Best friends and business partners Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell met as kindergarteners at Old Mission Peninsula School. Together with fellow entrepreneur Chet Czaplicka, they have built a fleet of distinctive Michigan restaurants, including some pretty famous ones Up North.
Because of a shared love of architecture and a soft spot for underutilized and historic venues—including special places from their own childhood—they’ve successfully transformed nearly two dozen venerable buildings into gathering places where the local food, handcrafted brews and happy vibes are authentically of-the-moment. Read on for how their deep Northern roots flavor the good they bring to the world.
Featured in the March 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.
You have a cool business model that really works for you. Tell us how 2Mission (your Ann Arbor design and development firm), Mission Restaurant Group and Mission Management intertwine?
JC: We are partners in our restaurant projects. All the names have “mission” in them, for so many reasons, but of course because Greg and I grew up together on Old Mission Peninsula. We work on the construction, building and design. And we let those who have more expertise take the lead on the day-to-day kitchen operations and menus.
GL: Our passion is for all aspects of the restaurant: the atmosphere, how it feels, incredible food and service. So we partner with people who are our friends and care on that same level about the overall experience.
What do you tell people about growing up on Old Mission Peninsula?
GL: It starts with words like magical. Where we went to school and where we played, our classrooms with views of the bay and Power Island. It was a magical place to grow up. And still a magical place to call home. Both of our parents still live there.
How did your lifelong kinship begin?
JC: In 1975 we became friends at Old Mission Peninsula School, where we were, inexplicably, the Panthers [laughs].
GL: Our first entrepreneur adventure was picking cherries. We spent a few days, and took a cooler to the Cherry Festival parades, and walked around selling cups of cherries with my older sister. What attracted us to the food industry was being surrounded by the agriculture and the bounty of that little ecosystem.
Blue Tractor // 423 S Union St. // Photo by Jeff Atkins
Where did you guys eat in TC while growing up?
JC: I have great memories of J&S Hamburg and their malts.
GL: We would take our boat up the Boardman and dock there.
JC: And, as you know, Blue Tractor is in the former site of Dill’s Olde Towne Saloon. The Dill’s dancers—to us it was like Broadway in Northern Michigan.
GL: We were always fortunate to have Bowers Harbor Inn on Old Mission Peninsula, an icon of Northern Michigan. When we had the opportunity to buy it and preserve it, I would walk around and think, this place is so beautiful, right here in the pines, I can’t believe that we are part of taking care of this place.
North Peak Brewing Co. // 400 W Front St. // Photo courtesy of Mission Management
North Peak was your first restaurant. What was it like stepping inside that building before you refurbished it?
JC: It was an old candy factory, filled with pigeons—but we saw the beauty. We could look through that and see the old growth timber structure, the yellow-pink Chicago brick—a great site. That building started our passion for historic properties.
GL: We wanted to preserve what no one else would touch. It was so much work, maybe we were the only ones crazy enough…
Longevity in the restaurant world: is that more about you being nimble, sticking to your guns or great ideas?
JC: Yes [laughs]. Really, it’s working with really great people. There are some companies that are extremely top-down, and Greg and I don’t function that way. It’s not about ego—we are wrong as often as we are right. But we work together, and we empower our partners and staff.
Mission Table // 13512 Peninsula Dr. // Photo courtesy of Mission Table
Any Northern Michigan partners you are especially proud of right now?
JC: Chef Paul Olson at Mission Table, but not for what you think. He just won the Fat Chance Fat-Tire Bike Race at Crystal Mountain for Masters 45+.
GL: And he is an incredible talent, especially with the fresh produce sourcing he does.
And last, what’s next, what’s new?
JC: Nomad Cidery is expanding to a new location.
GL: John Kroupa, who is our Nomad Cidery partner and sixth generation Old Mission farmer, is working with us to move Nomad to historic Hoxie Farms on M-72. One at a time, we will bring all of the barns and outbuildings back to life.
JC: We were friends and classmates with John Kroupa growing up, and we are all inspired by one thing from our past: Underwood Farms. It was our Willie Wonka factory … we’d bike there and fill up on cider out of a barrel, have fresh donuts. All of those things we will create at Nomad.