BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY – The era ended in late February when TraVino Traverse Wine & Grille closed its doors, decades after Howard Schelde got his first taste of Traverse City in 1973.
“We were living in Grand Rapids, and I came to Traverse City to purchase that property on Munson and get the first building built,” said Schelde, 75. “And quite frankly, I couldn’t leave.
“I called my wife in Grand Rapids and said, ‘Hey, guess what, we want to raise our kids up here.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
He also raised a restaurant empire. Starting with a Mr. Steak (now Schelde’s) on Munson Ave., Schelde and downstate business partner Robert Kowalewski went on to open and provide management services for a stable of restaurants in Michigan.
Some say the Traverse City properties raised the bar for dining here and paved the way for what became a regional foodie haven.
“He was one of the pioneers of fine dining,” said Hal Van Sumeren, retired president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. “Way back then … Traverse City didn’t have nearly the reputation it does today as a foodie establishment.
“He really kind of opened that door.”
Started with one
Schelde grew up in Chicago in a family that was involved in the food business. After high school, Schelde entered the military and then went on to college. He became a sales representative for Armstrong floor covering in Omaha, Neb. That’s where he discovered Mr. Steak, a new restaurant chain.
When he learned a franchise was for sale in Grand Rapids, near the then-under-construction Woodland Mall, he went for it. In 1968, he formed a business partnership with Kowalewsky, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
Schelde Enterprises went on to open five Mr. Steak locations in Grand Rapids. Meanwhile, Schelde met Ray Dutmers, president of Grand Rapids-based Spartan Stores. His cousin was Jay Dutmers, longtime chairman and CEO of Empire National Bank in Traverse City.
“Ray said, ‘Have you ever been to Traverse City? You should put a Mr. Steak in Traverse City. It’s really growing,” Schelde said. “I met Jay Dutmers at Empire Bank, when he was still president, and … was able to negotiate a loan with him.”
Financing in hand, Schelde bought the Munson Ave. property and opened Mr. Steak in 1974. Bowers Harbor Inn and The Bowery came next.
His wife and three daughters relocated to Traverse City. And Schelde Enterprises kept expanding. They opened a Mr. Steak in Petoskey that eventually became a Schelde’s and has since been razed to make way for a Walgreens. In Traverse City, they opened The Wanigan, forerunner of Auntie Pasta's, and in Leland, The Cove. Schelde's also formed a management company and contracted services to the Carlson group, eventual purchasers of Bowers Harbor Inn, now Mission Table.
“We developed with them a brew pub concept down in Ann Arbor – Grizzly Peak,” Schelde said. “We also did North Peak (in Traverse City) with them, although we were a partner with North Peak up until probably three to four years ago.
Schelde Enterprises also debuted Freshwater Lodge in Greilickville. TraVino opened 10 years ago.
The original Traverse City Mr. Steak-turned Schelde’s was purchased by the Scheldes’ daughter and her husband, Kris and Mike Trubac, about 18 months ago.
“I look at this as an opportunity to continue the great name that he’s built over the last 40 years,” said Mike Trubac.
Schelde said one of the highlights of his career has been watching others take flight in the restaurant business.
“There’s an awful lot of people around Traverse City that started their careers with us in the food business,” he said.
Notable among them are Fred Moore, Mary Palmer and Jim Cartwright, former Schelde employees who have built the Magnum Hospitality group of restaurants that include Red Mesa Grills in Traverse City and Boyne City, Pearl’s in Elk Rapids and Café Sante in Boyne City.
“They were both awesome — both Bob and Howard,” Palmer said. “They would always take us on research, we would travel around the United States eating at restaurants and we’d come back and develop menus and décor and atmosphere.
“They would come in and guide you, but also let you do your thing.”
Employees were as surprised as anyone when the doors closed unexpectedly at TraVino in late February. The restaurant had a great reputation and following, but Schelde said he’d been trying to sell it.
“Maryanne is my boss — my wife. She’s the one that said it’s time to spend more time with our kids and our grandchildren,” Schelde said. “We were in the process of actually selling our restaurants off the last couple of years and trying to wind down.
“We had been negotiating for quite some time with a party on the sale of TraVino, but it failed to materialize, so we made a business decision and said we’re going to close it.”
The property is for sale. Some of TraVino’s approximately 30 employees, of whom just a few were full-time, have been hired by the Trubacs at Schelde’s on Munson Ave.
“We’re trying to do what we can to absorb and keep some of them working,” Trubac said.
The Trubacs are set to begin renovations after Easter. Schelde's main dining room will close, but the tavern will remain open during remodeling.
In the meantime, Howard Schelde is ready to move on with next phase of his life.
“We’ve enjoyed our years in the hospitality business, and there were a lot of great people that made it all happen,” Schelde said. “We had a good run.”