When Gagliardo and Bradley came to Door County in 1995 after hearing about the seasonal cooking scene from a neighbor in Michigan, they couldn’t have predicted that 25 years later, they would run one of the largest catering operations in the county, serving 25-30 weddings a year, and operating a seasonal fine-dining restaurant at Maxwelton Braes Golf Course in Baileys Harbor.
They got their Door County start cooking at Sister Bay’s Mission Grille, which is now LURE. They planned to stay for one summer, but they kept returning seasonally until they married in 1998 and stepped into leadership roles full time as the chef and front of house. They helped to transform the Mission Grille from a diner atmosphere to modern fine dining, pioneering a new landscape for great contemporary food and wine in Northern Door.
Over the years, they witnessed an increase in demand for off-site catering, and today they’ve turned that demand into the core of their own business, Thyme Cuisine and Catering.
Andrew Kleidon-Linstrom talked to Gagliardo and Bradley about their journey as part of our one-to-one series for the Door County Pulse Podcast. Some parts of the conversation have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full podcast, originally released in September 2019, at doorcountypulse.com/podcast-door-county-as-a-destination-wedding.
Andrew Kleidon-Linstrom (AK-L): First, tell us a little about Thyme Cuisine.
Karl Bradley (KB): We try to keep it simple. Our tagline is, “Simply done right.” We try to just do American cuisine with little hints of worldly flavors, like a little Thai flavor here, a little Mexican flavor there. Everything is made in-house fresh, from local ingredients when we can. We use a great produce person out of Baileys Harbor. It’s simply-done-right foods: nice, clean and easy.
AK-L: How did you get started with Thyme Catering?
KB: We actually started catering when we were at the Mission Grille still. The last few seasons there was when the off-premises wedding scene was growing at places like Woodwalk Gallery and Birch Creek. They started looking for caterers, so we got in the game, a little later than when Bruce [of Alexander’s] started doing weddings.
Tonda Gagliardo (TG): I want to interject because it was probably a lot earlier than what you think it was. I want to say 10 years into being at the Mission Grille, we started doing larger parties. Then the wedding planner up here, Carrie Baldwin at Door County Event Planners, came to us and asked us, “Would you ever be interested in doing off-site catering?” She was just getting into her business and needed caterers, and the only caterer at that time was Bruce at Alexander’s. More and more couples wanted catering, and he just couldn’t keep up with everything. We started doing little things off-site and then kind of took it full force. Now it’s our bread and butter.
AK-L: You guys oftentimes are catering more than one wedding each weekend, plus sometimes other catering events. How do you keep all your events straight?
KB: It’s taken a while to learn the right things to do. We’ve gotten some systems down, just like we did with the restaurant, where you have to go through checklists and make sure you’ve got everything lined up for one place and everything lined up for the next place.
TG: We do as much on-site cooking as we can. Karl and I were never in the catering business before, so we actually took the philosophy of our restaurant kitchen, and that’s how we execute food. We take a grill and grill everything right there. I say it’s “grill to plate” because that’s what it is.
KB: The biggest thing is being able to draw from the community for staff because it’s not our restaurant staff that does most of the catering – it’s locals who have 9-5 jobs. That’s the biggest thing – drawing 30-40 people on a Saturday to process an event.
TG: It’s curious to me. We have trouble at the restaurant – everyone has trouble at their businesses trying to find staff seasonally – [but] our catering staff, we never have a problem with because we have so many people who have been in this industry who say to us, “If you need our help catering, we’d love to come in.” I have people saying to me all the time, “Call me if you need me.”
AK-L: Has the wedding industry in Door County always been here, or is it more of a recent explosion?
TG: It’s always been here; however, not as much as it [has been] in the last five or six years. The first wedding we ever did off-site was at Woodwalk Gallery, and that was very new to what people were doing. The style of food, too, was new: the “family-style” food, where the family sits down and passes the food. It’s all about the food and the conversation. We do a lot of family-style food now, especially at barns.
When Karl and I got married in ’98, we’d only been here a couple years. We came, and we got married at the Mission Grille, and what we found is that because all of our family and friends were from Michigan, we invited 80 people, and a 110 came. People just wanted to see Door County. For your guests, it’s a vacation. We always tell brides and grooms, “Don’t go on the standard statistics of ‘X amount of people are not going to show up’ because a lot more people will come to Door County for your wedding. Which is an incredible thing for the economy up here because it brings people into the community.
AK-L: That was my experience, too. My wife and I got married up here a couple years ago. Her side of the family was very familiar with the county, and my side had never been up here before. We structured it so people started coming in on Friday; we had our groom’s dinner that night; and Saturday was the wedding; and then we had brunch the next day at Alexander’s. So people got to come up here for a full weekend and enjoy a bunch of different stuff in different locations, too. We had our marriage at church and our reception at the English Inn, and we had cocktail hour at the Alpine Resort. Of course, we were just doing the wedding thing, but everyone else had time to go explore and do the tourism thing while they were up here, too.
TG: That’s why we love to do weddings. We love not just that day, but the whole feeling of everything and the planning, too. It’s the whole excitement of the thing. People are never upset at a wedding – people all day long are happy, and they leave happy. It’s a great energy and feeling.