Northern Michigan’s New Walloon, Near Petoskey
Matt Borisch enters Barrel Back Restaurant, in Northern Michigan’s Village of Walloon Lake, wearing shorts, a green-striped polo and a mischievous grin. It’s a sunny, blue-skied Northern Michigan afternoon in this hamlet near Petoskey, and the restaurant is closed for Monday’s usual staff recovery day. Borisch, the Walloon restaurant owner, turns to general manager Bryan Banfield and executive chef D.J. Flynn, challenging the men to a paddleboard race.
Suddenly, a heavy August wind churns Walloon Lake into rough whitecaps, visible from the lakeside restaurant’s upper level. Banfield reaches up to close the huge rolling plate-glass boathouse doors, an open-air substitute for windows. We reach a deal: interview first, extreme paddleboarding later. The three Northern Michigan restaurateurs ease into the industrial dining room’s metal chairs, sitting near the central, metal-hooded gas fireplace. Borisch, 33, leans back and speaks slowly, outlining a three-step development plan that has revitalized the Village of Walloon Lake and employed more than 100 people for summer 2013.
Step One: An end to controversy
Before the Borisch plan, before Barrel Back Restaurant, controversy for nearly a decade brewed over developing the property at the heart of the Village, at the lakefront beside M-75. In the 1970s, it bustled as a multi-functioning hub with marinas, an ice cream shop, a general store and a post office, plus a well-known and -loved public beach and swimming area. By the 1980s, the Village began to decline, its descent marked by vacant lots and burned-down buildings. During the next 20 years, efforts to revitalize the Village remained unrealized.
Enter the eight-year debate from 2003 to 2011, when development plans ignited tension with the local community. Local businessman Lou Mettler, the first developer who currently owns Mettler’s American Mercantile, sued Melrose Township, the Village’s governing entity, for the right to build condominiums on the lake. The township ultimately settled with Mettler in a non-monetary consent agreement. Before breaking ground, Mettler sold the property to a second developer, Thomas Sebold & Associates, Inc. of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., whose company built five condominium units and revised plans to provide more open space. Thomas Sebold & Associates, Inc. sold the property to 59-year-old Jonathan Borisch, Matt Borisch’s father, in July 2012.
Jonathan Borisch founded Walloon Development, LLC and approached Melrose Township with a third proposal. Matt Borisch joined the development project as owner of the property’s businesses and buildings. The two Borisch men had already partnered from 1994 to 2010, when they operated Borisch Manufacturing Corporation, a Grand Rapids electronics manufacturing company, before selling it to Amphenol Corporation and forming present-day Amphenol Borisch Technologies. “Everyone had a vision for the village but not one that the community embraced too much,” Matt Borisch says today. “One of the things that was missing from the Village plans of past developers was access to the lake. People want to see it, and building things in front of that access didn’t quite fit.”
During Jonathan Borisch’s initial meeting at Melrose Township Hall, he first asked what the community wanted from his project. When township officials suggested preserving space for people to enjoy Walloon Lake, Jonathan Borisch offered to make a public park. “What more can you ask for?” says Randy Frykberg, Melrose Township zoning administrator and planner. “It was unbelievable, and then he went ahead and did it. It just started on the right foot, and it’s kept right on that path.” The lakefront green space now has a gazebo, trees, benches, picnic tables and a sprinkler system. A three-paneled display in the park outlines the Walloon Lake story, past and present, with fishing maps, information about invasive species, and notes about Ernest Hemingway’s childhood summer home on the lake.
Step Two: Marina access
Jonathan Borisch grew up in the Village of Walloon Lake during the area’s glory days in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when kids frequently raced sailboats in the summertime and threw roaring parties on the Village marina docks afterward to celebrate. Today, Jonathan Borisch and Matt Borisch both own homes on Walloon Lake’s West Arm. They live in Grand Rapids, Mich., and spend their summers on Walloon Lake, traveling back to Northern Michigan on weekends during the winter. “That love of Walloon Lake has been pretty much in my family from my grandfather right on through,” Matt Borisch says of his grandfather, Jonathan Borisch’s father, Thomas.
Jonathan and Matt Borisch have invested several million dollars in their Walloon Lake venture. Redeveloping the marina created a point of access for boaters as the second phase of the project. Walloon Village Marina now offers expanded dock space with a gas dock, complete with boat handlers for days when the wind whips up, as well as boat services and a retail showroom.
Next to the park, the lower level of a reconstructed lakeside building that was once Si’s Marine now houses Tommy’s, an esteemed waterskiing and wakeboarding pro shop based in Golden, Colo. The pro shop recently won the Water Sports Industry Association’s 2013 Retailer of the Year Award. Above, Barrel Back Restaurant bustles as the third active component of the Borisch plan.
Step Three: The unlikely restaurateur
Matt Borisch had never been in the restaurant business and didn’t want to be. Then a friend encouraged him to change his mind. “The Village needed a restaurant,” he says. “Because nobody else would do it, you get what you get, so we just decided to start one.”
Barrel Back Restaurant’s namesake refers to the iconic, curved barrel backs of classic wooden boats that cruised Walloon Lake in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and still do today. Jonathan Borisch and Matt Borisch both own Chris Craft boats with the barrel back design, and Matt Borisch keeps his 1942 Chris Craft, a 26-foot runabout, at a private dock in front of the restaurant.
After Matt Borisch developed the concept for Barrel Back Restaurant, architect Gregory Presley and interior designer Kathryn Chaplow collaborated to create the building’s industrial interior. The design team lined the restaurant’s walls with enlarged canvas prints of vintage Walloon Lake postcards, collected by Jonathan Borisch’s wife Mary Kay over the past 20 years, and old photographs from local resident Jack E. Rader.