The ice fishing season may be ending in Bay City, but don't put your shanty away just yet

The sight of ice shanties in Bay City is nothing unusual during the winter. However, shanties have moved from the icy river to the parking lots outside local restaurants, offering diners an adventurous way to eat out and support establishments during the cold winter and spring and amidst indoor dining restrictions.

Operation Shantyville began in December of 2020 just after its creator, Jimmy Flathau, saw a restaurant on the west side of the state was allowing people to dine in ice shanties in the parking lot. Flathau says, “I thought, why is this not happening on a large scale all across the state? It was a great idea and needed to spread.”

From there, he began to plot how this could work in Bay City. “Me and my buddy Josh [Rex] were going back and forth about the idea, and we teased about it for a couple of hours. I finally said, ‘Get your stuff loaded up, we’re going to go do this.’ ”

The trial run of shanty-based dining was at Beaver’s Pub, 200 Center Ave. Flathau reached out to the owners, making sure they were willing and licensed to serve outside. Once approval was given, Flathau packed up his shanty, heater, and chairs, and went to give the new experience a try.

“That first night was funny. We were sitting in the back parking lot and there were a lot of mixed reactions. People were like, ‘What are you doing out here?’ ”

After the initial attempt, the idea gained momentum, both at local restaurants and on Facebook.

Area restaurants such as the Rathskeller Food & Spirits have embraced the concept, allowing diners to set up privately-owned ice shanties to dine outside.

“We reached out first to a lot of hometown businesses, like O’s Pub & Grill and Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill. After that it started taking off like wildfire. Restaurants started reaching out to us saying, ‘Hey we want you guys to come here,’ ” says Flathau.

To date, Operation Shantyville has put on 12 formal events and inspired many other spontaneous gatherings, according to Damien Perez, the group’s photographer. The Operation Shantyville Facebook group now has over 2,000 members and features giveaways, restaurant specials, and event postings.

Perez joined forces with Flathau after introducing himself at one of the early events at Uno Pizzeria & Grill, 2795 E. Wilder Rd. Since then, he has been documenting the success of the events and helping manage the page. Acknowledging that attendance varies depending on the weather and restaurant, Perez says, “An average of seven to ten people are at each event, and maybe three to five shanties. Our first event at Mussell Beach Drive-In was one of the more successful ones.” 

While the typical diner brings an ice shanty or deer blind, people have been known to show up in a variety of different shelters. “At Shannon’s Firehouse, I got there and there was a 30-foot camper. It was crazy, I couldn’t believe it. The guy was from Vassar and had his two kids and his wife inside. He had the lights going and everything,” Flathau says.

Flathau notes that while some restaurants have been able to take advantage of the igloo experience, it was not realistic for all owners. “Igloos are $800 to $1,000 to purchase, and you have to sanitize. With the shanties, people just have them in their sheds. You don’t have to worry about reservations, and you don’t have to sanitize in between.”

Operation Shantyville aims to help restaurants expand outdoor dining options during Michigan's' cold months.Since that first meal at Beaver’s, Flathau has enjoyed watching events spring up more naturally.
“The idea was to get this kick started, then make a list of restaurants that are receptive to this so you can go at your leisure.” The list pinned on their page contains 26 area restaurants that have embraced the Shantyville craze.

With the reopening of restaurants at 25% capacity in February, things have slowed down for Operation Shantyville, but there is still a need for flexible outdoor dining, especially for restaurants with limited indoor spaces.

“It has continued on, and Mussell Beach is the perfect example: the inside isn’t very large. So, while this has tapered off a bit, it has stayed alive due to that fact,” Flathau says.

Catie Beffrey, a manager at Mussell Beach, recognizes how important the efforts of the group have been.

“It was amazing that these people came out and set up ice shanties, hunting blinds, and even racing trailers in our parking lot and ordered dinner from us. It was so fun seeing everyone set up together, safely of course, order dinner, and eat it here, without ever using our dining room,” Beffrey says. “These times have been hard for sure, but Operation Shantyville put a spin on dining out, and gave us the option to serve our incredible customers again.”

A Bay City native, Flathau wants to see local businesses survive.

“A lot of people are struggling; a lot of people are down and out. If and when you can, get out there and support the little guys. Support the locals. Support your local grocery stores, eateries, coffee shops, wherever it is that is close to home that you appreciate having there.”

Flathau quickly admits that Operation Shantyville has exceeded all of his expectations.

“I am blown away by the support and how much it’s grown. However, at the same time, I am not surprised. Bay City and the Tri-Cities are very supportive. Our Downtown area and Uptown have grown so much in the last 10 to 15 years. People aren’t just willing to walk away. They are fighting to keep their businesses alive.”