Sorry, dog lovers, man’s best friend isn’t involved with Happy Poochie Eatery in Benton Harbor.
“A lot of people ask about that,” Richard Gresens, co-owner of Happy Poochie Eatery, says with a laugh. “We love dogs — we have two dogs. But no, it’s not a dog place. But dogs are welcome in the outdoor seating!”
The confusion, says Richard’s wife Lisa Gresens, came because of a simple photo and the quirky name of the new restaurant. While renovating the building, owner Richard brought in the couple’s two dogs and snapped a photo that ended up on Instagram.
“Everybody would go: ‘is that going to be a restaurant for dogs?”” Lisa, co-owner of Happy Poochie, says. “It’s the Poochie [in the name]. But now people are, you know, [figuring it out].”
The name of the restaurant comes from a rather unlikely source, Richard and Lisa’s grandson, Charlie. Poochie is his nickname for Lisa, one that’s been in the family for a while, and when the couple was coming up with name ideas for their new business, it just felt right.
“As we were coming up with a name for the restaurant, we wanted something fun, something different, something people would remember,” Richard says. “We thought: ‘well, Lisa is Poochie,’ and then we came up with Happy Poochie because we felt it’s always nice to have something happy; there’s enough negativity going on, let’s make something positive.”
A PANDEMIC REMODEL
Richard and Lisa had a soft opening for the Happy Poochie the first week of December 2020, but they were planning on opening much sooner.
The couple purchased the building at 325 W. Main St. in Benton Harbor and started renovating it in February 2020, with a planned summer opening — just in time to catch the summer crowds. But then the pandemic caused everything to come to a screeching halt.
“That changed our plans a bit,” Richard says.
Suddenly, the Gresens had to worry about social distancing their renovations crews. They started having workers inside in smaller numbers to combat the new normal, and Richard even pitched in and did some of the work himself. Further delays in getting raw materials and internet issues pushed the Gresens’ planned summer opening to the fall. With the holidays approaching, the pair decided to hold off until December.
However, the pandemic provided a few new opportunities for the Gresens, too.
The couple knew they were going to have to offer carry-out options since dine-in has been off the table for Michigan restaurants for most of the last year. The building they purchased had a blocked out window, and it dawned on Lisa that it might be a good idea to turn it into a pick-up window.
“That spot changed our whole mindset,” Richard says. “Because we knew we were going to have to-go [food], but it wasn’t a major thing. As soon as the pandemic came, we realized: ‘we’re just gonna have to do it.’ ”
The Gresens ended up redecorating that entire corner of the building and adding plants to make it more friendly and inviting. To further spruce up the place, the Gresens added a picnic area out back and plan to expand outdoor dining for next summer. Inside the restaurant, they reworked their flow to accommodate easier access to the to-go window.
“You gotta make [your restaurant] a place people want to go,” Richard says. “It has to look like: ‘oh, that’s a nice place.’ We wanted to change the whole image of the place a bit.”
Eventually, Happy Poochie will open for dine-in visitors the couple say. But for now, with all the requirements placed on restaurants for dine-in eating, their operation is too small at this point to justify the added expense, according to the Gresens.
“For what we’re doing right now, it just seems to make sense that we just keep the outside going,” Richard says. “Eventually, we want to get going [with indoor dining] because we want people to experience what we’ve done.”
A TASTE WITH HISTORY
Lisa is no stranger to the restaurant industry; she used to run a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about 37 years ago. In fact, some of the menu items at Happy Poochie are from that original restaurant.
“We’ve gotten some really nice feedback from people,” Richard says. “I’ve experienced Lisa’s food for over 20 years. It’s nice to hear others talk about it and say: ‘I really like that. You’re really doing a good job.’ ”
Lisa plans to rotate the menu with specials each week — she hints at daily summer specials. In the middle of the slow season in a pandemic, though, she says she has to balance her desire to create new menu items with the number of people eating out and what their taste buds are looking for.
“When we get open full-time [with indoor dining], there’s a lot more I want to do,” Lisa says. “But I’m limited [in adding specials] right now. There’s just nobody out and about.”
That’s a hard reality that a lot of restaurants are facing, not just those that are newly opened.
The Gresens are making a good showing of it in the slower season, though. The POS ticket machine was buzzing nonstop and the kitchen quickly got slammed at lunch time.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
Part of the fun, Richard says, is discovering the kinds of foods the community wants to eat, which they know will be a seasonal challenge. He says that Happy Poochie Eatery originally opened with more salads on the menu but, because they opened in Michigan’s winter, they found people weren’t ordering them. The couple decided to dial back the number of salads until warmer weather arrives.
“That’s one of those things you can only find out by getting open,” he says. “You really don’t know what’s going to sell.”
The Gresens have found that the community has been clamoring for sandwiches, though.
The big sandwiches so far have been The Downtowner — ham, turkey, bacon and melted provolone on a ciabatta roll with mayo, Dijon mustard, red onions, lettuce, and tomato — and the Hot Poochie — salami, capicola, ham, and melted provolone on a hoagie with giardiniera peppers — they say.
Happy Poochie Eatery’s sandwiches and wraps are Lisa’s creations. They focus on fresh deli meats (including some locally-sourced Michigan meats), ciabatta, hoagie and pumpernickel breads, all manner of veggies and house made sauces. The salads are just as unique, with Lisa’s take on the chop salad, the Caesar salad, and a BLT salad.
In the future, the Gresners are looking to partner with Water & Wheat in Coloma to offer veggie meat options.
“We’ve got a lot of good restaurants here in the area, especially here in Benton Harbor, that are destinations for people,” Richard says. “We want to be another one of those and contribute to making Benton Harbor a place where people want to come.” χ