In 2012 the Executive Director of the Manistee Main Street/Downtown Development Authority (MSDDA) approached Chuck and Connie Freiberg, the owners of the Blue Cow Café, a fresh farm-to-table restaurant in Big Rapids, with a downtown market study for Manistee. At the time, neither party may have initially realized the future impact of what that meeting could hold for downtown Manistee, located 80 miles away.
The Freiberg’s had considered expanding their business and the market research provided by the MSDDA helped sway the decision to visit Manistee. Overall they felt that the downtown was experiencing a renaissance and moving upwards, with another potential catalyst project for downtown in the restoration and reopening of the Vogue Theatre. They then purchased a large building that anchored the east end of downtown that had been vacant for several years.
However, simply purchasing the 12,000 square foot historic building and moving in right away wasn’t a feasible option. A full renovation was needed to make the space operational, including roof repairs, selective demolition, new interior and exterior paint, carpet, kitchen equipment, bar and fireplace updates, a new prep room, HVAC system, hot water heater, a point of sale system, furniture, glassware, and silverware.
In order to cost-effectively bring this business idea to fruition, assistance was needed. Through application by the City of Manistee on the Freiberg’s behalf, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) was able to award a $330,000 Signature Building Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to assist with the building acquisition based upon the number of jobs created and the matching renovation investments by Chuck and Connie. Additionally, the MSDDA was able to provide a local $70,000 low-interest short-term loan, as well as a $15,000 facade grant for the exterior improvements. They enlisted help from Michigan Works to screen applicants and provide interview space, and the Alliance for Economic Success was able to help with some challenges in obtaining a liquor license from the State.
Celebrating their one year anniversary in July 2014, the Freiberg’s have been happy with the success of the restaurant. They met their projected income numbers for the first year, and have had numerous local residents and visitors share their appreciation for bringing fine dining into downtown Manistee. They currently have 38 employees, and have experienced a low turnover compared to most restaurants; about 60-70% of original hires are still on board 1 year later.
Bluefish Kitchen + Bar is located at 312 River Street in downtown Manistee. They feature new American dining in a relaxed lakeshore atmosphere with an extensive wine list, craft beer and artisan cocktails, hand-cut steaks, farm-to-table and artisan fare, and a large selection of Great Lakes fish artfully prepared by a team of chefs. There are 178 seats on the first level including a seasonal outside riverfront patio, and 150 seats on the upper level, which is used for meeting, events, and weddings.