Editor's note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle's Rise special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan's economic engine click here to read Rise in its entirety online.
THOMPSONVILLE — Before, during and after the coronavirus, Eugene “Geno” Allen’s recipe for success in the restaurant business has been simple — you start with good people.
“You want workers with integrity and character,” Allen said just days before COVID-19 took hostage of the entire world. “We can teach a person how to be a waitress, or a cook, but it all starts with integrity and character.
“I want them to be honest, and hardworking. Me? I want character.”
Good food is a good thing to have, too, he said with his characteristic buoyant laugh.
As owner of Geno’s Sports Bar and Grill in Thompsonville, 14848 Thompson Avenue — a slumbering hamlet in Benzie County with a 2010 population of 441, which is about the same as the student enrollment at Benzie Central High School, Allen said he is happy to return to the little town he grew up in.
“Not a lot of people here,” he said, “but they are good people. I enjoy coming out (from behind the counter and the kitchen) to sit down and talk with them. Everybody’s your friend, here.”
Like many family restaurants in the area, Allen has — over the years — tinkered with his menu here and there to the point his restaurant has gained a widespread appreciation for its excellence. And, as it is at other small restaurants, every day brings a different special to be served.
And if there’s one special — one day — that stands out from the others for Allen and his staff it just might be Thursdays when he serves his mother’s secret recipe Lucille’s St. Louis style ribs.
“During our busy season I might do 40 to 50 racks of ribs at a time. People come from all over to get ‘em,” he said.
Pushed to divulge his mother’s “secret ingredient,” he just smiled — again.
“I use a little of this and a little of that,” Allen said. “Then I put in a little jug of this, and a little jug of that. I do all this after everyone has left for the night, even my employees. (Mother’s secret) is going to stay a secret.”
Beside burgers, wraps and a menu filled with other lunch and dinner entrees, Allen and his staff also serves a pizza that draws customers from far and wide.
During the coronavirus, and since reopening to 50 percent capacity as mandated by the governor’s restrictive executive order, Allen did his best to stay positive and to keep his grill afire.
“We did a lot of curbside serving during the shutdown,” he said. “And we delivered a lot. We delivered as far as Frankfort and Buckley. Each week, we’re getting better. So far, it’s good.”
Before moving back to Thompsonville, the small community he always has called home, Allen moved to Detroit for 28 years where he worked in an engine factory.
“At first, it was a little bit trying going from here, to down there — for the simple fact of the traffic and not knowing how to get from one place, to the next,” Allen said. “Back then we didn’t have GPS, so you had to try and look at a map while driving down the road.
“Then, after moving back, I’d been so used to dealing with the traffic where everyone tailgates, I found myself tailgating up here for the first year, or so — different style, altogether.”
While the natural rule of order in business is one of competition, Allen said he believes in supporting each other — especially local businesses.
“I go to Rosie’s (Country Cafe) for breakfast, that’s just on the other side of town,” he said.
“Or I’ll go to the Bear Claw (Cafe), in Copemish. When in Traverse City, I like to eat at the Red Lobster.”
For Allen, living in a small, peaceful community like Thompsonville, where three cars and a moped can make for a traffic jam, peace of mind and trust in your neighbors, is important.
“Love it here,” he said, smiling. “It’s a great place to live.”
For more information go to genossportsgrill.com, or call 231 378-2554.
Rounds Restaurant owner Kevin Whiting echoed Allen’s thoughts that employees make all the difference for a business.
“It’s the same with our staff,” said Whiting, whose restaurant at 1033 E. 8th Street in Traverse City specializes in breakfast. “We have one waitress who’s been with us for 38 years, that’s what it’s all about. Gotta’ have quality people.”
Laughing, he said “... you know, we’ve been around 75 years — well just over 74 — and we’re still here because we do things the right way, the old-fashioned way.”
“We believe if you’re going to serve the best, you buy the best,” he said. “We buy and work with only the best possible products we can. And we don’t worry about the ‘tourist season,’ because 35 percent of our customers, or more, are regulars — they’re here day after day.”
Pausing, he added, “... but we do tend to feel it when our regulars become snowbirds and they leave for a while.”
Whiting said it’s what those regular customers tell others, that is key to keeping his tables filled with hungry customers.
“We got our reputation by what they tell others,” he said.“We closed down for about a month or so (during the shutdown) and we did some renovation. Then, we opened up for take-out. But since reopening, we’ve been doing really great.”
For more information on Rounds Restaurant visit Facebook or call 231 941-4124.
Mike Nygren, owner of the Iron Skillet, 524 S. Williams St. in Mancelona, also said just before the coronavirus curtain was pulled tight on his business, “... having someone working for you who is outgoing and friendly, is important.”
“I’ve been around some businesses where people don’t value their employees, and I don’t like that, I disagree with that. If you have good people working for you, you’re going to draw good customers, especially in our area where everyone knows everyone. I believe that 100 percent. I try to take care of my employees.”
“We enjoy taking old standards and putting our own spin on them. We make our corned beef hash from scratch. We use our smoked brisket, a lot. We definitely don’t serve food you can find in your old-style diner.”
Another plus factor for running a successful business, he said, is: location, location, location.
“We’re fortunate to be located where we are,” said Nygren, whose business also has reopened to hungry, happy customers. “US-131 is a busy corridor, and we’re busy.”
For more information go to ironskilletmancelona, or call 231 587-9778.