Editor’s Note: George Boursaw (my husband Tim’s uncle) shares memories of working at the Old Mission Steak House and Art Shop in the 1950s. Owned by Jim and Fern Bryant at the time, the Steak House was located on what is now Ridgewood Road, about a half-mile past Haserot Beach on the left, before you head up the hill. The Steak House, which also included an art and antique shop, operated through the 1958 season. In 1959, the Bryants moved the restaurant to Bowers Harbor and, with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Moore, opened it anew as the Bowers Harbor Inn – now known as Mission Table. A fire destroyed the original Steak House – a two-story barn and stable later owned by Earl Wysong. A farmhouse is located there now. -jb
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Country bumpkin to … well, not quite Little Lord Fauntleroy, but quite a shock to a young teen. The Old Mission Steak House was my first job off the farm. The restaurant didn’t open until 5 p.m., so I would leave the cherry orchard, where I helped my dad (Garrett Boursaw) load the lugs onto the trailer in time to clean up and dress for work.
On the farm, it was blue jeans and a tattered tee shirt. Not the black dress pants, black dress shoes, long sleeved white shirt, white vest and black bow tie required at the Steak House. Luckily, it was a cheater tie.
But bigger than the change of dress was the culture shock. I went from working with a migrant crew of Mexican Americans speaking broken English to serving “High Society” – the resorters of Old Mission and the affluent from Traverse City.
When I started at the Steak House, the wait staff consisted of three other people: Terry Bryant, the owner’s son; Howard Wheelock, whose dad (Arthur Wheelock) was the hired man on the large fruit farm (“The Ridgewood”) just up the hill from the Steak House; and Steve Sobkowski, who lived in the village of Old Mission. Steve’s dad managed the Peninsula Fruit Exchange, which sold fertilizer and spray dope and bought fruit from the local growers. I was the outsider. Our farm was about four miles away (on the corner of Bluff Road and Boursaw Road).
The Steak House was located on a dirt road at the west end of Sweeney Lake (known now as Bagley Lake). The whole experience was a blessing, but strange – strange even before the first day of work. When I applied for a work permit, the lady asked me what my wages would be. I replied, “The waiters work for tips.”
She was reluctant to give me the permit, but did. That was a bit ironic. By then, my oldest brother, Tug, had two little ones and one on the way. I made more per hour than he did driving truck.
(Buy this photo at our sister site, OldMissionPhotos.com -jb)
Picking Out Your Steak at the Old Mission Steak House
Other than the culture shock, the job was easy. The customers went to the refrigerated steak case where a selection of raw steaks was displayed. Gay Mericle, a local girl who was in college, stood in her little office with a window overlooking the case. The customer selected his steak and was asked how he would like it cooked. If he said “medium rare,” Gay would select a small wooden marker that was labeled “medium rare.”
On one side of the marker she put the table number, and on the other side, the customer’s number. If it was table six for four, one side would have a six, the other side a four. The customer was told to remember the customer number. The table number was for the waiter.
When the steaks were ready, the chef and co-owner, Jim Bryant, hollered “Table six!” The appropriate waiter would take the steak to the table and announce the customer number. Frequently, the customer forgot the number, but could tell by the steak and how it was cooked whose it was.
Coffee and a Salad Bar
This was before the era of salad bars, but the Steak House had one. Jim’s wife, co-owner Fern, liked to drink coffee with visiting neighbors at her house, but didn’t like getting up to get another cup. So, at the end of each table in the restaurant was a small wooden holder. On the bottom was a small candle; above that was a small opening; and on the top was a ceramic coffee urn. Before the customers were seated at your table, the waiter would light the candle and set the urn on top of the opening. The coffee was kept warm, and the customer would pour his own coffee.
It was a steak house, so there weren’t a whole lot of choices. Along with the salad bar, you got a steak and a baked potato. If you wanted dessert, you had two choices: cherry tart or nothing. It was cherry country.
Math Teacher in Training
I have several isolated memories of the odd and peculiar. The waiters pooled their tips. At the end of the day, the tips were counted and divided by the number of waiters who worked that evening. On my first night, purposely picked to be not busy, there were only two other waiters. I shadowed one.
At the end of the night, Fern told me, “To be fair to the other two, we will give you one third, and the other boys will get will get one half of the rest, because they did more work.”
I pointed out, “Fine, but I get one third, which leaves two thirds. So, when they split that in two, we all get one third.” That may have been my first inkling to be a math teacher.
Even though I was young, I already had a big mouth and was prone to saying inappropriate things to big people. One day within her hearing range, I referred to her as “underbrush, not Fern.” That did not set well.
It’s Spicy Salad Dressing
Fern was of nimble mind. Once while introducing a new table of customers to the salad bar, she explained that there were two choices of salad dressings. Each were in a covered container on either side of the big bowl of salad. When she uncovered the French dressing, she noticed several drowned fruit flies.
Acting quickly before customers looked, she stirred it up, then told the customers that it was very spicy, and that’s why there were all those black dots. Not sure what the health department would have thought, but we were in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from Traverse City.
At some point, Fern had one-page flyers printed up that we were supposed to put on the table. They noted that your waiter’s name was George or whoever. Although we were assigned a table, we would frequently help each other. If the coffee pot was empty, we would replenish it. If the salad bar was running low on something, we would take it to the kitchen. The kitchen would fix a fresh bowl, and the waiter would take it back to the salad bar. And sometimes a cohort would help you deliver the steaks. So, the customer may very well have more than one waiter.
They’re Not Twins!
Because Terry and I both had black hair and deep tans, we looked somewhat alike. One time a customer asked if we were twins. Of course, we answered “Yes.” However, when the customer was leaving, he asked Fern why we did not have twin names. Fern was not amused, noting, “They are not twins!”
Terry was a talented artist. Interestingly, he wrote with his right hand, but drew with his left. He designed a flyer that said, “Your steak has not been touched by human hands. Our chef is Jim.” The message was accompanied by a wonderful drawing that was a caricature of an ape. Needless to say, it was not distributed. Jim was opposed to cooking steaks well done. If he got such an order, it was a good thing the customer could not see the look on his face.
Just Go Out Behind the Barn
Fern had a neat sense of humor. Terry was from a previous marriage, and his little brother was adopted. Fern was fond of telling friends that Jim was not Terry’s father, and she had no idea who was the father of her youngest son – all of this without explanation.
But even Fern had an occasional slip of the tongue. The building that was converted to the restaurant was located a short distance from the house. Apparently, before its life as a restaurant, they referred to the building as the barn. When the kitchen facility was added, a bathroom was also added off the dining room on the back of the building. During the first year of operation, a customer asked Fern, “Where is the restroom?” Inadvertently, she blurted out, “Oh, just go out behind the barn.” Talk about a faux pas.
They’re Olives, Not Cherries
One random lesson learned: look before you leap. One evening after closing, we were cleaning off the salad bar. As I was taking an item from the salad bar to the kitchen, I noticed a container sitting in the shadows. I assumed t was black sweet cherries, so I reached in to snitch one. Big mistake, it was a black olive. It definitely was not sweet. It was years before I tried my second black olive.
I also heard about, but did not witness, a young waiter delivering a steak to the table. He decided to be impressive and lift the plate with one hand above his shoulder. Unfortunately, the steak began to slide off the plate, so, he slapped the plate against the wall. The steak did not fall, but it was flattened, and steak juice ran down the wall. I assume the customer got a new steak.
My rather major mishap seemed to be the customer’s fault at the time. Of course, “at the time,” I was a young teen. Now in my mid-70s, I understand. As I was delivering sour cream for the baked potato to the end of the table, I tipped the container slightly and some sour cream dribbled on the back of a male diner’s chair as he was contently leaning forward to cut his steak.
I intended to say, “Excuse me, Sir, but don’t lean back. I spilled some sour cream on the back of your chair. Give me a minute, and I’ll wipe it up.” But as soon as I said, “Excuse me,” he leaned back and said, “What?” Of course, the sour cream was now on his sports coat. My bad.
The Mericles were the only siblings that worked for the Bryants. Gay’s little brother, Chris, was a fellow waiter and two grades behind me. Chris was a poised waiter. The Miracles were not farmers and had only recently moved to our area. Chris had a severe stutter that became noticeable towards the end of his shift as he grew more tired. But his smile and gracious style got him through.
Moving to Bowers Harbor
When the Steak House closed and moved to Bowers Harbor, Gay had moved on, and her sister Lucy inherited her job. Lucy was younger than Gay and older than Chris. The Bowers Harbor Inn (now known as Mission Table) was located in a large old mansion, known locally as the Stickney Place. Mrs. Stickney’s ghost is rumored to haunt the place.
The Inn was much larger that the Steak House, so the wait staff and customers increased. But the set up was much the same until the Inn got a liquor license. That left me and my original cohorts too young to work in the dining room where liquor was served, so we all moved on to something else.
A Ride Through Old Mission In an Antique Car
My fondest memory of the Old Mission Steak House was not at the Steak House and not during the usual evening hours of business. An antique car club had contacted Fern and asked if she could open the restaurant for a Saturday lunch to be attended by only members of the club. She agreed to their proposal.
It was the usual set up of salad bar, select your own steak, and cherry tart for dessert. They were a fun group to serve, but of course, a bit different with so many orders being put out so close together. As we attended to their needs, they were jovial and complimentary.
But when they cleared out and we started bussing the tables, the wait staff was flabbergasted. Some tables left no tip, and others only a small amount. We asked Fern, “Why?” She relieved our anxiety with her response: Any tip you get is above the 15 percent the club has already paid.
We were still sighing with relief, when a club member reappeared. He asked Fern if the boys could bus the tables later. They wanted to give the waiters a ride in their vintage autos. What a thrill! I climbed into the rumble seat of an impeccably restored antique, and the man and his wife gave me a tour of the village of Old Mission.
In the 1950’s, the village did not have paved streets – a flashback in time. It seemed so authentic to ride by the small houses on a dirt street in a vintage car. Now in the second decade of the 21st Century, some roads in the little village are still dirt roads.