“Food is more than just sustenance; it’s a gift that [people] give each other for social gatherings and it’s a tool for a lot of things, and I think it provides happiness.”
Twenty-five years ago, Klaudia “Klaud” Crawford left her homeland of the Slovak Republic for the United States. Culinary degree in hand, she spent the next two decades opening a handful of successful restaurants in Illinois, thriving on the “free creative process of taking something and making something wonderful out of it.”
Five years ago, Klaud and her partner, Gayle George, brought that culinary gift to Door County. While many restaurant owners have come to the peninsula for its rich tourism industry, it was the local community and its undying support during the couple’s most trying time that led them to open Klaud’s Kitchen in Sister Bay this spring.
The couple’s history together goes back two decades to the Village of Long Grove, Illinois, just 35 miles northwest of Chicago. Klaud owned and operated the Country Cupboard Café (opened in 1995), which Gayle, herself a coffee shop owner, used to frequent. They met at the restaurant in 2000 and, with restaurant ownership a shared talent, opened a popcorn and fudge shop in Long Grove two years later.
The next decade would see them selling the café, closing the popcorn and fudge shop, and moving Klaud’s restaurant (renamed The Lavender Restaurant) to East Dundee, Illinois, before selling it in favor of a move to Door County in 2010. The reason? Pursuit of more balanced lives and for Gayle, retirement.
“Not that that ever really happened,” Klaud quipped. “She’s back at it again.”
Klaud immediately hit the Door County restaurant circuit, working in a variety of kitchens across the peninsula and making a name for herself, a drive that was temporarily delayed when she received a cancer diagnosis in 2012. That diagnosis and subsequent outpouring of support from the community directly led to what would become Klaud’s Kitchen.
“She was off work for almost a year and the community just embraced her,” Gayle said. “So many people offered to help and it was absolutely amazing to see, for being here such a short amount of time. It’s a close-knit community. It was really remarkable how they helped her.”
A year later, a healthy Klaud put her new lease on life to work. Literally.
“It kind of made me rethink what I want to do for the rest of my life – I want to work for myself,” she said. “I am the happiest when I am 100 percent free to create, and that’s kind of what happened. I talked to Gayle about it and she helped me make it happen.”
“She’s talented enough to have it,” Gayle added. “She should be working for herself.”
In August 2014, the couple started their business plan and two months later, construction on a 1,500-square-foot addition to their Country Walk Drive home began. On Memorial Day weekend, Klaud’s Kitchen opened to the public.
“It makes it sound like you’re coming to our home which is exactly what we wanted it to be,” Klaud said of the aptly named eatery and bakery.
“My house, my way. It’s really cool,” she laughed. “More creativity, more opportunity to do what I want to do, and I’m just lucky that people like what I make.”
From the moment the sign on the window said “Open,” those individuals who brought Klaud flowers and cards, stopped by to say “hello,” and drove her to treatments during her illness years earlier became her loyal customers.
Both Gayle and Klaud say there was no gradual opening for them – from day one, they hit the ground running, working an average of 70 hours each week.
“We don’t do days off,” Gayle said.
“When you do something you love, you don’t need too many days off,” Klaud added.
As the only two employees of the business, Gayle oversees the front of the house, making drinks, serving customers, and being the warm welcome to the locals who frequent the place. In the meantime, Klaud is in the back, satisfying wholesale orders for local restaurants and coffee shops, catering for pick-up, and designing the menu for her own kitchen. Retired friends of the couple help out when needed.
The menu is a balanced offering of American and ethnic-inspired soups, sandwiches, sweet treats and drinks, and for the true foodies, the couple offers a specialized dinner event called Chef Dinners.
For these once-weekly dinners, Klaud and Gayle accept just one reservation – a minimum of four diners and a maximum of eight. From 6 – 9 pm, Klaud’s quaint café space is converted into an intimate candlelit setting, complete with tablecloths, special dinnerware and a server. Taking allergies and food preferences into account, Klaud writes the menu – appetizers, salad, entrees and dessert.
“But you don’t know what you’re eating until you get here,” Gayle said.
Those Chef Dinners have become a great way for the couple to expose individuals to Klaud’s creations, of which ethnic dishes are a specialty. One of her biggest hits this season has been her goulash, inspired by her father, and her beautiful cakes, inspired by her mother’s love of baking.
Those family memories growing up in the Slovak Republic have come full-circle in Klaud’s life and career in Door County.
“My father was a really great cook, he always wanted to be a chef, so I helped him in the kitchen and my mom was a really good baker,” Klaud said. “It was their hobby. We were always in the kitchen. We had a huge garden and grew our own vegetables. Some of that comes back to using a lot of local suppliers here in Door County. It came back full circle growing up in the old country.”
Now that they have quickly become established as the eatery of locals in Sister Bay (Gayle guesses 90 percent of the people who walk through the door are locals, the rest being a split between summer residents and tourists), Gayle and Klaud are confident that they have found their place in the community.
“It wasn’t about the cash register for us,” Gayle said. “Klaud has a passion for cooking and baking, and we wanted to be part of the community and we wanted to pay them back for rallying around us and her when she was ill. You just have to be good at what you’re doing, you have to do the right thing, and the cash register will take care of itself.”
Klaud’s Kitchen is located at 2398 Country Walk Drive in Sister Bay. For more information, visit ChefKlaud.com or call 920.421.3971.