Story by Mike Shaw | Photos by Heidi Hodges
Painted in vivid purple, the wooden lounger is more accurately a king-sized throne, a wayside all its own with a wingspan of about four feet from armrest to armrest and standing six feet-plus from ground to the pointed tip of the backrest. A pro basketball player might be able to settle in and still touch his toes on the rock-garden bed below, assuming he’s a rim-rattling center or forward and not a point guard.
It’s one of the most popular selfie spots in Door County, a curb-appealer that serves as a second welcome sign for Julie’s Park Cafe & Motel in downtown Fish Creek. Logos of the supersized seat adorn the inn and restaurant facades, the menus, the specialty product packaging.
Owners Shane and Sande Solomon planted themselves into the cavernous chair side-by-side for a website photo, their kids Malachi, 6, and Gabrielle, 3, on their laps—and the two adults appear relaxed comfortably with plenty of elbow room to spare.
Roughly a dozen other pine tables and chairs populate the outdoor patio areas—these of normal dimensions but splashed in the same bright hues of the spectrum, like the purple alpha out on the front lawn.
“Julie always had this colorful (look); she did the colorful umbrellas out front for the eye-catching attention,” Sande Solomon said. “It gives it more of an airy and festive feel.”
“Julie” is former owner and business namesake Julie Giller, who bought the former Black Locust Restaurant/Peninsula Motel in 1997 (going back farther in history, it was the Dreamland Motel). Giller remodeled the formerly upscale eatery into a casual cafe.
And if location, location, location is everything for a business, Julie’s claims an enviable spot at the south entrance to Peninsula State Park, perfect for grabbing camper drive-ins (and drive-outs) or visitor walk-ins (and walk-outs). Bikers, too.
“We get quite a bit (of park traffic),” Shane said.
“And quite a bit more when it’s raining,” Sande added.
The 30-something Solomons managed the business for the 2009 season as a warm up for buying it and taking over the next summer.
Both of the Solomons had restaurant experience in high school and college, Shane earning a certificate from the Florida Culinary Institute in his native state. Sande became part of the local hospitality industry in 2000 when her parents, John and Nora Zacek, bought Open Hearth Lodge in Sister Bay in 2000, moving her here for her senior year at Gibraltar High School.
“We had always talked about owning a restaurant when we retire,” Sande said. “But then when this place came up for sale, we just figured, why not do it now while we’re young and have the energy? At the time, we had no kids.”
“No debt, no mortgage,” Shane added. “We looked at probably half a dozen places but kept coming back to this one. It had a great reputation.”
Julie’s seats 73 indoors and 48 on the patios. Although there is no outdoor wait service, guests can enjoy bakery or coffee in the fresh air, hook into the wireless Internet or wait for a table or takeout order. The interior matches the vivid exterior, clad in a pop artsy decor with murals and stained-glass partitions prevalent.
The Solomons met at Concordia University in Mequon, where Sande was studying to teach Spanish and English as a Second Language. Shane came to the school to play center on the football team, graduated with a degree in personnel administration and worked in the college’s student life office for 3-1/2 years while Sande taught full-time and tutored kids from kindergarten to college.
Shane could relate to the original Julie’s off-kilter, but charmingly distinguishing, trait of opening at 6:59 a.m. and closing at 9:01 p.m. The Solomons carry on that time-honored tradition.
“Julie’s husband originated it to be the first one open in Fish Creek at the time,” Shane said. “It was like when I was working at the university, I had seven to 12 students working for me at any one time. I would always set my meetings with them at random, oddball times so we’d meet at, say, 7:21. It was a way of getting them there on time.”
“It’s something that makes you think,” Sande added. “It’s something you will remember.”
As for the cuisine, Shane describes it as “traditional with a twist. We want everyone to walk away (feeling) like they had been eating at Grandma’s house.”
Like Grandma, Julie’s uses more than 90 percent made-from-scratch fresh ingredients whipped up at its in-house bakery and plucked from its four backyard planters, where tomatoes, mushrooms and seasonings like peppers and oregano grow.
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from late April through October; breakfast and lunch only on weekends from November through February; and then takes a two-month break before reopening. Last winter was the first it wasn’t closed entirely, and next year Mondays will be added to the limited out-of-season hours.
An early-bird breakfast option gives diners a full and filling plate for only $5.95 before 9 a.m., with combinations of pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and toast.
Menu items that jump out include a California chicken omelet; Santa Fe eggs atop hash browns and topped with black beans and other Tex-Mex goodies; cinnamon-bun French toast; homemade granola on its own or stuffed inside pancakes; a pot roast sandwich; a “breakfast-style” burger with fried egg and bacon; and strawberry salad.
A sample of the “hot chicken” nestled in “hot mac and cheese” came with a warning that it was, uh, hot. But the dish’s spice didn’t dominate, and actually enriched, the overall flavor, unlike some of the silly, eat-at-your-own-risk ordeals with which some places promote their high-temp offerings.
A burger and salad of the week is featured on Fridays with recent surprises including a fajita burger, pork po’ boy, grilled salmon salad and Italian chop salad full of Genoa salami, pepperoni, cavatappi pasta and similar Western Mediterranean treats.
Five of the seven daily specials remain unchanged from Giller’s day. The Solomons added only a brisket dinner on Wednesdays and, on Sundays, one from Shane’s Southern roots, the seemingly strange soul-food combo of chicken-and-waffles (fried tenders lying on the ridged breakfast cake, with traditional condiments like butter and syrup optional).
“I had people say, ‘Sande, you converted me from being skeptical to being excited,’” she said of the Sunday nighter. “We have people plan trips (around the specials) asking, ‘Which night is pot roast night?’ or ‘I want to be here for rib night.’”
The Monday night meatloaf might be worth a targeted visit, too. A portion of the sales goes to help rebuild the landmark Eagle Tower inside the state park.
The Solomons themselves are no longer heavily involved in creating those dishes, delegating that operation to kitchen manager David Kurth, who’s in his second season after being a gourmet cook at the Wickman House in Ellison Bay. They also hired a manager for the motel on the north end of the property, which was refurbished and heightened before the 2016 season into a two-story inn with 23 rooms, up from 10 previously, including some suites with whirlpools.
Many longtime employees carried over from Giller’s ownership era, including purchaser/controller/inventory manager Amy Christiansen and hostess Debra Habrada. The latter moonlights as a rock musician who Sande calls the “color and personality of this place.” She’s nicknamed “Crazysocks” for her iconoclastic leggings and has become something of a video star, announcing the latest news and developments at Julie’s via Facebook posts.
The motel-cafe staff now numbers about 40 as the couple moved to a more hands-off management approach.
“We made the conscious decision two, three years ago that we needed to be owners, not employees, and we started hiring accordingly,” Shane said. “As much as I hated stepping out of the kitchen, we’re better off out talking with the customers, making sure they’re satisfied. We don’t micromanage and nitpick everything (the workers) do; as long as they accomplish what they’re supposed to do, we let them do it in their style.
“One of our mandates is that we be in contact with every person who walks through the door. We’ll make small talk, and that (introduction) gives us something to talk about next time.”
“We’re very much a ‘yes’ restaurant,” Sande said. “We cater to vegetarian diets, special dietary needs. We know every ingredient that goes into our food, so we know what allergens might be in there.”
The Solomons also said “yes” when The Hill, Sturgeon Bay’s newly reopened dirt racetrack at the Door County Fairgrounds, wanted a concessions caterer that was affordable but a little outside the norm of hot dogs and hamburgers.
They got to know one of the new promoters, John Sternard, who supplied some furniture and woodworking services at the renovated motel. For eight weekend racing dates this past summer, the speedway stand served up Philly cheesesteaks, pulled pork sandwiches and the like for less than $5 each.
“(The promoters) asked us to do it because they said they’re not restaurant people and they trusted us as owners,” Shane said. “The first (race feature Memorial Day weekend) went well, and we’ll be refining the menu and seeing what we can and can’t do.”
Julie’s also makes liberal use of the seasonal foreign-worker visa program, welcoming housekeepers, dishwashers, waiters and host staff from far-flung locales like Turkey, Romania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua and Panama.
The Solomons bought two foreclosed homes near Fish Creek that can house about 16 of their temporary employees for the summer. That was a better option than the two-bedroom apartment above the restaurant that had been its worker housing, a space that has since been remodeled to rent to tourists.
“(The employees) needed their own place where they could get away from work,” Sande said.
And before heading home in search of R&R, they could certainly try that gargantuan, welcoming purple chair.