From the west coast to the fresh coast, how one man’s culinary journey took him from small-town Alpena, Michigan to the west side of the country, and back again.
Meet Eric Peterson. Father, brother, friend, community supporter, and Chef-owner of one of Alpena’s most popular dining establishments.
Growing up in Alpena, Eric’s ambition to create culinary masterpieces began after moving away from home at a young age. Cooking up wholesome food from fresh ingredients for friends after school and seeing the smiles it put on their faces inspired Eric to turn what he loves into a career.
After high school, Eric went on to attend the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon and trained at 5-star Jardiniere in San Francisco. No matter what he was doing at the time or where in the world he was living, Eric’s desire to be the best at what he does lead him to where he is now.
“When I was growing up, whatever job I had I wanted to be awesome at it so I could be over it and move on to the next thing. One time I worked at this Honey Baked Ham company in South Carolina and I learned how to glaze a ham really good and really fast. Then I was like, okay I don’t need to do this anymore and I moved on. But, it was a trade and I learned it and I was awesome at it and no matter how big or small that particular skill is, it’s a skill I still have to this day.”
It’s no surprise his adventurous spirit, passion for cooking, and deep love for Alpena would bring him and what he learned back full circle to entice the palates (pun intended) of the local community.
2009 – From Nothing to Burritos and Paninis: The Fresh Palate in the beginning
It started with a phone call from the owner of the Center Building in Downtown Alpena, Karen Bennett. Karen asked Eric if he would be interested in taking a look at a space she had on the main floor of the Center Building. A small café area amidst a collection of empty mini-storefronts and small-business areas.
“So, I went in there and the place was like a library. There was absolutely no noise, no traffic flow. Ihad never even been in the Center Building, but I thought to myself, I think I can do something with this.
So, I immediately contacted Karen. After that conversation, it took a couple of weeks of working with Jim Klarich/Target Alpena to score our loan. After the loan was secured, I closed that unit down and in 2 weeks we flipped it. I had already had our menu down for The Fresh Palate because I was originally going to open up in the Harborside Mall.
The first day we were open [in the Center Building] as our burrito/sandwich joint, we did $250 in sales, it was nerve-wracking standing there wondering if anybody is going to want a panini or a burrito. And then it just started to grow from there. Every day got a little better. I believe we only had about 4 employees at that time and I’m pretty sure I worked the first year for free.”
With The Fresh Palate up and coming, Eric continued to build his brand and gain community awareness by booking catering events and teaching culinary workshops around the community. By engaging with the community in this way, he spread the word about the Center Building and The Fresh Palate.
2012 – From Sandwiches and Salads to Cocktails and Full-Service Dining
“We rode the first wave for 3 years and by the end of the third year, we were reaching 6 figures in sales. By then I was like, I’m a skilled chef that needs to be making more than paninis and burritos. We need to expand and I definitely need a liquor license. So, we moved forward with the process of procuring the front room in the Center Building and obtained a liquor license through the Downtown Development Authority. Between the liquor license and the renovations on what would become The Fresh Palate’s front dining room, the entire process took about a year. As soon as renovations were complete we fired up the night menu and started staying open until 9 on weeknights and 11 on weekends.”
The transition from small burrito and sandwich joint to a full-service fine dining establishment proved to be a huge hit in the community. More locals began to come downtown to the Center Building for The Fresh Palate dining experience and visitors loved having the convenience of a nice place to relax and eat between perusing the downtown shops. Eric also renovated the kitchen area to accommodate increased volume and offer an open concept so patrons could see their food being made with fresh ingredients.
2015 – A Place to Gather in the Heart of Downtown Alpena: The Nucleus Lounge
There’s an old proverb that states, “opportunity never knocks twice”. In Eric’s case, opportunity did strike again. Over the years a number of shops opened in the Center Building and then moved on to other locations. With The Fresh Palate’s kitchen and dining room occupying one half of the ground floor of the Center Building, and Thunder Bay Winery complimenting the options with a tasting room in the front quarter of the building, newly vacated space in the remaining quarter of the building presented Eric with another opportunity for expansion.
“I was tired of everyone asking me for TV’s in the front room. I was like, this is a fine dining experience, talk to your spouse, you don’t need TV to entertain you! (laughs) But then once the back room opened up in the building I was like, okay I want to turn this into a sports bar!”
One year later The Nucleus was born. Aptly named for being the “nucleus” (center) in Downtown Alpena as well as being in the Center Building. The Nucleus Lounge serves as a sports bar with 22 beers on tap, signature cocktails, and a killer pizza and burger menu. (Full menu from The Fresh Palate is also offered inside the lounge). The Nucleus is also a popular venue for community events like charity fundraisers and reunions.
2019 – The Next Evolution: Suds, Spirits, and Alley Parties
Today the Fresh Palate and Nucleus Lounge are thriving lunch and dinnertime hotspots in Alpena’s vibrant downtown scene. The interior of the Nucleus features a rugged urban feel with reclaimed wood and metal materials. Many of the tables, fixtures, and even the log bar were hand-built or finished by Eric and friends. The front dining room at the Fresh Palate offers an intimate gourmet experience and when the window wall is open along 2nd Avenue, Alpena’s fresh and gentle Lake Huron breeze joins for dinner.
With an established dining menu, reputation for fresh gourmet creations, and a unique feature menu that often infuses ideas from Eric’s most recent travels, the Fresh Palate has become an anchor in Alpena’s Downtown. Eric and Fresh Palate General Manager Josh Duby are busy planning and preparing. The next wave of creativity from the Fresh Palate includes a schedule of community-oriented events that bring locals and visitors to the streets of Downtown Alpena. In 2017, Eric created Alpena’s Sunrise Suds Tap Takeover beer festival featuring Michigan micro-brews, live music, food trucks, and art. The date of this year’s event is September 21.
New this summer – a collaboration with the Alpena Blues Festival is bringing blues music and craft spirits to the downtown streets with Fresh Palate’s Spirit of the Blues Craft Spirits Festival. Join in on the fun June 22 which will feature live blues music, craft spirits from Michigan distilleries, and more. On occasion, you’ll also hear live music drifting up from the alley next to the Center Building as Fresh Palate’s energy spills over for alley parties on select dates. Follow them on Facebook to keep up-to-date on activities.
What will the Fresh Palate come up with next? Only the future knows for sure, but it’s a ride worth buying a ticket for. For more info:
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