VASSAR – Passers-by have pressed their faces against the windows of the former Betty Lou’s Restaurant in this Tuscola County city for weeks, seeking a glimpse of Vassar’s future provided by those who have polished up its past.
Tuesday morning, though, customers enjoyed a first-hand look at the Riverside Grill, which opened for business at a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places – in a building that had been vacant for several years.
Workers renovated the dining room and kitchen of the eatery at 194 E. Huron Avenue – the fifth new business to open this year in a one-block stretch of downtown Vassar along East Huron Avenue (M-15).
Restaurant owners Bart and Krystal Long are conducting a “soft opening” this week, operating for limited hours for a few days, with a grand opening planned for early October. About 30 employees work at the restaurant, located inside the Columbia Hotel, a Vassar landmark built in 1892 for original owner James P. Blackmore.
“It’s filling up,” Bart Long said of downtown Vassar, a city with no shortage of vacant storefronts several years ago.
The Longs, of Tuscola County’s Watertown Township, planned to be open from 7 a.m. to about 1 p.m. today and Thursday, but said hours could expand by Friday. They urged customers to visit their Facebook page, “Riverside Grill,” for details.
“We’ll have the ‘Open’ sign out when we’re open,” Bart Long said.
Ron Anderson of Lapeer County’s Rich Township, owner of the building, has overseen improvements to the structure that have occurred during the past several months. Additions include new restrooms, a new ceiling, new floor and carpeting, new chairs, and many new tables.
Matt Bock of Millington made about half of the oak tabletops in the eatery, along with the top of the bar.
“My whole kitchen is brand new,” Krystal Long said. “I’m very proud of it. I’ll show it to anybody.”
Eventually, the restaurant will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., offering appetizers, sandwiches, salads, burgers, steaks and a breakfast menu.
Riverside Grill is open seven days a week.
“I think we’re going to run with our full menu by Friday,” Krystal Long said.
“If everything goes well,” Bart Long added.
Bart Long said he and his wife were “overwhelmed with applications” from job-seekers – or their parents.
“A lot of it is someone calls and says ‘My son needs a job,’” Bart Long said.
Other businesses that have opened this year in downtown Vassar include Sambuca Café, Candyland Ice Cream & Gifts, Sweetcakes Cakery and Rebel Soul women’s clothes and accessories store.
“I love this community and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Krystal Long said. “I think everybody’s really going to find their place and they’re going to settle in well. The place is big enough for everybody to be successful.”
The new businesses are near the Vassar Theatre, a restored moviehouse that opened in 1937. The theater closed for much of 2014, though, following the death of then-owner Timothy O’Brien, only to reopen in January of 2015 under new owners Andreas and Susan Fuchs.
“The theater is beautiful, too,” said Krystal Long, who met her husband, Bart, in the eatery they now run – when it was known as Betty Lou’s Restaurant.
“It’s so much more fun to go to the Vassar Theatre than to go to one of the big-box theaters that are all the same. When you go here, you get to step back in time.”
For some, a trip to Riverside Grill connects to the past in Vassar, a onetime logging town known as the “Cork Pine City” for the white pine trees that grew in abundance along the Cass River. The name “Blackmore,” its original owner, remains carved near the top of the Riverside Grill’s exterior, above one of the entrance doors.
Several historic photographs of Vassar grace the restaurant’s interior. Krystal Long said there are plans to renovate the building exterior as well. Architectural details once adorning the structure include a conical turret atop the roof, a feaure Krystal Long calls the “witch’s hat.”
“We actually found the blueprints for the ‘witch’s hat’ that goes on the top,” she said.
The top of the bar where workers will register sales is highlighted by several thousand pennies – all minted in 2016 and covered with epoxy.
The Longs said they and their friends labored to help expedite the opening of their eatery. “We’d probably still be three months away if it wasn’t for Jason Smith (of Mayville) helping us,” Bart Long said.
The Longs have applied for a liquor license and plan to offer six brands of beer on tap after receiving the license.
“I’m just happy to never sand anything again for the rest of my life,” said Krystal Long, who said she spent about three months sanding the wainscoting along the restaurant’s interior wall, and beneath the front of the bar. Workers stained the wainscoting to elicit a darker, richer color.
“Then for all the drywall repair, Bart mudded and I sanded,” Krystal Long said. “I think we did a pretty darn good job of it, and we didn’t have to wait for any contractors to show up.”
The Longs figure customers will appreciate improvements made this year to the restaurant’s 2,000-square-foot dining room.
“We accomplished a lot in a short amount of time,” Bart Long said. “To the general public, five or six months might seem like a long time, but there was a lot more to it than throwing food on the grill.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org