2008-09-06 / Top News

Chuckwagon Diner To Close

By Ryan Schlehuber

The small staff of employees who worked with Ms. Hart (at right, in back) this summer includes (from left) full-time employee Mike Craven, dishwasher Caleb Kolatski, and parttime server Karen Kiley. Not pictured are Sierra and Darrin Kolatski, who also served as dishwashers. The small staff of employees who worked with Ms. Hart (at right, in back) this summer includes (from left) full-time employee Mike Craven, dishwasher Caleb Kolatski, and parttime server Karen Kiley. Not pictured are Sierra and Darrin Kolatski, who also served as dishwashers. With the sun peeking over Haldimand Bay and only the sound of horse hooves to pavement interrupting the morning silence, Jessie Hart hops onto her bicycle and heads in to work, just as she has done for the past 38 summers. It is her favorite part of the work day and it will be one of the fondest memories she'll carry with her after she retires in October from her business, Jessie's Chuckwagon.

A native of Bay City, Ms. Hart has always been drawn to picturesque views of the Great Lakes, and, on the Island, she always appreciates the calm and quiet the new day brings before she begins her routine of completing the 100 breakfasts and lunches that are ordered daily.

"It's the favorite part of my day," said Ms. Hart, 56. "I can even picture it in my head now."

Zella DuBois and her husband, Ernest, opened Zella's Chuckwagon diner on Mackinac Island in the early 1950s and, as it was then, it continues to be a favorite spot for breakfast and lunch for residents and visitors. Members of Zella's Chuckwagon in 1960 included (from left) Ernest DuBois, Charlotte Webster DeBlaquart, owner Zella DuBois, Jan Husted, Rosemary (Lounsbury) Kompsi, and Rosie Fisher. The mural behind them is still displayed at the diner today. (Photograph courtesy of Nancy (Chambers) LaBorde) Zella DuBois and her husband, Ernest, opened Zella's Chuckwagon diner on Mackinac Island in the early 1950s and, as it was then, it continues to be a favorite spot for breakfast and lunch for residents and visitors. Members of Zella's Chuckwagon in 1960 included (from left) Ernest DuBois, Charlotte Webster DeBlaquart, owner Zella DuBois, Jan Husted, Rosemary (Lounsbury) Kompsi, and Rosie Fisher. The mural behind them is still displayed at the diner today. (Photograph courtesy of Nancy (Chambers) LaBorde) Each morning, she opens the small diner by 7:30 a.m. and operates both the kitchen and the dining floor on her own for the first couple of hours.

"That's when I get a lot of my repeats and it's when I have the best time to talk with them," she said.

Jessie's Chuckwagon serves breakfast until 11:30 a.m. and lunch until 4 p.m. each day.

Ms. Hart remembers when she started at the Chuckwagon in 1970, when coffee cost a dime, a piece of pie was 35¢, and 50¢ was considered a good tip. Although prices across the board have since increased, Ms. Hart has managed to keep the diner as it was when it was opened in the early 1950s by Zella DuBois.

Jessie Hart begins preparing breakfast for customers at her diner, Jessie's Chuckwagon, which she has operated for 38 years. Jessie Hart begins preparing breakfast for customers at her diner, Jessie's Chuckwagon, which she has operated for 38 years. Ms. Hart worked for Mrs. DuBois for four years before purchasing the business herself. Mrs. DuBois rented the building from Bob and Arlene Chambers.

Ms. Hart came to the Island with her sister's friend, who helped her get a job as a server at what was then called Zella's Chuckwagon. She stayed late in the fall to help Mrs. DuBois. This was when she learned to cook, and she left college, where she had been studying to become a physical education teacher.

It didn't take her long to win the admiration of her boss. With the aging Mrs. DuBois ready to retire, she wanted the hard working 21-year-old to carry on the Chuckwagon tradition.

"Zella was like a mother to me," said Ms. Hart. "At the end of my first summer working there, she said to me that it would be great if I got the business. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I sure had to grow up quickly."

Mrs. DuBois died at the age of 76 in Iron Mountain in August 1982.

Squeezed between two larger buildings, Main Street Inn and The Haunted Theatre, the Chuckwagon's charm has withstood the test of time, and even a collapse of its wall, caused by the construction of Main Street Inn in the winter of 2003. With its wall, front facade, and roof rebuilt, Jessie's Chuckwagon keeps the old fashioned feel of a local diner that, because of its tight quarters (maybe about three arm spans wide), encourages social interaction among friends, family, and even unfamiliar visitors, said Ms. Hart.

"It's uniqueness is its oldstyle diner atmosphere," said Ms. Hart, who leases the building from Frank Nephew and Bob Benser. "When I got the business from Zella, I wasn't going to change a thing because it worked. The diner itself makes it easy to talk with people, even people you don't even know. It allows people to be casual with others."

Inside, the walls are decorated in various places with artwork by the late Clarice McKeever Haynes. The artwork has been a fixture since the place first opened under Mrs. DuBois.

Another fixture, one that many repeat customers will always remember, is Ms. Hart standing over her skillet grill working on multiple meals.

With only the customer counter separating her from the dining area, customers follow Ms. Hart as she quietly orchestrates her short-order cooking.

"I like to watch her cook," said longtime customer and Island businessman Ron Dufina, who visits the diner almost every morning. "The food is excellent because she serves fresh food every day, but it's something else to just watch her work. She works so hard."

She credits not only her work ethic to her tutor, Mrs. DuBois, but also mastering the secret of success in a diner.

"Zella's thing was repeat customers are good for business," said Ms. Hart. "I remember Harry 'the Greek' Stamas and Zella would debate over this. Harry operated Astor Cafe, where Millie's on Main is today. Harry said repeat customers were not that important, but I've found them to be my bread and butter.

"Zella always said, 'Treat people well and make sure to give them that second cup of coffee," she continued. "Giving people that extra attention and friendliness will encourage them to come back again."

And they did. Over the years, many Island residents have enjoyed eating at Jessie's Chuckwagon, and it's common to see Island workers enjoying the traditional "Fat Fridays" with breakfast to go from the Chuckwagon.

Taking over a business while barely in her 20s, Ms. Hart listened well to Mrs. DuBois' advice on budgeting.

"She taught me that you make 'x' amount of dollars, but you not only have to operate on 'x' amount of dollars, you also have to live on that, so she always said watch what I spend," said Ms. Hart.

Her staff includes one fulltime employee, Mike Craven, part-time server Karen Kiley, and Darrin, Caleb, and Sierra Kolatski as dishwashers.

In the off-season for the past 10 years, Ms. Hart cooks at the chain restaurant Chili's Grill & Bar in Grand Rapids, where her two children, Tony Doud and Lisa Powis, live.

It is her children and her twoyear old grandson, Anthony, that have her yearning to finally hang up her spatula and apron at the diner.

"When I'm here on the Island, this is what I do, I work," she said. "I've put in a lot of years here. I feel really lucky that was able to work like this for this long.

"I'm ready to enjoy more of my life with my kids, though," she added. "I want to be where they are."

She is also looking forward to taking her first "summer" vacation in a long time when she closes in October.

"I already have two trips planned," she said.

Lunch at Jessie's Chuckwagon will be served for the last time Monday, October 13. Wednesday, October 15, will be the last day for breakfast, and, for many customers of Ms. Hart, the end of a wonderful Mackinac Island tradition.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2008-09-06 digital edition