439 West Front Street, the "Restaurant Incubator"
Jan. 16, 2014
It might be the most auspicious 350 square feet of restaurant real estate in Traverse City.
The tiny building owned by David Skinner at 439 East Front Street – overlooking the Boardman River, a few doors west of Paesano's Pizza – has helped launch some of the region's most notable culinary restaurants and names.
At first glance, the facility appears to have none of the proven ingredients of a traditional industry model: It can sit only 16 customers (making it ineligible for a liquor license), is bound by code restrictions, and comes saddled with aging amenities and a cantankerous kitchen hood.
Yet in spite of those challenges – or perhaps because of them – 439 East Front has been a proven incubator for talented chefs looking to make a name in Traverse City.
The building's most recent (and renowned) streak of winners began in January 2005. Eric Fritch, a Seattle Culinary Academy graduate, opened French bistro Patisserie Amie in the building after previous resident Left Bank Cafe decamped for a new location on Park Street (Left Bank has since closed).
Word about the restaurant soon spread, with Patisserie Amie attracting lines out the door most nights. When a larger space on Lake Street became available in early 2008, Fritch seized it. The eatery has thrived there ever since and spawned an upscale sister dinner bistro, Chez Peres.
Fritch's departure from Front Street paved the way for two seasoned Las Vegas chefs to enter the scene. Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson, returning to Blakeslee's northern Michigan after cooking together for years at the Michelin restaurant André’s in Nevada, “loved the size” of the building and set about introducing their farm-to-table, sustainable menu to TC foodies in spring 2008 under the name The Cooks' House.
“The overhead was so low there,” says Patterson, who estimates rent at the time was $800 a month (a figure repeated by other tenants). “We started with less than $2,000 in the bank, which is insane for a new restaurant. But you could make it work there. We could've never opened in a bigger space.”
The Cooks' House, like Patisserie Amie and other area restaurants before it, allowed customers to BYOB for its first year under the state's sometimes haphazard alcohol regulations. When the city eventually cracked down on the practice – “that almost killed our business,” says Blakeslee – the duo knew they'd have to move on.
“We had opened Wellington Market (a specialty store around the corner on Wellington Street) specifically to hold down that building,” says Blakeslee. In fall 2010, the owners moved their restaurant operations there.
The Cooks' House was quickly followed at 439 Front by 9 Bean Rows, a bakery owned by Nic and Jen Welty that had been attracting a large farmer's market following with its homemade goods since 2008. Like the restaurants before (and after) it, 9 Bean Rows benefited from the the reputation of preceding tenants in the building.
“That whole first year, people came in looking for The Cooks' House,” says Jen. “Many of them decided to give us a try.” Enough customers – either looking for a former eatery or coming in specifically for 9 Bean Rows – visited the building that at the end of 2012, the Weltys were able to expand to a 70-seat facility in Suttons Bay.
9 Bean Row's relocation ushered in the most current link in the chain at 439 Front. In early 2013, former The Boathouse chef Anthony Craig opened Latin-Asian fusion taquiera Georgina's in the building. Craig, whose flavorful ethnic dishes connected immediately with customers, calls the location “blessed.”
“Without this spot, all those restaurants (that were here) don't have what they have now,” says Craig. Like those restaurants, Georgina's already has one eye on the future: Craig is in talks with investors to open a bigger lunch and dinner establishment elsewhere in the region, building off the momentum of his successful first year.
“I love it here, though” he adds with a grin, gesturing around the small building. “My goal is to have two locations, and to keep this for a breakfast spot. It's personal here. There's something special about this spot.”