When Blake and Lauren Schar were offered the chance to lease the Fireside Restaurant in Ellison Bay, they jumped at the opportunity. Three years later, they think it was the best decision they ever made.
Blake had years of experience running kitchens for other restaurant owners, starting in high school, when he had a summer job cooking in a bar owned by the parents of a friend. He never expected it to become a career, but by the time he got to college at Michigan State – cooking in a sports bar and the dorm kitchen where Lauren Pannucci lived – he had fallen in love with both the job and Lauren, who was studying child development.
When Blake graduated with a degree in criminal justice, they moved to Arizona, so he could attend the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. They both had good jobs there, but were homesick for the Midwest. He posted his resume online and was interviewed by a national restaurant chain. While that didn’t work out, Blake became acquainted with the president of the chain, who introduced him to a man in the Quad Cities who owned a small restaurant in Peoria and planned to open a larger one. The start-up, the Woodfire Grill, became Blake’s responsibility.
It was a wonderful opportunity, but the family, that now included three very young children, was never together.
“Blake was cooking seven days a week in a restaurant that served lunch and dinner,” Lauren said. “The only way the children could see their dad was to go to the restaurant. I was constantly shushing them or handing them my cellphone to keep them quiet.”
The toy boxes in the Fireside’s dining room are a reminder of that time. “When we opened here,” Lauren recalled, “I said that children would always be welcome.” That includes their own children – daughters Megan, 9, and Andie, 11, and son Jake, 13.
If Lauren and Blake are at the restaurant, the kids (unless they’re in school) are there, too. Megan likes to hostess in a borrowed waitress apron. Andie is always in the kitchen with her dad. (She loves to bake and has her own set of chef’s knives.) Jake also works in the kitchen, but his real love is math. He helps out as a junior bookkeeper and wants to be a sports statistician when he grows up.
Lauren’s place is in the dining room, where she loves chatting with guests. “I want to make sure our customers are truly happy,” she said. “The Fireside – named for the huge fireplace in the dining room – has a long-standing good reputation, and we want to keep that going. I love our staff, too. It makes me happy to see them become the best versions of themselves.”
The Schars feel incredibly lucky to be in Door County. “We are so grateful,” said Lauren. “Grateful to be here, grateful that Blake has the opportunity to do exactly what he’s always wanted to do and grateful for the wonderful people who live or vacation in Door County.”
“People are truly different here,” Blake added. “We recently hired a new waitress who had lots of experience elsewhere. She hadn’t been here long when she said she couldn’t believe how happy and kind our customers are.”
Lauren noted that The Fireside is a “destination” restaurant, with no walk-in traffic. “It’s not a spur of the minute decision. Everyone is here because they specifically chose this place and drove here,” she said.
The restaurant accepts reservations. In fact, many of the locals have standing reservations. “Yes,” said Lauren, laughing, “they call us if they’re not coming in.”
The Fireside is open six days a week from May 1 to Oct. 31. “The first year, we planned to close after Halloween,” Blake said. “But then regular customers started asking what we’d feature for Thanksgiving dinner, so we thought, ‘OK, we’ll stay open until Thanksgiving.’” Then they started asking us to cater Christmas parties. (Catering is a big part of their business.)
As it turned out, they stayed open Thursday through Saturday until the end of February.
Blake said that the menu reflects their life – Creole cooking and southern hospitality from New Orleans, Blake’s hometown, the southwest influence from Arizona, Midwest favorites and a touch of French cuisine. Best-sellers include jambalaya, ribs and chicken and waffles.
Lauren adds that, because every dish is created in-house, Blake can customize to meet special needs.
A customer from Acworth, Georgia, commented on the Yelp webpage, “I suffer from a handful of food allergies and there wasn’t a single thing on the menu I was able to eat. The chef and owner came out to my table and took down all the allergies and told me he was going to make me a special dish since nothing on the menu worked for me. He made an awesome pork belly plate for me and it was just fantastic.“
Each year when the restaurant is closed, the Schar family takes a cross-country trip, with stops picked by the children. They keep up with their school work and each of them keeps a daily diary. It’s a logical extension of their parents’ deep commitment to putting family first.
Their other commitment, of course, is to The Fireside. “I am most proud,” said Lauren, “of how our customers seem to understand our mission: Give more than expected and do it cheerfully.”
The Fireside Restaurant is located at 11934 Hwy 42 in Ellison Bay. For more information call 920.854.7999 or visit thefiresiderestaurant.com.