In Mich., An Acclaimed Local Restaurant Closes In Fennville, Mich., the Journeyman Cafe earned top reviews as a local restaurant serving sustainable, organic food. In November, state tax authorities closed the Journeyman. Its founders and chefs say there was not enough money left over to pay taxes.
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In Mich., An Acclaimed Local Restaurant Closes

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In Mich., An Acclaimed Local Restaurant Closes

In Mich., An Acclaimed Local Restaurant Closes

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Recession or a flawed business model. Whatever the cause when a storefront goes dark in a small town it means somebody got hurt. Bills went unpaid. Jobs were lost. To see how the failure of one business can effect a whole town, NPR's Noah Adams went to Fennville, Michigan.

NOAH ADAMS: Over the winter out in southwest Michigan close to the lake it had about a hundred inches of snow that's been coming down like the economy. So it would have been a tough time for a five-year-old acclaimed restaurant called the Journeyman Cafe. But the Journeyman, which was all about food, fun and farmers and not so much about paying the taxes was already in trouble. The sheriff had come to change the locks.

Mr. MATTHEW MILLAR: If the state hadn't closed this place I think we would have.

Ms. AMY COOK: And I don't know how long we could have survived given the winter that we've seen. I mean people just not leaving their home.

ADAMS: Matthew Millar and Amy Cook - they're married. And a bit later on will tell you what has been happening with their restaurant. But first let's meet some of the people involved.

Unidentified Child: (Unintelligible).

Ms. COOK: The man is going to go goodbye, and yes then we will have pickles.

ADAMS: When the Journeyman Cafe shut down, the chief baker, Mary Reimriech(ph) stopped going into work at 1 o'clock in the morning. This does give her more time with her 2-year-old daughter, Hazel.

Ms. MARY REIMRIECH (Baker): I think one of the saddest moments we had about week after the restaurant closed was we'd had a busy stressful week. And Hazel looked up and said mama lets go to the restaurant. We need pizza. And every time we passed by the restaurant now she says, closed. It's closed.

ADAMS: Mary Reimriech had moved to Fennville to grow fruit. And soon was hired to be a baker. Experimenting with the big masonry oven burning apple-wood and oak, she made blueberry muffins, chocolate cones and the bread. The bread was a big winner. Some days she'd bake 300 loaves, and this in a town of 1,400 people. Mary the baker is now on unemployment.

Mr. MIKE O'BRIEN: Hay cows. Because they eat grass, their breath is sweet. So when you get up close once they get to know you, quite often you'll get a big lick. And if you've never been licked by a cow tongue, it's quite an experience.

NOAH: Mike O'Brien raises grass-fed beef, other free range animals. The Journeyman was his best customer. And he might have to find a regular job. O'Brien will miss seeing what Chef Millar used to send out of the kitchen.

Mr. O'BRIEN: He will buy like, for example, with the lamb or a hog. He'll buy the whole animal. And he'll cut it to his own specifications. And he'll do a million things with it. And you'll see every conceivable portion on the menu. And it'll be the best thing you've ever eaten.

ADAM: When the Journeyman shut down, Kathy Hellenski(ph) missed a chance to start her new endeavor making goat cheese.

Ms. KATHY HELLENSKI: Matthew loved the cheese. And he was using in an appetizers. And I was just about ready. I hadn't quite gotten my labels and we were going to put it - he had a small cheese case - and we were going to feature our cheese in the cheese case. And then state of Michigan closed'em down.

Mr. TED GREEN: We would do their linens.

ADAMS: Ted Green works for the corner laundry in Fennville. The laundry lost an everyday account.

Mr. GREEN: Their aprons, their tablecloths and, you know, their chef coats things like that. It was a nice little chuck of business to have.

ADAMS: The Journeyman stayed open throughout the winter. It's difficult along Lake Michigan and live music helped with that - sometimes it was standing room on Friday night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: This is Daisy May and Seth Bernard.

(Soundbite of song)

ADAMS: Musicians from the region could make $100 each, sell CD's and get a great meal. They lost a favorite venue.

Ms. DAISY MAY (musician): Thank you.

ADAMS: I asked Matthew Millar and Amy Cook to show me their now closed restaurant. It was quiet and dark.

Mr. MILLAR: The tables are set. They are. We set the dining room up because there are couple of parties that are interested in, maybe, taking the restaurant over. So we wanted to look as finished as possible. So we set the tables up for him before we left.

ADAMS: Millar and Cook can look back on many evenings when the place was full, especially after a very nice review from Gourmet magazine. People drove up from Chicago, over from Detroit for good wines and local beers. A salad with truffled beet vinaigrette and fennel pollen, pan roasted duck, cider-braised pork belly. But that's expensive food to make and Millar had paid $100,000 for his liquor license. So a real profit? Probably just a fantasy. Economic reality came late last summer.

Ms. COOK: All things being equal, we saw the same number of people but there was a difference. Yeah, in how they were spending their money. I think we met the needs...

Mr. MILLAR: Bottles of water on tables that would normally have bottle of wine on them. And every time you turn the radio on and hear about a drop in the Dow you could anticipate Journeyman's sales going right with that.

ADAMS: They tried turning part of the Journeyman into a less expensive bistro. But that didn't work either. There was the famous Wednesday night last fall with two customers.

Mr. MILLAR: They got the attention of six people. (Unintelligible) myself included.

Ms. COOK: There's nothing worse than dining alone in a restaurant. People came in, didn't see anyone and didn't come back. And no matter how well we're regarded, no matter how many great reviews we got. It just, really, it took the wind out of our sails.

ADAMS: The owners were way behind in turning in sales tax and employee withholding. They'd worked out a payment schedule with the state but they couldn't keep up and then one morning, just before Thanksgiving, the sheriff and the tax officials arrived.

Mr. MILLAR: The warrant officer told us, you know, we had to hurry up and get out because he had two more of these to do that afternoon. It was just - It was striking to me that in an economy as bad as Michigan, that somebody is not thinking about other options. You know, it's too late for us. But there are lot of businesses out there that are teetering on that same precipice.

ADAMS: The state of Michigan does not discuss these matters with reporters. But Millar and Cook say they owe about $85,000. They're also behind with many of their suppliers. Amy has a new job. She's working for a design firm. And Matthew has become the head chef for a nearby brewing company. And there is talk that New Holland Brewing might open a restaurant right there in the old Journeyman spot. Matthew Millar could once again would be behind the stove. Ewald Males(ph) would be pleased.

The morning I left Fennville, Michigan, I talked with him in the Blue Goose Café - not so pricey place a few doors down from the Journeyman. Males summed up the sentiment along Main Street.

Mr. EWALD MALES: Everybody's kind of hoping they come back because it's another storefront that's closed and that's bad for the town.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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