Taking a drive north on M-119 out of Harbor Springs, into the Tunnel of Trees and through Devil’s Elbow, a spooky spiraling section of the road Native Americans and others believe is haunted by ghosts, just got tastier. Matt Bauer has opened his crepe cart, "Northern Crepes," filling the European-style crepes with fresh-bought local produce and other Northern Michigan-made fare.
Good Hart, located just past Robinson Road, is a tiny village that serves as the enclave of a few select stores. As you wander past Primitive Images, which is filled with unusual furniture, décor, jewelry, and a tea room, you’ll see Northern Crepes: a kitchy, pop-up cart that looks like it was transported out of a 1950’s movie set. Inside, Bauer is expertly pouring a thin layer of batter on a large circular hotplate and filling it with freshly sautéed vegetables and other succulent local foods. MyNorth sat down with the owner-operator of Northern Crepes to find about more about how he created this campy crepe cart in this tiny town on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.
MyNorth: Have you been involved in the food industry for a long time?
Matt Bauer: I cooked for seafood restaurants for about ten years, back in my 20’s and 30’s, and ran several restaurants down in the Detroit Area. I started at Real Seafood Company in Ann Arbor. They had me running the kitchen at Maude’s for a year and a half after that, and then they expanded to a place called D. Dennison’s in Farmington Hills where I was kitchen manager for about two and a half years. They built a new place on the east side called the Tidewater Grill, and I did that for two and a half years. Then I finally ended up at a new company called G. Williker’s out in New Hudson. I ran that place for about three years.
MyNorth: You’ve also had a background in sports and a career as a teacher.
Matt Bauer: I was a gym teacher and a woodworking teacher. I taught kids how to hand-carve wood, and I wasn’t the normal gym teacher. I taught kids circus things. I do all the basic sports, since I’ve been coaching sports since I was 18, but we did many other things like Javelin, Discus, circus events, teaching kids how to juggle and Unicycle…. you name it.
MyNorth: Before “Northern Crepes”, you were teaching courses in the summer here at Primitive Images.
Matt Bauer: I teach a course called Spatial Dynamics to adults and children. It involves how the body works in space. It tries to help the body work more comfortably so that injuries don’t cause your body to have other issues. When you find yourself driving or riding a bike, muscles tend to cramp. I try to teach people how to get out of the norm of what they do… to do a minor adjustment on their body for what they do. So if you’re sitting at a typewriter all day, I might ask you to adjust certain things. People come to me for therapeutic reasons. Spatial dynamics took five years and almost 400 hours of training in New York. It was a fantastic experience. There are only about 200 of us trained in Spatial Dynamics.
MyNorth: So how did you make the leap from Spatial Dynamics to Northern Crepes?
Matt Bauer: I taught kids here in the summer for three years. But then – like many people recently- I was laid off from my teaching job. And I thought I should try something new.
MyNorth: There hasn’t been much variety of food you can purchase for lunch or a snack here in Good Hart… but how did you come up with the concept of a crepe cart?
Matt Bauer: My crepe cart is unique. I haven’t seen anything like it. But I did see crepes for sale at the bottom of the ski hill in Breckenridge. I didn’t get a look at their menu. But I saw people lined up to get them. And I thought: I’ve been cooking half my life. I know how to do this. I could do this. So maybe next summer, I might just try it out. So I talked with my sister (Ceci Bauer, owner of Primitive Images) and she said “yeah, let’s go find a cart.” I needed a woman’s point of view. We looked on the Internet and we found this old pop-up trailer on eBay that had been transformed by these high school kids in Pennsylvania. We saw nothing else like it on line. When we saw it, Ceci and I agreed: it was so unique, we had to have it. It’s an old pop-up trailer. These kids were given a school project. They steel-framed it, put the grills in – obviously they got an A on it! – this gentleman bought it and used it as a hot dog stand. I bought it from him … towed it to Good Hart from Pennsylvania, and turned it into a crepe cart.
MyNorth: What did you have to do to make it become a crepe cart?
Matt Bauer: I had to add a lot of different equipment. Obviously lots of painting and cleaning – it’s 35 years old! It’s road worthy. It’s self-enclosed. It’s an 8 by 12 trailer. You can wander around in there! I had to put a crepe machine in. I had to get a refrigerator. I had to put new sinks in. Lots of things had to change inside. But now, it has everything I need. (*MyNorth note: Bauer now has an affectionate name for the cart. He calls it “Genevieve”)
MyNorth: What was your original concept?
Matt Bauer: Right off the bat, I didn’t know if it was going to work well, but I knew there was plenty of traffic in this little town in Northern Michigan. I had been coming up here half my life. My concept was: use what’s up north, what they like to eat, what vegetables they grow here. Salmon. Whitefish. Peaches. Asparagus. Spinach. You name it. I wanted to use my expertise as a chef with what they’re already growing and eating up here. And boy… bang! … right off the bat, I’m doing 30 to 35 a day, sometimes as many as 50. It’s amazing and they love it. Half the crowd is local, too, eating here for breakfast or lunch every day.
MyNorth: Where do you buy your food?
Matt Bauer: I go down to Pond Hill Farm once a week to see what they have available. I’ve gotten to know the owner and her son. Occasionally we go next store and I buy vegetables from Bliss Community Farms. I’m always shopping locally, trying to find what’s best. Smoked whitefish and salmon I get from a store, obviously, but the vegetables, I try to get directly from local farmers.
MyNorth: When people think of crepes, they often think of something for dessert like Crepes Suzette. But you’re doing a different kind of crepe.
Matt Bauer: I have two separate menus, Savory and Sweet. The crepe - the actual batter- took me 15 or 16 different batter tries. But I came up with this one and it works with both kinds. The neat thing is, customers say “how can you make it taste so different?” They can’t believe it works so well with both kinds of crepes. So I can fill it with just about anything. The Peaches and Cream crepe is completely different from Northern Delight, which is raspberries and chocolate. We have A S’mores crepe filled with graham crackers and chocolate and marshmallows for the kids. But on the Savory side, I saute almost everything. Some of it is pre-cooked, but not the fresh vegetables. We sell breakfast crepes all day long. The crowd up here seems to wake up way later than I do! And that’s OK. We offer ten crepes on each menu, and I try to do a special or two every day.
MyNorth: What’s been the reaction of people who find you for the first time?
Matt Bauer: The first time, I get a lot of pictures taken, and they say “oh my god, what is this doing here in the middle of nowhere?” They want pictures of me. They want pictures of the cart. They want to take pictures of me and the cart in front of Ceci’s place, Primitive Images. I haven’t gotten a bad reaction yet. One family came up all the way from Traverse City, and loved the crepes so much they came all the way back from Traverse City the next day to have crepes again! I love the fact that whole families come back: the kids love the sweet crepes, the parents often go for the savory.
MyNorth: I’ve heard you may be branching out.
Matt Bauer: Several of my customers have been offering to try to make this go much bigger. I’ve been looking in to the idea. Multiples, or franchising, or something along those lines..
MyNorth: You can’t help thinking that this kind of thing would do well at festivals, farmer’s market, and fairs.
Matt Bauer: One of the first thing’s people say is, “my god, HEALTHY FOOD!” That’s what people seem to love the most. No processed food. It’s fresh, local food. It’s all created in front of you. You can watch me make it. Also, you can say, “Oh, can I have a little less of this, a little more of that?” You get to watch me make it instead of having a kitchen hidden in the corner. I only have to keep a few things – like frozen berries – that aren’t fresh – for emergencies! I have more than 50 food items on the cart, dry as well as cooked. I have one burner, two pans, and one crepe machine. That’s all I need! Though I don’t’ sell ice cream or beverages here in Good Hart because I didn’t want to compete with other local businesses, if I took Genevieve on the road, I could easily add those things.
MyNorth: What’s your day like?
Matt Bauer: I open at 10:30 a.m. but I get here at about 9:30. I make enough batter for about 15 to 20 crepes first thing in the morning. Everything’s hot and ready at 10:30. Throughout the day, I’ll make two more batters. I want to have enough for 30 to 45 but I could do more. I’m always trying to be over-prepped. It does get a little busy in there when I have a day where I do 40, like I did yesterday. Customers watch me cut the asparagus. They watch me cut the tomatoes. They see me prepping in the cart. Customers know it’s fresh; it’s not made yesterday or a week ago. But it means I’m working constantly: cleaning, prepping and cooking. I make a point of: 4:30, the door shuts, and I’m tired. I work six days a week. I take Monday off. I’m staying through the color season, through the end of October.
MyNorth: What about the winter?
Matt Bauer: Everything’s up in the air. I didn’t expect it to go so well. Where I came up with the idea was at the bottom of a ski hill… so you never know!
For more information about Northern Crepes and Matt Bauer, go to primitiveimages.com or call 231-526-0276.