Editor’s Note: The story, below, was filed just before the COVID 19 pandemic hit hard. Subsequently, the business was shuttered for two months. Back online now, the owner says she is happy to be back and pleased to see her regular customers (“at least what you can see above the mask”). Business, she says, has been good, even without indoor seating. The outdoor garden and sidewalk seating has been very popular. A $10,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation helped pay the rent, utilities and payroll during the shutdown. Now that the business is back up and running pandemic-style, owner Marybeth Kurtz says “I have been very lucky.” Superior Woman wanted to present the original pre-pandemic story of this business and business owner with the hope that more normal times will be in our future soon.
By Dale Hemmila
In the middle of the main street, in a small Upper Peninsula mining town, sits a bright blue building that stands out among the drab stone and brick structures that occupy the remaining blocks. Its bright façade almost compels you to step inside and check it out. Once inside, the sights and smells of a small-town bakery/restaurant lets you know you have found a hometown treasure for the senses, including, ultimately, your sense of taste.
The bright blue building houses Midtown Bakery & Café in downtown Negaunee, Michigan, and over the past two decades it has become well-known for its made-from-scratch baked goods, and its soul- pleasing homemade soups and sandwiches. Operated by owner Marybeth Kurtz, and staffed by a loyal group of longtime employees, Midtown has become a destination for the discerning epicurean in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula.
Actually, “discerning epicurean” is probably not the market demographic Kurtz and her then-husband envisioned when they opened the shop 24 years ago. But, over that generational time period, the shop has developed a very loyal and discriminating following.
That following might get a whole lot bigger very soon. Kurtz recently participated, as part of a two-person team, on the Food Network’s “Winner Cake All” program. Teaming up with local baker Joe Heck, who received the original invitation from the network and enlisted Kurtz as his teammate, the pair faced off against three other two-person teams. After surviving the elimination round, they were given six hours to come up with a “Broadway Princess Party Cake,” working against the final two other teams.
“We had to create a cake for the client and the client wanted chocolate and peanut butter,” she said. “So we used my Mom’s Chocolate Cake and Joe had a peanut butter frosting recipe.”
Unfortunately, the judges chose a different cake as the winner.
“They loved the cake, not necessarily the way it looked, but they loved the cake and we just had fun,” she said. “Once we saw the episode it was like, oh, yeah, we did pretty good. Our goal was to go and represent the U.P. and have a good time.”
From Retail to Baked Goods
Originally opened as an antique shop, the bakery end of Kurtz’s business came along six months later. After six years, the antiques were “pushed out” and soups, salads and sandwiches were added. As their reputation grew, catering events, whether that be in the form of delivering sandwiches to the local iron ore mines, or catering dinners for various customers, became what Kurtz calls a “pretty good chunk” of the business.
Kurtz, now the sole owner of the shop, is a transplant from the Detroit area, but there are no big city airs among the mismatched tables and chairs that seat about 50 patrons, and which, on most days at lunch time, are fully occupied. The atmosphere can only be described as hometown casual.
“Most people think of it as home,” she said on a recent Friday afternoon as she laughed with some of the regulars. “We’ll joke around with people and tell them if you need anything, either holler loud or get up and get it yourself. People like coming here. It’s not pretentious, and it is a little weird, with all the different tables and chairs.”
Making her point, she gestures to the largest table and chairs. It was the dining set in the home in which she grew up. It now accommodates some of the regular group visitors.
“We have quite a few standing reservations,” she said. “There’s a group of guys that come in the first Monday of every month. There’s a group of women that come in the last Thursday of every month.”
“’68,” hollers someone from the staff.
“Yeah, class of ’68,” Kurtz said with a laugh. “So I’m very grateful. As someone who is not from around here, it took a while to get that people are so tight, but now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
As a bakery owner, you might imagine that Kurtz is in early in the morning baking up a storm, but that’s not usually the case. She says a typical day would have her arriving by mid-morning from her apartment above the shop. That doesn’t mean the place is idle, as she notes her baker begins at 6 a.m. and her manager opens the shop at 8 a.m. Baking continues throughout the day, and when Kurtz joins in, she is just one of the crew, waiting tables, taking orders, making deliveries, and doing whatever needs to be done.
“I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in my office eating bon-bons,” she laughed.
“Thank God I have a wonderful staff; I’m very lucky,” she said, referring to her nine-person team. “I don’t have turnover, so I am very lucky. I go on vacations, and I don’t think about work. I know it’s in good hands.”
Kurtz grew up in the metropolitan Detroit area. She earned a commercial art degree from Macomb Community College. She worked for the Chuck Muer restaurants in downstate Michigan, which was a small chain of fine dining establishments that eventually were shuttered or sold following Muer’s death.
As regional pastry chef for about 10 years for those facilities, she received some of those recipes as part of her severance pay when the last restaurant she was working at closed. But they aren’t the only proprietary recipes in use at her shop.
“Family recipes, like our most popular cake, is Mom’s Chocolate Cake, which is my grandmother’s recipe; our banana cake is a family recipe, and our baker is super-talented and likes to create new recipes and try new things,” Kurtz said.
Enjoying the Ride
With her Food Network-brush-with-cake-fame behind her, Kurtz is satisfied to be back where she is, in Negaunee, working nearly every day (her shop is closed on Sundays) and greeting her customers.
“I’m grateful that (business) is steady all year round,” she said. “In the wintertime, I get all the locals, and in the summer, they are all out to camp, so then I get all the tourists. We get a lot of people that we are on their route. They come up for their summer vacation, and we are one of the stops they have to make.”
No matter what the season, however, it’s that down-home feeling once inside the Midtown Café that just works.
“One of the best sounds of owning your own business is hearing people laughing, enjoying their time here, and having fun,” she said. “I know my customers, and my customers know me, so I’m content, I’m very lucky.”