I met up with Nick Perez on the first night of my second-ever visit to Traverse City. Nick hosts The Awesome Mitten’s on his “super duper servers,” and contributes to Northern Swag. Our happy hour took place at 7 Monks Taproom downtown, where they have 46 taps and specialize in Trappist beers. Over the course of the night, Nick played ambassador for his hometown, recommending activities, places of interest, and good food while also telling me about debates within the local community. It was clear Nick is plugged in to the town; at one point, after a visit from the 7 Monks manager, he joked, “I’m kind of a big deal around here.” While he was merely being self-effacing, Nick is kind of a big deal; communities like Traverse City need more people like him—young, professional, passionate about the community, and full of ideas.
Nick: You like Belgian beer?
Jake: Lately, yeah.
Nick: How was Beer Fest this year?
J: Good, good!
N: I didn’t make it this year, but last year I froze my ass off the entire time. Last year—I don’t know if those guys were there this year—did they have the big turkey legs?
N: Yeah, I bought one of those just so I could warm up my hands.
Our beers arrive. Nick has chosen Brewery Ommegang’s Rare Vos.
J: I like that one, it’s sour, but I kinda like that. It’s not super sour.
N: I read something in the last article that you didn’t like sour beer.
J: I don’t. Well, lately…I’ve been on a kick.
N: Jolly Pumpkin makes great sour beer.
J: I had Jolly Pumpkin at Beer Fest and I really liked it. So what do you do?
N: Nothing. I drink beer…What do I do, what do I do…I do most of my work through TC Venture Partners, which is my personal consulting company. About half my work is marketing, the other half is Web Design & Development. Brand strategy…whatever they need me to do, consulting wise.
J: How long have you been doing that?
N: Officially back on my own since August. Before that I helped run Big Daylight, which I started with a friend of mine that sold to a company in San Francisco. Well, “acquired.” It’s an important distinction. I got no cash out of the deal. Then she and I managed that division from Traverse City for a couple of years. I left shortly before I went to Korea last fall. We went to go adopt a baby. Er, toddler. It was good timing, it gives me more flexibility. So I work partly from home, and I have an office in downtown Traverse City.
J: Are you from here originally?
N: Most of my life. I was adopted when I was five from South Korea. So I’ve pretty much lived here my whole life except for six years in Ann Arbor [Note: Nick attended the University of Michigan].
J: I love Ann Arbor.
N: Yeah, I love Ann Arbor. I didn’t want to move back, but my then-fiancé (now wife) forced me to move back. But…it’s been good. Now that I’ve been back a while, I like it. I love the winter so…
J: It makes all the difference.
N: It really does.
II. What to Do in Vacationland
J: What are your recommendations for things to do for someone who’s never been to Traverse City?
N: Wow, ummm…In the summertime, there’s tons of stuff. In the winter time…Do you ski? You should try to ski. The Homestead is nice. My favorite is Crystal Mountain. Shanty Creek is nice, it’s right by Short’s (Brewing Company). Lots of trails, do you like snowshoeing?
J: What is snowshoeing, just walking around in special shoes?
N: Yeah basically. Although personally I don’t like wearing snowshoes because I don’t feel like they work. (Both laugh).
N: But let’s see…the cliché thing is to go wine tasting. I don’t know if you’re in to wine…
J: I’d like to be. I don’t have any sort of palate for that yet.
N: Both Traverse City and Leelanau Peninsula have tons of wineries. It’s a popular thing to do around here, especially in the wintertime. I also take my dogs snowshoeing, but not really snowshoeing. It’s just walking in the snow. The State Theater is really fun. A cool place to go see a movie. It was originally started by Michael Moore, the filmmaker. The old State Theatre stood vacant for years–most of the time I grew up in Traverse City. He pumped a lot of money into reopening it, now it runs as a non-profit.
J: And he has the film festival up here right?
N: Yeah there’s the film festival. And this year was the second winter comedy festival. They didn’t have it last year, so it’s the third year, but only the second one. There was a bit of a dispute last year, but they got it resolved. So film festival in the summer, comedy festival in the winter…I can’t believe this is only your second time in Traverse City.
J: I know.
N: Your family never vacationed up here?
J: No. We vacationed a different place in Michigan every year, but we never made it over to TC.
N: I feel like whenever I go somewhere, like college, when someone would find out I was from Traverse City, they’d be like, “Oh! My family used to vacation there!” I was just adopted here and had to grow up in this godforsaken beautiful town that people want to vacation in.
J: That’s got to be weird to grow up in a place that most people think of as a vacation destination. You have to think This is my home…
N: When I turned 18 and moved to college, I could not wait to get out of here. But my time away, now that I’m back, I really appreciate how nice of a place it is. And of course the motto is, “Half the pay for a view of the bay.” So a lot of people who live here–it’s not a huge market for jobs like an Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Detroit, or Chicago, so there’s a finite number of jobs—so the joke around here is, you have to pay for a view of the bay. In my industry, I don’t have a whole lot of local clients, but in my line of work you can have clients in Hong Kong, San Francisco, Chicago, and I find out that’s more the case; the young people coming back tend to have telecommuting jobs where they can work in a co-working space and hang out around the house.
J: I’m out of beer, what should I get next?
N: How about the Arbor Espresso Breakfast Stout? You a big coffee drinker?
J: Not really, but I like stouts, so I’ll try it.
N: It’s oatmeal stout with coffee.
J: I love oatmeal stouts.
III. The Food Truck Problem
Alex: What’s up with the food truck stuff in Traverse City?
N: Have you seen the original proposal? It was a proposal spearheaded by two members of the DDA—the Downtown Development Authority—and some other people like myself. But basically we’re trying to define a fair space of limits for food trucks, especially considering downtown. Most of the restaurants downtown are against it, even though most studies show it brings more foot traffic, more business…So the DDA made a decision….well, really not a decision. They made a decision not to make a decision. It’s been delayed for 60 days. That’s local government for you. And really, the DDA decision isn’t even the final decision. It’s just a recommendation to the city commission. The city commission is really the one that’s going to make the decision, but they’re waiting on the DDA to make their recommendation, which is delayed 60 days, which basically makes it too late for any food trucks around here to get ready for the season. Have you been to Grand Haven? Have you ever been to the Pronto Pup stand? It’s right next to some really nice restaurant, I forgot the name, but when I went to Grand Haven I went to visit the Pronto Pup because I wanted a corn dog and I ended up going to the restaurant next door. Now they both are extremely busy. If a corn dog stand opened up in downtown (Traverse City), people would be upset. But I think there’s enough business to go around. It’s a totally different crowd. The person who wants to spend $2 on corn dogs doesn’t want to go get an $80 dinner. Are there food trucks in Grand Rapids?
J: Yeah, but they have to be anchored to a property.
IV. The Second Beer
(I receive my second beer, the Arbor Brewing Company Espresso Love Breakfast Stout)
N: How’s your beer?
J: Want to try it?
N: Sure. Have you had a coffee stout before?
J: Oh yeah, I came up in the land of Founders.
N: It’s pretty good.
J: It’s not overly coffee tasting, it’s got a nice chocolate flavor to it.
N: Have you had the Atwater Vanilla Java Porter?
J: Oh yeah, my old roommate used to be a big fan of that.
N: Yeah, it’s pretty good!
J: I think it’s probably Atwater’s best.
N: Yeah I couldn’t really tell you what else they make. Luckily I think they make that year round. I don’t drink a lot of stouts and porters, but this is the time of year to do it. I used to quite a bit, from Short’s. It’s a little heavy for me now. I like the lighter Belgians and sour beers.
J: Yeah, I started with Guinness, which really isn’t a heavy beer.
N: No, people who don’t know Guinness, when they think Guinness they think it’s really heavy. If you poured Guinness in water, it would flow to the top; it’s actually less dense than water. I didn’t like Guinness as a younger drinker, but now I like one from time to time. If it’s on draft.
J: Yeah, I don’t even know why it comes any other way.
N: When we flew back from Korea, there was this one station that was just for Guinness in the airport. It wasn’t a taphouse or anything; all you could get was Guinness.
J: That sounds like heaven.
N: Korean food and Guinness. I don’t know if you’ve ever had any Korean food…There’s really no place to get it in Grand Rapids.
V. Where to Eat in Traverse City, a Food Truck Reprise
J: Ok, top three favorite restaurants in Traverse City. You can’t count 7 Monks because we’re here, so I already assume you recommend it.
N: There’s lots of great restaurants here. Let’s see…Trattoria Stella’s is located in the Village Commons. Amical, which is right downtown. And The Cook’s House, which is also right downtown. That was listed as one of Mario Batali’s top nine favorite restaurants in the world.
N: Yeah. There were actually two Traverse City restaurants on the list.
J: Holy crap.
N: But The Cook’s house is very small, doesn’t seat many people, it’s just really excellent food. Interestingly enough, one of the owners, Eric, who is also the chef, is in support of food trucks! A very staunch supporter actually. He thinks that if Traverse City wants to be known as a foodie town, you have to…places that are considered foodie towns often have food trucks. And in fact, because of the whole rule where you have to be on private property, he actually lets one of the more popular trucks station right outside his own restaurant. That’s a pretty strong statement; one of the best restaurants in town letting a food truck—which can be viewed as a competitor, though totally different market…it’d be like if Meijer allowed the farmers market right in their parking lot. You’d never see that. But I think that really speaks to the whole food truck argument: the fact that Eric, who has one of the top restaurants in Traverse City, is such a staunch supporter. His whole thing is, if all these restaurant people are so concerned about competition, maybe they should make a better product. Let the market speak for itself. Now, a couple of the restaurant folks, their main concern is—they actually do support the food trucks—it’s just that their major concern is that if they leave it wide open, all these trucks from Chicago are going to come up and only be here for the summer during peak season, then not really be invested and leave. I kind of get that.
VI. On Work and Life
N: Having your own company, there’s always this glamour, this mythical view about how much freedom you’re going to have. And the truth is, you end up working twice as much. But for me, I love it. Sometimes it’s hard to call it work. But I really love what I do, and it’s good to have the flexibility. Like when I went to Korea last fall, we went for ten days and I worked for part of it, but it was really like an hour here, an hour there. The fact was I could do a Skype video call with a client while in Korea. The time difference was difficult, basically midnight here was noon there, but technology’s awesome… I dunno, that’s pretty much all I do—drink beer, go out to eat, and hang out with my family. And work.