With a knack for the idea mash-up and a fun-not-fear approach to business, Gary and Allison Jonas have created … well … something like an ecosystem for community, connection and food on a Traverse City corner lot. Meet The Little Fleet.

This story was featured in the March 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Gary and Allison

Generally to find the heart of a restaurant, to tap into its spirit, you go to the restaurant. You sit down, you order some drinks, some food, look around, soak up the vibe. That’s what you’d normally do. But to find the heart of The Little Fleet, the best place and time to experience its emotional center was out on the sidewalks of downtown Traverse City, as in strung out all along the blocks of Front Street, on the afternoon of June 27, 2015, the day after the United States Supreme Court made gay marriage legal across the land.

Thousands of people jammed TC’s sidewalks that day. They marched. They carried signs. They sang. Passing cars honked. And all of it was a joyous expression of happiness and love for brothers and sisters who were destined to fall in love with somebody of the same gender. And all of it was headed to The Little Fleet, the destination chosen for gathering and speech-making and sharing of food and drink on this milestone day that so many thought would never arrive. TC’s first openly gay mayoral candidate, Jim Carruthers, gave a short speech, thanking the town for being a welcoming, forward-looking community. (Carruthers later won the election.)

Allison and Gary Jonas, the people who brought The Little Fleet into being, were there too, but they never appeared on stage, never gave a speech. “We like to create things and then stand back and watch people enjoy what we’ve created,” Allison says of her venue. So they stayed in the background, watched the celebration, felt it, happy to know that they had given rise to a piece of fertile ground where this kind of community celebration could take root, sprout and thrive.

“There was this feeling of warmth and love and joy, and you can feel it in your gut and in your heart, but you can’t really put words to it,” Gary says. That day, he says, “we were so proud of what we had created.” And later, when he filled out a questionnaire for a “40 Under 40” business story, for the question about his biggest pride day, Gary wrote June 27, 2015.

In a more literal sense, what Allison and Gary created is a food truck lot on a corner a couple of blocks east of TC’s downtown core. Like many food truck lots, The Little Fleet has an outdoor open area where the trucks park—eight can fit—and an outdoor area of picnic tables and regular tables adjacent. Unlike most food truck lots, there’s also a smart, imaginative full-service bar on-site. Idea being: order from the food truck, go grab a beverage, sit outside or inside and enjoy your moment. In the winter, the trucks leave, and one food truck business operates indoors, or patrons order curry dishes from Cooks’ House just across the street, and they bring dinner over in brown paper bags. “The Cooks’ House people are the best neighbors we could possibly ask for,” Allison says.

Fun can vanquish fear.

That idea lies at the heart of how Allison and Gary do business, and the fun-over-fear notion has shaped their entrepreneurialism for more than a decade, since they opened their first restaurant, in Brooklyn, New York, when they were barely 25 years old.

Gary and Allison met in their senior year at University of Michigan. He was from Dallas, she from Grand Haven, Michigan. Love happened fast. “When it’s there, it’s there,” Gary says. After graduation they moved to New York City, where Gary took a job with a friend’s dad’s mortgage business and Allison took jobs in marketing, including a stint with Nickelodeon. But after just a couple of years in the corporate world, Allison and Gary were ready for something else. “Selling mortgages was lucrative and had a fun energy, but I knew it was a means to make rent payment, and for me it was not rewarding in any other way,” Gary says.

By then they lived in a down-at-the-heels, but starting to rise, neighborhood of Brooklyn called Ditmas Park. “The only restaurant in our neighborhood had bad food, bad service, and bad atmosphere, but was always packed,” Gary says. “We were frustrated that we had to go to other neighborhoods to eat and figured others must be too.”

They found a rundown building on Cortelyou Road and signed a lease. The couple knew nothing about restaurants, but, as Allison says, “We just jumped.” At the time, other than having a vague idea that they wanted the venue to echo restaurants they liked in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they did not even know what the concept of the restaurant would be. That spirit of “we’ll figure it out when we get there” would reappear a decade later when they shaped The Little Fleet.

On the day they signed that first lease in Brooklyn, Gary recalls going to explore the building, taking stock of what lay ahead. “The place was disgusting,” he says. It had been an office, and there were walls everywhere, cutting the space into tiny rooms. He eyed the dingy suspended ceiling, climbed up to lift a ceiling panel to see what was above and spied beautiful stamped tin. “I started ripping down the suspended ceiling, and the whole thing started to come down, and I almost fell. I grabbed a light—it could have ripped out too, but it held.” If he’d have fallen, he says, “it would have been really bad … I remember feeling, I am in over my head.”

The couple reached out to anybody who could help them chart the way forward. Gary left messages for a New York chef who had a TV show, but the man, Alan Harding, wouldn’t return his calls. Finally, after several attempts, one of Alan’s employees said, “do you want his cell phone?” Gary said sure, and called. “He said he’d be at our building in five minutes,” Gary says. Harding and his partner signed on as consultants, helping shape the concept. The year was 2005, and the farm-to-table movement was just kicking in.

The couple found a chef, Tom Kearney (who later became and still is the managing partner), who saw the promise in the farm-to-table movement, and the concept for the restaurant took form. Within a few months they had a concept and a name: The Farm on Adderley. “We worked with local farms on the East Coast, served everything seasonal, did whole animal butchering, nose to tail,” Allison says. “It was casual, high-quality food, and we had a brilliant chef.”

The young couple’s friends and family thought they were crazy taking on such a huge risk, but they were young, enthusiastic, and the neighborhood embraced them. “I remember a woman who opened the door once and said, ‘I’ve been starving in this neighborhood for 20 years. Thank you for opening!’” Allison says.

Within a few years, The Farm on Adderley had become such a hangout that people were staying late into the night. “They were using it like a bar,” Gary says. But Allison and Gary wanted The Farm on Adderley to remain a restaurant, so just a few doors down they opened a 100-whiskey bar, called Sycamore for the trees that line the neighborhood streets. A bar, that is, with a flower shop in the front. The flower shop was Allison’s idea.

Still today, Gary is not sure what inspired the flower part of the concept, but he instantly loved it. “Allison is really bold with her ideas, and she said let’s do something crazy,” he says. The idea was so distinctive, so caught people’s curiosity, perhaps so appealed to the human’s natural desire to break society’s boundaries, that the concept itself became a draw. The couple still owns The Farm on Adderley and Sycamores and commute between Traverse City and New York. Gary’s New York office is on the second story above the bar, in the front of the building, and so, with his window open he can hear conversations of passersby. “I can’t tell you how many people would walk by and say, ‘this place is a flower shop and a whiskey bar!’”

They loved their restaurant and they loved their bar, but six years in, life was different for the Jonases. They had had a child, then another, and the hassle part of big city life had begun to chafe. Gary recalls wanting to go for a little hike amid some nature, and the family got stuck in traffic for two and a half hours. He ended up having to get out at a dismal little park somewhere amid the car-choked megalopolis and walk the dog. “It was a terrible moment,” he says.

The couple had family in Traverse City, had married there, fell in love with the spirit of TC. And in 2011, they moved there. Again, the couple’s family was afraid for them. “They said, ‘How can you leave that, your successful places in New York?’” Allison says. But the Jonases were not afraid.

They moved and intended to just settle in, not start a business right away. But when they saw the building and parking lot for sale at the corner of Front and Wellington, their intuition seized the controls. “Allison has always had this infectious excitement for business, for new ideas,” Gary says. “She said, ‘I’m not sure what it will be, but it will be great.’” And the two again channeled that spirit of intuition and vision that propelled them in the early days of The Farm on Adderley.

“A thing happens between us,” Gary says. “The excitement and the … we have so much fun that it takes away the fear. There’s no way once you commit and you love it … you won’t let it fail. And just like with The Farm on Adderley, with The Little Fleet, there’s no way this will fail, no way, this was it.” Allison, originator of the flower-shop-whiskey-bar, again drew upon her sense of mash-up, and dreamed up the food-truck-lot-with-full-service-bar—not quite as random as flowers and whiskey, but nothing they’d seen before. The couple had traveled to Austin and Portland and had roamed big food truck lots, but they noticed things were lacking.

“They were just parking lots. There were no full service spaces with bathrooms or liquor license. I thought, Why don’t these lots have a dining room?” Allison says. The couple also really liked the idea of sticking with a pub. “A restaurant is really stressful and complicated, a lot of moving parts,” Allison says. “Our brains were better at running a bar.” They figured, why not let the food trucks be passionate about the food, and the Jonases could focus on what they are passionate about, creating a hangout.

The timing for The Little Fleet was also right, because the Traverse City commission was in the thick of the food truck debate. Where would trucks be allowed to park? What would the hours be? How would things like waste be handled? By chance, the Jonases’ stepped into the fray with a solution. Not only did The Little Fleet offer parking space for food trucks, the venue would also provide for the important but unseen infrastructure, like garbage service, cooler space, dry storage, electricity, and a massive grease trap to protect the water system. All of which meant the trucks could stay on site all summer—way less hassle than driving around and setting up every day.

To make sure they’d have at least one food truck show up, the Jonases made their own, fixing up a 1964 Fleetwing camper that had a collapsed roof. The name was EZ Cheesy and it offered inventive grilled cheese sandwiches. Meanwhile the couple was calling food trucks to convince them to give The Little Fleet a try. That first year they convinced Roaming Harvest, Anchor Station and Pigs Eatin Ribs, and they opened for Cherry Festival 2013.

Adam Kline, co-owner of Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, in Charlevoix, remembers that call. “I took a leap of faith,” Kline says. He told Gary he’d have to build another truck and get a bigger smoker if he had to be there full time. He talked the investment over with his wife. But he really didn’t have big doubts. “My intuition said this idea is awesome,” Kline says.

Renowned restaurateur Pete Peterson, of TC’s new Alliance bistro, and formerly of Tapawingo, lives in The Little Fleet’s neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to see him sitting in the evening light of summer enjoying a food truck offering and a beverage, nearby, somebody’s dog tied to a post, a couple of little kids pushing toy trucks around in the gravel. “When I heard we were going to get something like this, I was happy,” he says in a simple declaration.

Since Peterson lives around the corner, he walks past The Little Fleet almost every day of the year, keeps tabs on the action, the energy. “In the summer I’m amazed at how jammed it is,” he says.

That spirit of connecting that the Jonases have created at The Little Fleet—as seen so vividly on June 27, 2015, as seen on summer nights, or bingo night, or vinyl night, or learn to braid your daughter’s hair night, has also affected Peterson at a more personal level. The Jonases invited him to cook some special dinners, and one of the chefs who showed up to help was a young rising star named James Bloomfield. The two had met when Peterson taught one of Bloomfield’s classes at NMC Culinary Institute. They reconnected, stayed in touch, and now have paired up to open the Alliance bistro.

Create an ecosystem of community, connections and food, and that’s the sort of collaboration that naturally comes about. Or, as Gary says, “We’re having fun with it, and when you are having fun, good things happen.”

Sampler of special nights at The Little Fleet …

  • Gypsy Market/Holiday Market
  • IPA Challenge
  • Bingo Night
  • Summer Launch Party
  • Oktoberfest
  • Hot Art Live
  • Vinyl Night
  • Soup and Bread
  • Dinners (w. guest chef)
  • Kids Concerts
  • Learn to Braid Your Daughter’s Hair Night
  • Bluegrass Fridays
  • Happy Hour (Flip Night, Nip and Sip Night)
  • Tequila/Mezcal Week With Cinco de Mayo

Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman