Story by MIKE SHAW | Photos by HEIDI HODGES
Jessica Grasse, co-owner of Grasse’s Grill in Sister Bay, knows the drill but enjoys it no matter how many times she gets the inquiry as a hostess. Patrons ask “Are you a Grasse?” almost as much as wondering about the daily specials.
“We should get T-shirts,” Jessica said.
For the record, the answer is eight extended family members by birth or marriage work there (the name’s pronounced “grassy” like a pasture, Jessica said).
Jessica is married to head chef Jimmy Grasse, and they’re joined by Maria in the kitchen (second cousin to Jimmy); pastry chef Tanna, who’s married to Jimmy’s cousin, and her daughter Adela; brothers Jon and Sten Kordon, whose mother is a Grasse; and the owners’ table-busing son James, 13. The couple also have a daughter, Charlotte, 11, who’s a year or two away from making it nine Grasses on the crew.
The Grasse clan settled into the Ellison Bay/Sister Bay area and started sowing the fields more than 100 years and four generations ago. During the Great Depression, the Kramer-Grasse Dairy operated in the same building as their descendants’ present-day restaurant on North Bay Shore Drive (State Highway 42).
“We didn’t even know that (connection) until we moved in here,” Jessica said, adding the site has also seen a supermarket, gas station and delicatessen through the years.
The most notable name in the Grasse line is Jimmy’s grandfather, the late Harvey Grasse, who was Wisconsin highway commissioner from 1960-65. The job was the rough equivalent of state transportation secretary, except that Grasse dealt solely with building and maintaining roads and highways, not airports, mass transit, bike lanes and all the other ways to get around that occupy today’s Department of Transportation head, a post created in 1973.
And build Grasse did, as this was the dawn of the interstate age and lawmakers rolled up their sleeves carrying out President Eisenhower’s vision of a 20th-century transcontinental railroad. An online search for Harvey Grasse reveals newspaper story upon story about him emceeing one asphalt ribbon-cutting after another.
When the governor’s office flipped to Republican, Grasse, a Democrat, lost his job. He originally had been appointed by Gov. Gaylord Nelson—later the founder of Earth Day as a U.S. senator—and reappointed by Gov. John Reynolds, a future federal judge whose family’s been in Jacksonport since the township’s beginnings.
During his career, Grasse also was Liberty Grove Town Chairman in the 1950s and lent his public service to state-level boards dealing with rural development and the “rustic road” scenic byway network.
“Oh, every day,” Jimmy Grasse said about being asked if he’s related—and he’s holed up in the kitchen most of the time.
Harvey lives on in the form of a basic Black Angus burger named for him, which can be substituted with chicken breast or a veggie black-bean patty (for free) or organic, grass-fed beef from Waseda Farms in Baileys Harbor (for an extra $3).
The menu leans toward the healthful and easy-on-the waistline with wraps, specialty salads with house dressing, a Reuben made from whitefish, fish tacos, vegetarian and gluten-friendly alternatives, and the “apple orchard sandwich” (apples, spinach, pecans and cherry white cheddar on wheatberry bread).
“Hippie tacos” have a morning cousin called the “hippie breakfast,” each stirring in sweet potatoes, corn, black beans and cauliflower hash. The breakfast mixture is topped by two eggs, themselves lathered with guacamole, cheddar jack and more.
“My passion was in preventative health,” said Jessica, a nurse by training. “A lot of what’s on the menu reflects that. You can get healthy things made from scratch. There’s nothing on there I wouldn’t feed to my own family.”
Aside from the all-important matter of food, every eatery forms its identity around one-of-a-kind visual or customer-cozy touches.
At Grasse’s, these would be the black-and-white checkerboard tile floor; the vintage, steel beer can collection sitting within a rough, corrugated metal case; oak tables thick and solid as an anvil; coffee mugs bought at thrift stores, still bearing the names of “Doris” and the cups’ other former guardians; the customary free water served up in Mason jars; and decorative signs all made from repurposed barnwood.
The décor and food offerings speak of family, voices of the past and a sense of place. From a weather-beaten, old “Harvey For Assembly” sign to framed, enlarged reprints of the bygone dairy and an early Fall Fest, from naming the “Nana’s Mac ‘n Cheese” recipe (for Jessica’s mother) and the meatloaf after Jimmy’s mom Iva, Grasse’s puts the “home” in homemade.
The names of other menu items pay tribute to Cave Point, the Ellison Bluff, Death’s Door and other natural wonders the guests might have just visited.
The speakers at Grasse’s play “fun music,” Jessica said, and the wait staff can dress as they please, uniform-free, as long as it’s not sloppy or inappropriate. The employees seem to get the drift and the theme, so you might see some ’50s drive-in, bobby-socks style skirts.
The staff suggested environmentally friendly measures—such as offering plastic straws only upon request and dispensing coffee creamer in reusable pitchers instead of wasteful, single-sized packets.
“I had somebody actually tell me, coming into Grasse’s is like getting a hug,” Jessica said. “We want them to feel relaxed and comfortable. Even if there’s a long wait, we want them to feel like it’s OK, that they don’t have to hurry.”
But there’s no law that comfort food shouldn’t fill you up. Selections like brisket, biscuits-and-gravy, the aforementioned meatloaf and several variations of burgers acknowledge that some famished shoppers and sightseers want more heft, although it’s all still homemade.
“It’s food that Jess would eat and I would eat,” Jimmy said. “We don’t want to be so structured so that it’s all vegetables. I don’t (just) eat vegetables, I eat meat—ribs, burgers, steak.”
Except with the caveat that Grasse’s is breakfast-lunch only, so don’t look for late-evening porterhouses or dripping, tangy racks of barbecue (but, by the same token, only a handful of plates are priced at $10 or more).
This past summer was the first season out of seven that Grasse’s Grill didn’t serve dinner. Breakfast was added on weekends during years three and four, then was reintroduced this summer full-time to round out the day after the evening menu was dropped.
It made for an unusual sight Memorial Day weekend when early evening swarms poured into nearby restaurants like Lure, Chop Steakhouse, Sister Bay Bowl and Husby’s Food & Spirits, but Grasse’s sat tranquil and dark.
“A lot of the regulars were like, ‘Was it not busy enough?’ No, (the 2017) season was our best season,” Jessica said. “‘Not enough staff?’ Not the reason either. We had to make a lifestyle change for our family. We have to do the business stuff, too, but if we’re open Jimmy wants to be in the kitchen, on the line. He doesn’t want to be in the office.
“We enjoy what we’re doing, but we had to figure out how can we keep this going for 25 years, and maintain balance.”
Bringing back breakfast, a frequent customer request, proved the answer and created a still-long, but reasonably normal, workday. Grasse’s opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. daily except Tuesday, and shuts for good between late October and the first week of May.
“We’re morning people, anyway; we like to just get up and go,” Jessica said.
They’re people persons, too, which Jessica said partly explains why she left the nursing field in Madison to partner with her husband as a restaurateur in his native Door Peninsula. After 10 years in the transplant ward at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, Jessica found herself assigned to triage on a medical call-in line, meaning less of the face-to-face patient care she most enjoyed.
“Was it tough to leave? No,” she said. “There are things I learned there about relationships and nutrition that help me here. I still have my license, and I can always go back, at least part time.
“It’s very similar in that you’re on your feet all day, moving around and talking to people, just not (about something) life-threatening. A lot of what I liked in nursing was the teaching and education, and I get to do that here because for a lot of these Door County kids, it’s their first job.”
Jimmy graduated from Gibraltar High School and started washing dishes at age 12 at the Hotel du Nord in Sister Bay. He graduated to cook by accident in his teens when the regular didn’t show up. Faced with a crisis, chef Bruce Alexander—who now runs his restaurant Alexander’s in Fish Creek —told Jimmy he would teach him to prepare a steak on the spot.
Jimmy got hooked on the kitchen life and later started dating Jessica, a Gurnee, Ill., native, while they were both living in Madison, he attending culinary school and she nursing school. They actually met at Carthage College in Kenosha, while visiting a sister and brother, respectively, who were students there. They tag-teamed as cook/waitress at various Madison restaurants, and one summer he brought her to his home area and she worked at Wilson’s, the landmark burger-and-a-Coke pavilion in downtown Ephraim.
“We would come up here to visit his parents (after marriage), and each time it got harder to leave because we love it up here,” Jessica said. “We started thinking about how we could make a living up here. We love food, we love to cook, we cook for each other at home, we love to eat.
“It was (also) our dream to live on the farm where Jimmy grew up. Then one night we were watching ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ (on Food Network) and said, ‘We could do that!’
The catch was Jimmy had trained in gourmet cuisine and sharpened his culinary skills at country clubs and other upscale establishments. But nothing was available in the fine-dining sector back in his home region.
So their business plan got a do-over on the fresh-slate day of New Year’s 2012, when the real estate agent called and told them the old Door Deli was for sale on the Sister Bay main drag.
“We had to find the (owner) in Florida, and we couldn’t get a hold of her,” Jessica recalled. “But Jimmy had worked with her daughter in the past, so he went on Facebook and sent a message. I had never come in here before in all the years I’d been here, but when we walked in we said, ‘This is the place.’
“It was perfect, right by the beach. We’re going to do casual (instead). We’re going to have a professional chef preparing things that are affordable for a family. We closed the deal in January and were open by May.”
And as for their other wish? Granted.
They moved onto the Grasse homestead, new neighbors to Jimmy’s parents on property trimmed from the 200-acre farm. So the Grasse name assuredly will carry on, both downtown and in the more wide-open spaces of Northern Door.