Old City Hall, American Kitchen, and Tavern 101 are three prominent, popular restaurants in downtown Bay City. These eateries serve as informal anchors for the community, offering half-off wine nights and places to enjoy meals while celebrating life’s events.
Each restaurant is a well-known, local staple. What some might not realize is that each of these restaurants is owned and operated by the same individual - David Dittenber.
Dittenber grew up in Au Gres, about 45 minutes north of Bay City. While living in Au Gres, Dittenber worked as a dishwasher, server, and other front-of-the-house services positions for restaurants and pubs in Arenac County. After graduating from Au Gres High School, Dittenber set off Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. His goal was to study biochemistry and apply to medical school.
After completing an internship during his senior year of college with Spectrum Health in downtown Grand Rapids, Dittenber shared with his parents that he had doubts about applying to medical school.
“It was a bit of a Tom Cruise ‘Cocktail’ moment,” said Dittenber – referencing the popular movie where Tom Cruise works as a bartender while working to pay for his college education and eventually owns his own pub. “At the time, I just thought it would be awesome to open my own restaurant and own my own building,” he added
Dave Dittenber owns three popular eateries in downtown Bay City and is building another restaurant in Midland.
Dittenber’s parents - both small business owners - were supportive and agreed to help him secure traditional financing and open his own restaurant.
With strong mentorship from his parents, the next step for Dittenber was to identify an eatery available for purchase. Dittenber considered three different restaurants: The Clark Lake Bar in Jackson, Lake O’s Tavern – now the Boarshead Restaurant - in Grand Rapids, and Old City Hall in Bay City.
“The decision to purchase Old City Hall was easy. It was back to my Eastside family roots. My parents were relatively close. Also, from an industry standpoint, the area was more approachable.”
Within the first few months of 1997, Dittenber graduated from college and purchased his first restaurant - despite never taking a business class.
“Looking back, we actually didn’t do any real financial projections for Old City Hall. I knew that I understood hospitality and how to take care of people. That was the part of the businesses that brought – and still brings me – into work every day. I hoped that my love of hospitality would be reflected in the business and that it would be successful.”
Dittenber and his staff worked hard to make his dream into reality.
“Failure wasn’t an option. We all put in long hours and worked hard – mornings, evenings, and weekends.”
DIttenber bought Old City Hall shortly after graduating from Aquinas College.
After a decade of success at Old City Hall, David decided to pursue his MBA at the University of Phoenix. The program required a capstone project of modeling and forecasting for a future business investment. Putting his restaurant experience to use, Dittenber developed a concept for a burger bar and gastropub. This concept would transform from just an idea on paper to a real-life restaurant in 2011 with the creation of American Kitchen. The new restaurant was located around the block from Old City Hall in downtown Bay City.
“The concept for American Kitchen really stemmed from my visits to the Burger Bar in Las Vegas and the Blue Tractor in Traverse City. I loved the atmosphere of those restaurants and wanted to bring something similar to Bay City.”
Dittenber calls his second restaurant, American Kitchen, a burger bar and gastropub.
After opening American Kitchen, Dittenber continued to explore additional restaurant concepts that he thought would add to the diverse offerings in downtown Bay City.
In 2014 – three years after the launch of American Kitchen – Dittenber opened his third restaurant in downtown Bay City, Tavern 101. The new eatery is at the corner of Water Street and Center Avenue in the Mill End Building.
“The concept for Tavern 101 was simple. We wanted a corner bar feel with craft beer offerings – especially as the craft brew industry began to take off. As with American Kitchen, we modeled Tavern 101 after other restaurant concepts we liked. We used Siena Tavern in Chicago as our initial inspiration.”
Tavern 101 strives for a corner bar feel with craft beer offerings.
With three successful restaurants operating smoothly, Dittenber and his partners feel that now is the right time to expand their restaurant offerings to other downtowns in the Great Lakes Bay Region.
Slated to open this summer, Dittenber’s newest restaurant Molasses – a southern, traditional BBQ style eatery – is under construction in downtown Midland.
“When discussing what type of restaurant we were hoping to create in downtown Midland, we threw out a lot of ideas including Italian, Cuban, or Southern BBQ,” said Dittenber. “Michael Sheskey, one of our former executive chefs who at the time had moved to Memphis, mentioned that he would be interested in coming back to the area and working with us to launch a BBQ restaurant. With that, we decided to make the investment.”
Dittenber was quick to add that the success of his restaurants and their ability for growth in the region is largely due to his staff and team members.
“Our staff is full of hard workers who have a desire to provide great customer service. It’s great that we still have a few of our original staff members from when I purchased the business (Old City Hall) in 1997.”