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Tales from Penny's Kitchen - Great people, great food and 'Help Wanted'

From Vineyard & Brew Shoppe to Penny's Kitchen, business thrives through two fires, a pandemic, economic recession, current employment trends

Deep within the heart of historic downtown Sault Sainte Marie, the pots and pans of Penny’s Kitchen chime behind generations of laughter and conversation nourished by the same warm chicken soup, fluffy bread loaves and colorful sugar cookies that has kept it beating all 28 years.

Penny, herself, was comfortably seated at a table adjacent to the piano alongside the building’s original red brick last Tuesday morning. She was accompanied by husband Carl Stutzner and one of three daughters, Catherine Stutzner. Christine Stutzner and Sally Stutzner Roeckell were not present. 

“The best part has been watching my parents persevere through everything that they have had to go through, between two fires and the ups and downs of the economy,” Catherine said. “They have always been really good to their employees and customers.”

Catherine was only 10-years-old when her mom and dad started the family business. 

“The best part was we used to have these candy jars,” said Catherine. “As a young girl, that was the best. You would walk in and it was all candy.”

Preceding Penny’s Kitchen, they sold retail.

“We opened the Vineyard & Brew Shoppe in 1982,” Carl said, looking back 40 years. “Everything we had was upscale stuff.”

“I really ran a good business,” said Penny. “I sold beer making supplies and spices. I had a kitchen shop and spices.”

“We had cooking classes too,” Catherine added.   

But it did not take long before K-mart and Walmart took over the town. Corporate competitors were able to buy stuff cheaper than Vineyard & Brew could on wholesale.

“That kind of put a kibosh on the whole thing,” said Carl. “We got evicted because they wanted to tear down the building. We were left with the dilemma to either close the building or buy.”

Evtually, they came to purchase the old Belvedere Ships Tavern in 1994.

“It was a watering hole its entire life,” said Carl. “I remember, back in the day, this place used to be hopping. You could barely squeeze in here. There was a cover charge coming in here. It was wild. That was back then.”

According to legend, the bar should have made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records.  

“It was an old rumor that the Belvedere had the longest record of a chicken with its head cut off,” said Catherine.

The story goes that while a headless chicken or two may have frequented the lounge on occasion, Guinness has confirmed a Wyandotte chicken named Mike survived 18 months without a head. Lloyd Olsen of Fruita, Colorado owned the headless chicken. He fed and watered it using an eyedropper to fill its gullet. Then, Mike choked to death in an Arizona motel on September 10, 1945.   

The old Belvedere had also seen its last days when Carl tore through six-inches of flooring to get to the original wood. It is the same wooden floor seen today, thin boards resembling a small bowling alley.

“You should have seen these walls,” Penny said, motioning behind her. “There was no brick. No brick.” 

Plaster once covered all sides and corners.  

“We took it all down,” said Carl. “And we are standing here looking at it. All of a sudden, the whole wall collapsed. All the plaster fell off. We are standing here in this dust.”    

Everyone laughed. Penny longed for a small sandwich shop and it was exactly what she wound up with. 

“Here we are with a small, itty-bitty sandwich shop,” said Carl.

There was a time, however, when Penny’s Kitchen was far from “itty-bitty.”

“It kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Catherine. “I worked here all the time.” 

Catherine credited both parents for her hard work ethic, as she went off to Ferris State University.  

“Between Christmas and Thanksgiving, there wasn’t anything but work,” said Catherine. “I mean, that is what we did. It was 30 percent of our income. That was our livelihood. My mother worked her butt off. It put all of us through college.” 

In return, Catherine wrote a college thesis on her parents' shop.

“My senior thesis was a business plan for Penny’s Kitchen,” Catherine explained. “It was presented to the Small Business Association (SBA) and got them the loan to start this business. Between myself and my sisters, it was the family business that brought Penny’s kitchen to life.”

Penny’s Kitchen was born in 1994, making this year its 28th as a bakery and diner. 

“There wasn’t much competition,” said Catherine. “The biggest competition was the grocery store. Back in the early 90s, there was Marshall Field and Hudson. Upstairs, Hudson’s would have big delicious cookies and salads. A lot of that is what we brought to Sault Ste. Marie.”

The plan was to continue selling retail but incorporate a deli. Each had its own side of the store. 

But Penny's Kitchen caught fire in 2001.

“It was an electric fire,” said Carl. “The electrician nicked one of the wires when putting the staples in. It happened to be the hottest day of the year. Everything was working overtime. The wires heated up, causing the timber to start to smother and start to burn.”

Fortunately, insurance completely covered the damage.

“It wasn’t too badly destroyed,” Penny said. “All my retail that was on this side, food and spices, had to go.”

The family decided to focus solely on the deli after that. About 13 years later, flames and smoke would threaten the business once again.

“They paved the parking lot and no one was watching the ‘kindergarten playground,’” said Carl. “This guy was walking around with his torch and heating the blacktop right alongside the building. He caught the timbers on fire and they started smothering. There was smoke puffing out. When I got here, the fire department underneath, trying to work this fire. I came in here and put my hand on the floor. There was a hotspot. I put my hand on the wall, there was a hotspot there.”

Carl called the crew into the restaurant. 

“The first thing they did was take their chainsaw and… woosh,” said Carl, describing a dense smoke cloud. “They cut out the hole.”

“The place was full of smoke and smoke damages,” Catherine said.

“But I had good insurance,” Penny jumped in.

 The business thrived after that, defeating economic downfalls and COVID, into the present day. Lately, the only adversity seems to be a lack of job applicants.

“It has been really hard to get anyone to work in the evenings,” said Catherine. 

“You get your food at a discount,” said Carl. “You are working at a very friendly place. Tips are very, very good. They do well on tips. It has gotten to the point where we have been short and have had to close a couple days because of that.”

Catherine referred to the diner as an “independent workplace.” Employees are treated as family friends and have a lot of freedom, assuming the work gets done.

At Penny’s Kitchen, customers get food made as they want it. Order a farmers omelette and switch the ham out for bacon if desired. It is no big deal. 

“If we don’t have something they want, we build it for them,” said Carl.  

Penny’s would like to acquire the employees needed to do more catering and maybe even host music nights again. 

“A lot of the guys who worked here played,” said Catherine. “There was a time when one played the bass and one played the sax. We had open mic. nights.”

The family is trying to bring it all back, reminding anyone looking for work that Penny’s Kitchen is hiring. 

“This is a generational place,” said Carl. “If you look at it, we started with young ladies bringing their daughters in. Now, their young daughters bring their daughters in. They bring grandma in with them too. We get to know some of our customers really well.”

Penny and Carl have grown into grandparents right beside them. Penny still works in the kitchen today. She frosts sugar cookies and completes some of the book work. Carl is a retired Michigan State Police Trooper. He helps out at the kitchen as well.

“One year, a fellow came in here who had moved away,” said Carl. “He was traveling on the west coast some place. Anyway, I am talking to him and he says, ‘I lived here for a while, and I have moved on. I am trying to find a place just like this but I haven’t found it. The thing I miss about it is your sugar cookies.' He says, ‘How many you got?’ I says, ‘I got about three or four dozen back there.' ‘I’ll take them all.’ I sold them all to him. He had his fix, there, for weeks.”      

Carl referred to such customers as family. They may not pop in all the time but they always come back to say hello.       

“It’s been 28 years as Penny’s Kitchen in Sault Ste. Marie,” said Catherine. “There aren’t many businesses in town that can say they’ve been here that long. They are proud and happy to be part of Sault Ste. Marie. That one of the reasons they won’t ever sell is because he doesn't ever want it to change. We may or may have not said let’s close the place, so that they can retire. Dad doesn’t want to because he wants to be a constant for the community.”

Penny's Kitchen is open Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday from 7 a..m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 112 W Spruce St W, Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Call 906-632-1232 for more information. 

Remember, Penny's Kitchen is hiring.