Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine's Fall 2018 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.
HONOR — Rocking ‘n rolling in the hills of Benzie County is a happy days eatery that offers Chantilly lace splendor.
The walls are decorated with 1950s poodle skirts, knitted varsity sweaters, faded black-and-white class pictures, 45 RPM records and colorful neon lighting. Papa J’s Pizzeria and Diner is a mom-and-pop business operated with an old-school work ethic — and the owners set the standard.
Located at 10583 Main Street — U.S. 31, the restaurant is owned by Ron and Debbie Hurd. In business for more than three decades, Papa J’s employs about 40 workers in the summer, 30 during winter.
“I’ve gotten up on the roof to fix the air conditioner, and down on my knees to clean the floor,” said Ron. “I cook, and I’ve washed dishes. We do everything we ask our employees to do.”
The owners took a brief break from their Saturday morning work shift. Debbie smiled and waved at customers, many whom she has known by first name for years.
“The concerns we usually have are having enough business to maintain through the winter, having enough staff, and most of all, maintaining consistency of service and the product we serve,” she said.
Of the restaurant’s three full meal menus — breakfast, lunch and dinner — it’s the morning list that most closely reflects the ‘50s image.
Among the choices patrons can order are a “57 Chevy” — two eggs, potatoes, toast, meat and choice of a biscuit or pancakes. Or the “Mustang” — biscuits and gravy. Or the “GTO” — corned beef hash with two eggs, toast, and a biscuit or pancakes.
Spread out over a black-and-white checkerboard floor are dozens of sparkling red-and-silver tables, chairs and booths can seat at total of 98 patrons.
“The joys of this business are, first of all, that we love serving food,” said Debbie. “We take pride in consistency and quality.
“We love our locals, know them by name, have seen many pass on. We worry about a few if they stop coming in and feel its important that we stay open — not everyone leaves town in the winter.
“The ‘50s theme was started because we enjoy the era,” she said. “We were born in the ‘50s and grew up in the ‘60s. It happens to be a fun theme for us and customers seem to enjoy it.
“We have had many customers come in and take pictures with the cardboard stand ups — Elvis and Marilyn Monroe — we have around the restaurant, borrowed items for a class reunion or events they’re having, or just see them singing to music we’re playing.”
Seated on the other side of the restaurant are longtime local residents Ken and Pat Williams. Several years ago Pat donated her 5-button, pale green Honor High School varsity sweater, which she earned for chorus, to the restaurant for display, as well as her Class of ‘58 graduation picture.
“We come in maybe four or five times a week and we never know who we’re going to run into,” said Pat.
Local resident John Stinebaugh, who was seated with the Williams, said he’s been a regular at the Honor restaurant for years, too
“Good people, good food,” said Stinebaugh. “I like everything about it.”
Small town atmosphere
It’s that 1950’s Small Town, U.S.A., peaceful living style, Debbie said, that keeps people “... tied to the area.”
Benzie County, at about 320 square miles, is Michigan’s smallest county. A person would be hard-pressed to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic — it has just one stoplight.
“We have five employees that have been with us 10 years and four employees (who have been with us) between five and seven years,” said Debbie. “We have made local community relationships and being open year round, we have no layoffs. We employ teenagers in summer, which in a lot of cases, is their first job.”
The Hurds’ grandson, Alex Hurd, manages the restaurant.
“Family and friends, that’s what it’s all about,” said Ron.
“Every Thanksgiving we put on a free dinner (for anyone and everyone).
“After a few years, people kept saying they wanted to pay for their meal — we said, ‘no.’ So we ended up putting up a Santa boot that if people want to, they can put a donation in. We then take that money and buy Toys for Tots. “It’s a community thing, a community celebration, that we all look forward to, every year,” said Ron.
Before excusing himself so he could return to the kitchen to continue making breakfast requests for his customers, Ron talked briefly about what it takes to keep a small family business going, year after year.
“If you have to get up on the roof, you get up on the roof,” he said. “You cook, you clean, and then you do it all again. But, it’s been great.”
More information is available at papajspizzeria.com.