How Traverse City Became a Foodie Town
Feb. 17, 2014
What a difference a decade makes.
In the last 10 years, the Grand Traverse region has experienced a rapid, transformative shift as the area's once-hidden charms have come front and center into the national spotlight. While visitors – nearly 3.3 million in 2012, a growth rate of 4.5 percent every year since 2006 – still come to experience our beaches, trails, hills and resorts, increasingly they're flocking to Traverse City with other destinations in mind.
Namely: restaurants, wineries, breweries and distilleries.
In a recent survey completed by marketing research firm Avenue ISR for Traverse City Tourism, visitors cited wineries and breweries more often than any other factor as a “primary reason” why they chose to come to Traverse City. It's difficult to imagine that same result being possible ten years ago. The nearly 50 existing or planned wineries in the region today numbered less than 20 back then. Craft beer was a mostly conceptual blip on the radar (a little place called Short's Brewery had just opened in Bellaire). And distilleries were non-existent – Grand Traverse Distillery, Civilized Spirits, Traverse City Whiskey Company and Northern Latitudes were all still years away from opening.
Of course, it's not just beverage companies that have seen explosive growth in the past decade, or are generating tourism business for Traverse City. According to Traverse City Tourism President and CEO Brad Van Dommelen, the people that come here to “enjoy our wineries and microbreweries are also people that enjoy a quality restaurant experience.”
“The combination of (all these businesses) truly adds to the visitor experience,” says Van Dommelen. “We consistently hear great comments from visitors that appreciate the quality and diversity of our restaurants, (who say) that the experience found in Traverse City is equal to that found in any major city across the U.S.”
National media outlets agree. Traverse City has earned press accolades and shout-outs in recent years for being everything from one of “America's Favorite Towns” (Travel + Leisure Magazine, October 2013) to having one of the country's “10 Great Streets” (Front Street – American Planning Association, October 2009) to being the “Most Beautiful Place in America” (Sleeping Bear Dunes – Good Morning America, August 2011).
But more and more, the area's bountiful agricultural and culinary amenities are stealing the show. Here's just a sampling of the praise lavished recently on the region by foodie critics around the country:
• “Traverse City, Michigan, is an exploding food destination, with especially excellent farm-to-table cuisine.” -USA Today, July 2013
• “If you're heading to Michigan's most food-focused city this summer, you're in for a treat. Whether your tastes run to beer and burgers or destination restaurants, you'll find hundreds of dining choices in Traverse City and the many smaller towns and villages nearby.” -Detroit Free Press, June 2013
• “Almost overnight, it seems, Traverse City has acquired a reputation as one of the country’s up-and-coming 'foodie towns.' Traverse City cuisine is an eclectic, relatively recent movement that borrows freely from other regional styles and relies heavily on imagination, boldness and spunk. But if it has one defining characteristic, that would be a generous use of fresh ingredients from nearby farms, forests, waters and orchards.” -Pure Michigan
• “Attention, traveling foodies: Something yummy is happening in the Traverse City area. Long a top Midwestern draw for its lakes, rivers, forests, and beaches...Traverse City is now home to an increasingly varied and sophisticated culinary culture with a strong emphasis on local ingredients.” -The Huffington Post, April 2010
• "What you're seeing up (in Traverse City) is a renaissance, the rise of a gastronomic subculture that makes it a fascinating place to be." -Celebrity chef Mario Batali
• “Known as the Cherry Capital of the World, the Lake Michigan resort town of Traverse City does a pretty good job with other foods, too...with plenty of award-winning restaurants, wineries, farmers markets and dairies.” -Livability.com in April 2010, listing Traverse City as its number-one choice on its list of Top 10 Surprising Foodie Towns
• Traverse City has also earned a spot on several other national “best-of” lists, including: America's Top 5 Foodie Towns (Bon Appetit, September 2010), 3 Emerging Beer Towns (Draft Magazine, 2012), Top 10 Places to Enjoy Local Wines (USA Today, October 2010), America's Top 10 Wine Destinations (TripAdvisor.com, October 2009) and Midwest's Five Top Food Towns (Midwest Living, 2009 and 2010).
Numerous factors aligned in the last decade to create this perfect storm of culinary notoriety. For one, Traverse City's cultural, entertainment and nightlife scene significantly expanded, ratcheting up the community's reputation as a must-visit destination and infusing new demand for dining and drinking in the process. The Traverse City Film Festival, TC Winter Comedy Arts Festival, TC Microbrew & Music Festival, State Theatre and Bijou by the Bay all launched within the last 10 years, creating new year-round reasons for tourists and residents to stay and play in TC.
Restaurants, wineries and breweries also became increasingly collaborative marketers, promoting and participating in events strategically designed to highlight their top-shelf products. Such events – to name just a few – include the Downtown Art Walk, TC Wine & Art Festival, Blossom Days, Taste of Traverse City Festival and Paella in the Park.
And then there's Restaurant Week. Now in its fourth year, the Downtown Traverse City Association event is anticipated to drive dining numbers typically reserved for the summer season for dozens of area eateries February 23-March 1. The roster includes a diverse mix of historic, renowned restaurants and edgy, award-winning newcomers - 2/3 of whom, as by now you might have guessed, opened in the last 10 years.
Perhaps most importantly, Restaurant Week provides diners an affordable opportunity to revel in all the culinary virtues national critics have been extolling. This is the time when food lovers are encouraged not just to read about or discuss but actually see, smell and taste for themselves the richness of the region's farms and fields. Restaurant Week serves as a reminder to - as often as possible - take risks, explore flavors, and raise a glass to Traverse City's ever evolving and inspiring culinary scene.
And, of course, to consider the question: What might the next 10 years bring?