The owners of Bob’s Country Kitchen in Irons know that when your diner is out in the middle of nowhere, making fresh food from scratch is key. But sometimes, the thing that keeps your customers coming back has nothing to do with the food at all.
Bob’s is not easy to find. You have to turn off the main highway somewhere west of Cadillac and drive down a dirt road, with ramshackle houses on one side and thick forest on the other. And you can forget about Google Maps: cell service is mostly a joke in this neck of the woods.
But on a Saturday morning, dozens of people manage to find their way to Bob’s. Most of them are here for one thing: the diner’s well-known biscuits and gravy.
The man responsible is Rich Martin. He’s the cook here at Bob’s.
“I can’t really divulge my secret, but I’ll tell you it’s never made the same way twice,” says Rich. “You kind of have to have good food when you’re in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road. We have to keep up with the consistency or nobody would come back.”
The “Bob” in Bob’s Country Kitchen isn’t around anymore. He passed away in 2003. He started this place out of his garage, cooking breakfasts for friends and neighbors and people passing through Lake County.
“He was well-known for his chicken dinners,” says Rich. “His grandkids used to call him ‘Grandpa Chickens’ because there used to be chickens running around wild here, I guess.”
Bob’s place wasn’t exactly legal back then.
“He had a beer tap in the wall, and if he didn’t know who you were he’d cover it up, so you couldn’t see it,” says Rich. “When you’re out here in the back 40, in the middle of nowhere, a lot of things kind of slide.”
These days, Rich runs the place with his wife, Dawn. The couple makes sure to stay on the right side of the law.
Maybe that’s because Rich is the law. When he’s not in here cooking, he’s busy being the Lake County sheriff.
“Working as sheriff or working for my wife, I think we all can answer that question ‘what’s the tougher job?’” says Rich. “I’m pretty much my wife’s grunt.”
“Oh, yes,” says Dawn. “He’s the sheriff in his office, but in my office, I’m the boss.”
Buying a diner was Dawn’s idea. Being in the restaurant business was a lifelong dream, but it turned out to be more of a hustle than she bargained for. The restaurant is only open weekend mornings, so the Martins do other stuff on the side – like teach gun safety classes on the shooting range they built out back.
“I’ve never been more broke, but I’ve never been happier,” says Dawn. “I enjoy it. It doesn’t matter how little sleep I get. I’m up at three o’clock on Saturday morning to get in here, make those cinnamon rolls, gets those biscuits going. It’s just so much fun, and the customers are fun.”
Dawn seems born for this work. She greets most customers by name when they walk in the door and sends them off with a gentle zinger as they approach the cash register on their way out.
For Jack Hubbard, it’s that kind of teasing that makes the place feel like family. It’s a rare thing to find these days, he says.
“A lot of places, they don’t want to be friendly,” says Hubbard. “[You] come over here, everybody’s kidding each other and everything. That makes it like family.”
Biscuits and gravy are great and all, but at the end of the day, that’s what a country diner is all about: people.
“The more you can be around and happy people, the more you feel good,” says Jack Hubbard.