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Wednesday, January 4,2012

Final orders

Sawyer’s Pancake House closes, but the owners leave the door open to new possibilities

by Joe Torok
Early on New Year’s Eve morning, plates of eggs, pancakes and bacon were stacking up at the order window for loyal patrons visiting Sawyer’s Gourmet Pancake House the day before it turned off its griddle for good.  

Sawyer’s opened almost four years ago in an inauspicious economy; the financial collapses may have been a year away for the rest of the nation, but in Michigan, a deep recession was old-hat.

Sawyer’s was the reincarnation of a pioneering concept revolving around ethically based food practices attempted by Bob and Jim Sawyer three decades prior in Houghton Lake.

Angie Brown, a member of the Sawyer’s family figuratively as a server and, in the near future, literally as fiancÚ of fellow server and catering manager Jake Sawyer, said that although the crew only knew for certain last week that Sawyer’s would be closing its doors for good, it had endured financial struggles for many months.

“We’ve been fighting an uphill battle for a while,” Brown said.  

Although Brown would not detail specifics regarding the nature of Sawyer’s financial difficulties, she said an accumulation of factors led to the closing, including the ever-increasing price of food, many behind-the-scenes costs of running a small business and not-so-minor annoyances, like having been broken into and robbed the week before Christmas.    

As the original Sawyer’s did in its days at Houghton Lake, the Lansing restaurant near the corner of Pine Street on Saginaw Street kept a keen focus on buying local and serving organic food.  

It’s a concept people like, Brown said. “We were really passionate about that concept. We were maybe more focused on that than on making a ton of money.”

Patrons were surprised Sawyer’s was ending its run. Many expressed disbelief to servers as they were escorted to a table for the final time.

Loretta Johnston visited Sawyer’s for breakfast on New Year’s Eve and was thrilled to discover she had another opportunity to come back to one of her favorite restaurants the next day. She was partial to the pancakes, a Sawyer’s specialty. Johnston, who preferred pecan, said she couldn’t think of an alternative local eatery with anything comparable.

“I just love the pancakes,” she said, as The Beatles sang “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on the radio. Johnston admired the mission of Sawyer’s, too. “We totally support the locally grown and organic aspects of this business,” she said.

“And small businesses, too,” added Olivia Reed, a fellow Sawyer’s supporter.  “It’s so risky.”

Originally a breakfast-only diner, Sawyer’s expanded to offer dinner hours and attempted a short-lived, late-night dining club in 2008. With a small business budget, Sawyer’s relied on word of mouth as its primary source of advertising; smell of nose undoubtedly drew new customers, too. Sawyer’s smoked all of its meats out front on a big grill, one of so many practices that made Sawyer’s true to its guiding principles.

Those days are gone, but perhaps not permanently. Despite the closing of the diner, Sawyer’s will keep the catering end of its business operating.

Brown hopes a fresh start is in the cards for the restaurant.

“A lot of things are up in the air, but we are looking for a new location,” Brown said, adding that a spot in the heart of Old Town looks particularly appealing. “If someone came to us today and said, ‘We have this much to invest,’ we’d get things going tomorrow.”

Last week, though, new beginnings seemed like the distant future. Goodbyes were accompanied by smiles with furrowed brows and stiff upper lips that occasionally quivered.

“I’m really sad that we’re closing,” Brown said. “There’s a guy who lives down the street, Charles, who comes in here every day and gets the same thing.” Pregnant tears paused along her eyelids. “He said he was going to be out of town and couldn’t be here for the final day. I gave him a hug and told him I was so sad.”

If all goes well in the interim and Sawyer’s is reborn yet again, such sadness shall be short-lived.  Until then — and even if not — as The Beatles said, life goes on.

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