Young Entrepreneurs: Bay City restaurant owner offers new cuisine in an old building

It’s a unique restaurant in Bay City, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind for in the entire state of Michigan. MI Table’s owner Amberlyn Hales came up with the idea of not only a farm-to-table, but with a theme specific to the state she grew up in.

“I was born in Bay City and I’m a big advocate for the revitalization and supporting of our downtown, so that’s one of the reasons I’m anchored downtown.” She opened the restaurant on the lower level of the Legacy Building at the corner of Washington and Center avenues because she wanted to be part of her hometown’s comeback.

MI Table is located on the lower level of the Legacy Building in the heart of downtown, at the corner of Washington and Center avenues.At 32, Hales is a full decade younger than the average entrepreneur. According the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the average entrepreneur founds his or her business at 42. Different statistics exist for the number of male vs. female business owners, but all show women entrepreneurs in the minority.

Though Hales' education is in healthcare and marketing, her passion is feeding people well and supporting the community she grew up in through good food. She said opening her restaurant in a historic downtown building was an added bonus. “I’m a big advocate of preventative health, so happy, healthy people mean happy, healthy cities, and happy, healthy communities.”

After spending a few years working and running a business in upstate New York, Hales decided to bring her family back to Bay City, but she said there were some things missing, like healthy eateries with fresh food.

Craft cocktails at MI Table feature Michigan spirits.“I grew up and left because there was nothing here for me, and then I came back and decided to stay. Then I thought if I want my kids to stay, I want to do things here.” She said rather than complain about what isn’t here, she decided to make the change she wanted to see. “When you want things, instead of saying ‘The town is bad,’ we need people to stay and change the town; that’s the only way stuff is going to happen.”

Craft cocktails at MI Table feature Michigan spirits.So, change things she is. Hales, who is a single mom to three sons aged 14, 5 and 3, opened a vegan juice bar in Saginaw first because she couldn’t find fresh juices. That started her thinking about a fresh food restaurant. “Food has always been my hobby and my passion,” she said, adding it was her grandparents who fostered that passion. “My grandfather would take me to restaurants and order bizarre things and make me eat them and wouldn’t tell me what they were until I ate them, to expose me to different worlds of food and different cuisines.”

Another thing she sees that needs to be changed is the experience of people coming together over food. “Food connects everyone together. Everything of importance – weddings, funerals, arguments, celebrations ­– all happen at a dinner table,” she said. “I like family and people coming together to enjoy that, and I feel like we’ve lost some of that, so the goal is to bring back some of that to have a great experience around food and our loved ones.”

Food is the focus at MI Table, but it’s also Michigan-centric food. Hales said everything is fresh and made to order. She includes locally grown and produced products. “That way we’re able to provide people with food that has the highest rate of nutrition.”

Michigan-grown produce and family recipes keep the MI Table menu fresh.The short growing season in Michigan doesn’t mean her patrons don’t get fresh vegetables. Hales said she uses local farms that grow spring mix year-round. “I know when I spend money on lettuce, it’s going to a family that lives in the area and supports them directly.” Hales said 90% of what she puts on the table comes from Michigan producers.

With every season, the restaurant changes its food and drinks menu.“Buying local will be an overall benefit to the farmers and the community,” said Jennifer Honsinger, an instructor in the Culinary Arts, Tourism and Hospitality Management program at the Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center.

She said supporting the local farmers not only keeps food dollars in the community but offers healthy choices. “A farm-to-table restaurant offers a nutritional alternative and the new concept restaurant creates excitement in the community.”

Hales agrees. She said when she supports the small farmers in the area, they in turn are able to support their community. “We all benefit.”

A minor challenge

She’s not who people expect when they ask for the owner of the restaurant, and that’s OK with Hales. In the male-dominated industry, many people are surprised to meet a woman who is the owner, executive chef, and designer of a restaurant. “People would assume I was a manager or worked for the company,” she said, “or they thought my husband owned the restaurant – I’m not married.”

A lean bar surrounds the mezzanine so patrons can overlook the main dining area.Hales doesn’t take it personally and doesn’t let it slow her down.

When she was looking for a space, Hales met developer Jennifer Acosta. “She showed me the space and I instantly loved it, even though a lot of people just saw a future parking lot.” The building, historically known as the Crapo Building, was built nearly 130 years ago and was home to a bank. The vaults were incorporated into the first-floor restaurant. Acosta turned the upper floors into luxury apartments.

A soft seating lounge gives the mezzanine level a non-traditional feeling.“It’s an old building, so where you think things should be, they’re not, and where you think you can put things, you can’t,” said Hales. “When you deal with historical renovations, you have an idea and the building will kind of show you want it will be.” The building revealed a few things she hadn’t expected, like signatures on the walls in the basement where people played cards and smoked cigars.

The restaurant design preserved the old vault from when the building was a bank.Rather than taking out the old bank vault or demolishing the building, Hales said she wanted to see something positive happen with it. With that in mind, she said she brought in décor that was representative of the state. “We have Detroit, we have the Great Lakes, we have mid-Michigan, we have the Mackinaw Bridge table, which is made from a steel grate from the bridge, then the U.P. and we also pay homage to our Native American heritage.”

Amberlyn Hales’ goal is for everything at MI Table to represent the best Michigan has to offer.Since she opened in August, Hales has also held events designed to draw attention to Bay City’s history. In October, she hosted the 111th anniversary of the historic Wenonah Hotel, including a meal of original menu items and music from the hotel. (In December 1977, a deadly fire destroyed the hotel.)

Hales said she’s also planning to do a masquerade party for New Year’s Eve to give people an alternative.

Farm-to-table recipes and hospitality

Food connects people. ‘Everything of importance – weddings, funerals, arguments, celebrations ¬– all happens at a dinner table,’ says the owner of MI Table.Hales isn’t a classically trained chef, but she creates most of the recipes used in the restaurant. Her family cookbook supplements the menu. “It’s a combination of what I like to express creatively. My chicken pot pie recipe is my grandmother’s recipe for chicken pot pie.” That’s not to say she doesn’t take suggestions from her staff. She said if her sous chef has an idea for a recipe, they will talk about it.

The important thing is that the food represents what people want to eat in Michigan. “I really wanted to be a restaurant that represents the state of Michigan. I feel like we deserve something like that, so when people come to Michigan and go ‘We need to try Michigan food, well we need to go to Bay City because that’s where the state of Michigan restaurant is.’ That’s why it’s called MI Table. It’s come have a seat at MI Table and taste Pure Michigan.”

 “This is home,” Hales said. “I feel this is like the roots of who I am and I’m here to show people that there are still people in the world that can be and are kind. There are so many people who have had bad experiences or deal with negative people, and I feel like sometimes you just have to be nice, so that’s what I try to do.” 

 

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