On the wall at Shirley’s in the Woods Cafe is an old tourist map of eastern Kalkaska County. Shirley Tracey says she bought it years before she owned her restaurant in Bear Lake.
The map’s been changed. Her daughter made the cartoon fisherman look like Shirley.
“She put me on the map,” Shirley says pointing to the alteration. “This little fishermen up here, turned it into a Shirley.”
Shirley wears a white T-shirt under a black apron. She has short red hair and glasses.
She spends a lot of her time in the back part of the kitchen, baking and prepping food on a stainless steel counter.
Shirley’s family has been in the restaurant business around here for a few generations. It started when her grandma bought a cafe in Mancelona after World War II. But that didn’t mean cooking was an important skill in Shirley’s house. She says her mom would serve au gratin potatoes from a box.
“If she was really doing it up right, you'd have boxed au gratins and instant mashed potatoes,” she says. “That’s just how she cooked.”
Shirley can’t stand the idea of eating potatoes from a box. Pretty much any processed food is abhorrent to her, even the few items she grudgingly keeps on her menu, like American cheese. She says she'll occasionally chide people for ordering it.
“If I had my way, I wouldn’t carry it,” she says. “But the customers love American cheese.”
Shirley Tracey got interested in food while working at a restaurant in Traverse City in the 1970s called The Beef Tree. As a server there, she tried foods she had never heard of, like borscht and snails.
“I never dreamed people ate snails because I was raised in such a small town,” she says.
Shirley now owns two restaurants in small towns in Antrim and Kalkaska Counties: the original Shirley’s is in Mancelona.
She tries to make everything from scratch, including her bread. When we visited in late June, she was working on a new recipe, that includes pumpkin seeds, flax seed and spices like turmeric and cumin. She hadn’t named it yet but had some fairly corny ideas, like “cum-in get it.”
“My waitresses are really annoyed with that idea because then they’re stuck saying this stuff and it drives them crazy,” she says.
Shirley’s in The Woods Cafe is about halfway between Kalkaska and Grayling on M-72. The cafe is right next to The Blue Buck, a grocery store with a statue of a royal blue stag on the roof. Her customers are a mix of locals and people who come to this area to hunt and fish or snowmobile or paddle the Manistee River.
Shirley says it can be a tough place to push more exotic foods, like bread with flax seed and cumin. She says she’ll go around and spoon feed people samples to get them to try new foods.
“They love it,” she says. “Everybody loves to feel special.”
Shirley Tracey started working in restaurants almost 50 years ago. She only left the food business for six months to sell furniture.
She says this work has taught her to believe in hospitality. When she was younger, she says she would put on high heels and tight pants to look good.
“Now I walk out there with a big old tray of cookies and that’s how I look good,” she says with a laugh.