenue weekend sign, explaining “I ran out of 4s,” when asked why.
Eventually, of course, I grew up and launched into the world, but the restaurant remained central to my identity. I’ve always had photos of it and a description anywhere I’ve gone. No matter where I went in the world, the Ivy League, West Africa, the White House, or Wall Street, I could always call the main number to connect to Mom, Dad, family and the place that helped get me there. And although I’d graduated from stacking platters and cleaning toilets, the principles I learned working for Mom and Dad at Mabel’s applied to anything.
With Dad’s passing in 2005 Mabel’s had some tough years. Understandably, the restaurant has not worked so well for Mom, given she lost her husband, best friend, and business partner. Somehow, miraculously, my youngest sister and brother-in-law were able to keep 472 Munson humming along until closing the doors two days before Christmas 2011.
There’s been a lot of time to reflect on Mabel’s and what it’s meant. I realize how much more a small business is than just business to a small town. Mabel’s supported a team of 40-plus employees and their families, gave back to community, and made customers happy for more than two decades. I am appreciative and proud of what my parents did with Mabel’s, how they did it, and what that’s meant to me, my family, and Traverse City. To Mom, Dad and Mabel’s legacy, I know in my own way I’ll always be open 25 hours and scrubbing toilets with pride wherever I go.