(Photo by John Cook) Juliana Stricker (right), owner of Valerie’s Downtown restaurant in Saginaw, is a 1999 Reese High School graduate. She’s shown with Shari Smith, former owner of Shari at the Willard Hillton, a Bay County fine-dining establishment. Stricker has secured the assistance of Smith and Smith’s daughters as Stricker opens her restaurant.

Reese recipe: Family, friends help open Saginaw eatery

When Juliana Stricker sought help opening a new restaurant in downtown Saginaw, she didn’t have to look far.

Stricker, a 1999 Reese High School graduate and resident of Saginaw County’s Blumfield Township, has relied on Reese High classmates as well as her parents, Reese grads Robert and Juanita “Jane” Stricker, to create Valerie’s Downtown restaurant.

“Right now, in the beginning, I need a lot of extra help while we’re still figuring things out,” said Juliana Stricker, working Thursday with her mom and dad – and others – in the eatery that opened Tuesday at 216 S. Washington Ave.

“My parents have been my biggest supporters, by far. They’re both around. Mom will come a little later but Dad’s my early bird, so he usually arrives even before I do.”

Juliana Stricker, who worked in the medical field but sought a career change by purchasing the restaurant building – formerly housing Wally’s Old Fashioned Sandwich Shop – named the eatery after her sister, the late Valerie Stricker, who died in 1996.

“She’s my big sister and we were very close in age,” Juliana Stricker said. “She’s always going to be a huge part of my life, in my heart, so when I was thinking about the name, this was really the only thing that ever seemed right. 

“This is in honor of her, and what people remember most about her, I think, is her smile. She had a very outgoing personality and was very friendly.”

Mikaela Stricker, a 2015 Reese High School graduate and Juliana Stricker’s sister, works occasionally as server in the eatery, where a menu item, Mikaela’s Michigan Salad, is named for her.

Valerie’s Downtown, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, serves sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts. 

A sandwich, The Cubano, is its version of a staple at the former Wally’s Old Fashioned Sandwich Shop – the Cuban sandwich.

The sandwich features “pork roasted to perfection with grilled ham, Swiss cheese and pickles, piled on grilled French bread,” according to the Valerie’s Downtown menu.

Valerie’s Downtown also carries chicken noodle soup, a signature item at Wally’s Old Fashioned Sandwich Shop. But Juliana Stricker offers several Mexican-style entrees, including “Ma’s Trash Can Nachos!” served on a mini metal replica of a trash-can lid.

The menu states the lid is “filled with a generous amount of house tortilla chips, authentic seasoned ground chuck, black beans, corn, black olives, jalapenos, guacamole, Mexican cheeses, Mexican crema and Ma’s salsa.”

Juliana Stricker oversaw extensive renovations inside the eatery, where workers installed new flooring, hauled out plaster to expose a brick wall, and removed an artificial ceiling to restore a decorative metal ceiling above it. Sets of modern track lights, of different styles, provide contrast.

A church pew along one wall serves as seats, with several tables facing it. A decorative slab of wood is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the restaurant, with lights and crystals hanging from the slab – an avant-garde touch of décor designed by Juliana Stricker.

“I like to think of the look as eclectic,” she said. “I really like being part of the downtown community, and I really like taking something that’s old, with a lot of history to it, and bringing the beauty back into it.

“The building is over 130 years old so, of course, nothing is perfect, but I don’t want perfection. I think that there’s a lot of beauty in imperfection. That’s what this has been. That’s the original brick wall.

“The people who knew what the restaurant was before, and see it now, say it’s like night and day. A lot of them can’t believe it’s the same place. They wonder if I put that ceiling in, but I say ‘No, I just uncovered it.’ That’s the original ceiling. It required a lot of restoration and a lot of TLC, but that was there.”

Wally’s Old Fashioned Sandwich Shop had been closed for several months before Stricker reopened it under the new name this week. While undertaking the restaurant renovation and planning business details, she relied on Jeremy Kuhne, who with his brother, Jason Kuhne, own Gambles Do It Best Hardware in Caro.

“They’re great guys and have been very good friends of our family since I was in my teens, and possibly earlier,” Juliana Stricker said. “Jeremy has been a huge help with all of this, not only from a business standpoint, but in other ways.”

Jeremy Kuhne created a vinyl sign on the front window, suggested an arch be installed to separate the dining area from the kitchen, and was “the brain behind” ensuring operation of the eatery’s signature lighting fixture suspended from the ceiling, according to Stricker.

Two of Juliana Stricker’s Reese High School classmates, Brandon Zissler and Jason Herbert, have assisted her effort. Stricker used Zissler’s business, Affordable Dumpsters, during renovation work at the building. Herbert, of Herbert Roofing & Insulation Inc., has provided advice.

Stricker also has secured the culinary assistance of Shari Smith, an executive chef who once owned Shari at the Willard Hillton, a rural Bay County fine-dining restaurant that closed in 2017. Smith and Mike Driver, Smith’s boyfriend, cooked at Valerie’s Downtown on Thursday.

“We come in as a consultation and training company,” said Smith, 59, whose daughters own that business, Boxey’s Food & Catering L.L.C. of Midland.

“My idea was that the recipes stay consistent, and the recipe cards are made so Juliana will be able to step in next, as soon as we’re settled here. Then she can learn all the recipes, and cook.”

Smith said her daughter, Timmi Baird, has helped cook at Valerie’s Downtown this week. Smith’s daughter, Summer Weddel, works as a server at the eatery.

“My mom retired and we closed down (Shari at the Willard Hillton), and we all kind of took a break from restaurant life,” said Weddel, 30, of Midland. “My mom met Juliana and all of this kind of just fell together. We realized ‘Yeah, we missed the restaurant industry, let’s jump in and see what happens here.’”

Smith said she met Juliana Stricker “by accident” when Stricker sought to buy restaurant equipment Smith advertised on Facebook Marketplace.

“Our stories align so much,” Smith said. “When I bought a place, I almost cried, because you buy it and you know how you have to redo it. Her whole entire family has stepped in. When I bought the Willard, my whole family stepped in. All our friends, all our family, cousins. Everybody helped make the dream come true.”

Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com.

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