Reflections: Summer Kitchen with Gary Sheuerman

Knowing the summer season is nearing full swing, Door County Restaurant owner Gary Sheuerman is preparing for less free time and more work.  Living on his ranch just outside of Ephraim, he busies himself raising his four mules and three horses as well as working on the landscape of his ranch. This summer he plans on expanding a small man-made pond near the horse stable, however, he doesn’t know if he’ll have the time.

“This time of year I have to think restaurant first,” Sheuerman said.

Sheuerman is the owner of the Summer Kitchen Restaurant in Ephraim. And like many business owners in Door County, he is very busy in the summer months. With his restaurant opening in May, he finds himself dusting off the winter month’s snow and firewood ash by playing with his dog Tad and working the ranch, slowly preparing himself for a new season at the restaurant.

The on-season/off-season lifestyle Sheuerman leads can be at times tiresome. Despite having the time to relax in the winter, he has less time to do the things he enjoys in the summer. And year-to-year, he never knows exactly how well the summer will go, which directly affects the off-season.  However, despite all the uncertainties of the business year, Sheuerman cherishes his time in Door County.

Growing up in Oconomowoc, WI, Sheuerman would travel with his family to Door County for vacations. These were fond childhood memories for Sheuerman. He remembered how the land meets the water and the warm feeling it gave him. Door County was a place he always wanted in his life.  After living in New York and Los Angeles, working primarily in the restaurant business, he decided to finally move to Door County. Not just for his memories and the natural beauty, but for the lifestyle and the people as well.

“The people of Door County have individual savvy, they know who they are,” Sheuerman explains. “No matter what walk of life you’re from, people accept you.”

In 1984, Sheuerman set his roots permanently in Door County with the intent of becoming a professional artist and starting his own studio. Painting and selling landscapes in oil, he opened the Harbor Gallery in Fish Creek. While his art business didn’t succeed as well as he would’ve liked, Sheuerman admits that he wasn’t there to make money.

“At that point in my life I was concerned with other things,” Sheuerman remarks. “I was in Door County to find myself and re-evaluate things. It’s a good place for that.”

In 1990, while still working as an artist, Sheuerman found a business opportunity with a lot of potential. The Summer Kitchen, a restaurant in Ephraim with a garden-like atmosphere, was for sale. Seeing that the restaurant was visibly appealing and had a small following, he thought the business had a good start. He decided to set his art career aside and venture forth with a perhaps more profitable path.

“People were referring to the restaurant as the ‘garden restaurant,” Sheuerman said. “I thought there was a niche there that I could build upon [and] expand the restaurant’s appeal.”

The Summer Kitchen, circa 1975.

Sheuerman knew he had to be smart when first starting a restaurant in Door County. He understood that living and working on the peninsula is a different experience from what most people are used to. There are several sides to the county’s economy that are unlike many areas; there is the on and off-seasons, the tourism economy, and the communication between area businesses. Before Sheuerman purchased The Summer Kitchen Restaurant, he knew what he had to do.

“I knew I couldn’t go in to it with rose-colored glasses,” Sheuerman explains. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy, I was open to change, I watched trends, and I started to develop relationships with surrounding businesses.”

The Summer Kitchen Restaurant has an atmosphere similar to that of a European garden complete with trelliswork, flowers, and blooming plants. It has an open-air casual setting with both inside and outside seating. After Sheuerman purchased the restaurant he did the things he felt necessary to improve the business. He made additions to the menu, which is famous for its various kinds of soups. He added an assortment of dishes that include vegetarian options, various salads, European American and Hispanic dishes, and homemade pies. He also expanded and maintained the series of floral gardens and sculptures that surround the restaurant’s landscape. Finally, he made sure he had a good reliable staff, by knowing and hiring the right people. The result of Sheuerman’s work is one of Door County’s more popular restaurants.

“The restaurant’s atmosphere and menu are inspired by the cafés one might find in California,” Sheuerman explains. “It is a casual meeting place with a stimulating setting and a menu with lots of variety.”

For Sheuerman, owning a successful restaurant in Door County is not without its trials. The most obvious of such trials is the fore-mentioned seasonal dichotomy of the county’s tourist industry. The restaurant is intensely busy during the summer, while closed during the winter. The short business season can be very demanding in terms of making enough revenue for the entire year. Between maintaining equipment, securing a productive staff, keeping up with inventory, and countless other responsibilities, he finds himself with little time for activities not business related.

“During the summer I rarely have an entire day to myself,” explains Sheuerman. “I have to be at the restaurant at least part of every day.”

Along with a heavy workload, one the most important things that Sheuerman does for his business is establishing and maintaining relationships with other businesses in the area. Like many tourism centers, networking among local businesses is very common in Door County. The belief is that word-of-mouth travels much further when businesses recommend other businesses, especially in smaller populations.

“An interesting thing about Door County is there are many residents who own their own business,” Sheuerman explains. “As a part of the community and the business community, you do your part in helping out, and they’ll help you.”

After the summer and fall seasons, activity in Door County seems to suddenly move from a running pace to a crawling pace. There are far less cars on the road. Many residents leave for their winter homes. The area becomes more isolated and the local residents who stay get ready for a quiet hibernation during a long slow winter season. Sheuerman closes his restaurant during this time of year.

The Summer Kitchen, circa 1991.

“After the season, I need about two months to be by myself and reflect,” Sheuerman said with a smile. “I just put a log on the fire and watch the snow fall.”

Despite the ample relaxation time, Sheuerman does admit that the isolation of Door County in the winter can be a bit trying. If the summer wasn’t as successful as previous years he may have to adopt a tighter budget. If it was a successful summer, he may take several trips throughout the winter.  Owning a business in a tourism community, there is no guarantee of what the off-season will bring for Sheuerman. He survives the tough off-season by maintaining self-reliance and being comfortable alone with nature, as well as sustaining a network of support, including friends and family.

With its miles of shoreline and breathtaking landscapes, Door County remains one of the Midwest’s premiere tourist destinations. After visiting, few people leave the peninsula without asking themselves what would it be like to live and work there. This sometimes can be easier said than done.  Nineteen years ago, Gary Sheuerman came to Door County and asked himself the same question. With a little fortitude and know-how he was able to answer it.

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