It’s the end of an era as a beloved Northport restaurant is closing its doors. From their famous bar-broasted chicken dinners to staff that has become family, here’s how Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern is ending things on their terms and how you can experience the magic one last time.

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We’re on a pilgrimage to Northport for one last chicken dinner at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern. Tonight—a cosmic blessing—a rare winter sunset sinks past the bare orchards on the back road out to M-22, where the roadhouse has beckoned like a beacon for generations of thirsty travelers and jovial regulars. At the end of this month the sun will set on this 51-year Leelanau County tradition.

It’s 4:45 p.m., so no line of bundled patrons spilling out of the cozy waiting room porch … yet. It’s still early, but since Fisher’s Happy Hour Tavern owners Kristi Fischer and Brian Hafner announced that their family-run restaurant is closing permanently as of the new year, people are flocking here from as far away as Florida for comfort food … and a dose of comfort. The community is mourning a gathering place that has contributed so much to the economy, culture and character of this county.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

If you haven’t been to the Happy Hour, as locals call it, there are just a couple of weeks left to cozy up in the genuine hospitality of this handsome old-style tavern. It’s the kind of place where kids can sip a lovingly made kiddie cocktail while they play the Ms. Pac-Man game on the porch, locals rub shoulders with neighbors, couples keep quiet trysts at the bar, and most guests can’t resist diving into a no-frills cheeseburger and its accompanying garnish tray or a batch of impeccably prepared broasted chicken.

Holding court in the front of house nearly every night is Northport native Brian Hafner, who with life-and-business partner Kristi Fischer, have operated the tavern for the last six years, taking the torch from Kristi’s parents, Paul and Lori Fischer, who in turn had taken it over from Paul’s parents Stanley and Yvonne Fischer.

Stanley Fischer was a beer distributor for a downstate brewery who took a particular shine to this out-of-the-way bar on his deliveries. He and his wife Yvonne Fischer bought the bar with every dime they had and moved north from Harper Woods, opening as Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern in October of 1971. The Fischers’ six kids grew up in the business, with the family residing in the Happy Hour’s upstairs apartment. Those same living quarters currently help house staff amid the workforce housing shortage in the county.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

If the 1880s-era building itself seems to pop out of the woods on M-22, that’s because it was built back when the now-vanished village of Gill’s Pier was in this location. History is everywhere here. The cheeky mural in the back room was painted by Susan Fischer, who was Paul’s sister and business partner and passed away in 2004.

“I grew up working side by side with my parents, my aunts, my sister and my cousins, Amelia and Andy Mayhew,” says Kristi. “That was a cool experience, as is working with my own kid.” Caleb, a senior at Leland High School, has done dishwashing and morning prep since he was 13. Kristi shares a happy mom-and-son moment from this summer: “Caleb had the day off and I shot him a text saying ‘we have berries for pie, if you’re bored…’ He came in and we hung out together and cut berries, just the two of us.”

Charlie Boesel of Leland remembers coming as a kid for cheeseburgers in its earliest days as Fischer’s. “It’s the happy medium between Leland and Northport, and our favorite restaurant in the entire county,” he says. Many a young spirit has gravitated to the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game on the porch, a fixture since the 1980s, but, “We played Space Invaders,” he laughs. “That’s how long we’ve been coming.” The Boesel family hopes to return “seven more times at least. And that’s just next week.”

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Maple City’s Pam Darling, a loyal fan since the 80s, waves goodbye to her dining companions, and vows to return for just one more homemade cream puff with peppermint stick ice cream and chocolate sauce. Another patron tries to squeeze the navy bean and ham soup recipe out of Kristi—that’s not happening, she says. The Happy Hour is renowned for its soups—cream of local asparagus in spring, the bean and ham, or the house chili—many of which are Kristi’s grandmother’s recipes, and all of which come in a pewter crock. The house dressing—a nod to Hudson’s Maurice salad in Detroit—is also Yvonne’s, as is the addictive “secret sauce,” which she made originally for the tavern ham sandwich. The secret sauce recipe to this day is prepared only by Kristi and, in the last week, they’ve had to put out a PSA pleading for people not to steal bottles of it outright.

The fact that Fischer’s is tied resolutely to its ways is the very reason why it’s a Leelanau County classic. And in a twist of fate, in part it’s why this longtime fixture couldn’t find a way to continue any longer. Its closing begs the question: Is it possible to love something to its tipping point?

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Kristi confides that this last year was one of their best on record for revenue. The influx of new visitors and boost in year-round residents kept the bar filled to the gills, and the pace breakneck. The struggle was real keeping loyal staff from being overworked, and keeping the food and setting consistent. This is part of the all-too-familiar cycles of a demanding hospitality business and the march of time, says Kristi, but things just hit differently this summer. “We always told each other when it’s time we’ll know it,” she says. “And we hit that this summer. We want to go out on our terms, and the time is right for our family.”

Agrees Brian, “If we don’t call it, it might just get called for us,” noting that they decided back in July, but wanted to hold out on announcing it.

But a spill-the-beans on social media post by a patron who overheard staffers at the bar talking about the pending closing brought the heartache of the decision to a head, along with a double-whammy bout of Covid. Kristi shared the news on their Facebook page from home while the two recouped.

Luckily, most of the staff had already had at least a day to let it sink in. “Current staff right now is our family,” says Brian, some even working for Kristi’s parents before them. “Maria Perez has been here in the kitchen with me in the mornings for 23 years,” says Kristi.

Tiffany Dean, a ten-year-plus employee, says, “As bosses they will be hard to replace.” Server Brittany Cardenas who also does hair and event planning with a local vineyard, and her husband, Ian, a personal trainer by day, both moonlight at the Happy Hour. “It was a shock,” she says. “Kristi and Brian are the best people to work for, no joke, and we would have stayed here for life.”

What amazes Kristi of their 21 staffers: “Literally every single one of them is finishing this massive thing with us.”

Brian explains that this kind of loyalty was part of the tenuous balancing act this summer with staffing. “Most of them are doing it for us, but they go to other jobs, and a decent percentage of them have other things in the works and will use this as a launch point.”

Meanwhile, there will be more heartfelt and even tearful farewells over fried cauliflower and cocktails.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Tonight, Northporters Donna Snyder and her husband, Steve Shank, are seeking solace in the welcoming corner nook of the bar.

Donna shares that Steve was diagnosed with cancer this year, “And this was my go-to place. Kristi saved me. She really supported me. This is where I came when I found out, because I had to come home at first without him. There isn’t a person here who isn’t kind, gracious and caring.”

Tonight, she and Steve came in for a hug and to shoot the breeze at the bar.

But for the moment there is one thing Kristi and Brian are not talking about: selling.

Kristi notes, “We have about 20 plans, but need to stop what we’re doing to focus on the next thing.” Brian says, “There are some opportunities, but the focus right now is on a proper sendoff. The Happy Hour is a sanctuary. It’s special. The staff and community deserve that we finish strong.”

Meanwhile, says Kristi, “Now we’re kind of excited to be home at night together as a family, and have experiences in our hometown. We’ve never been to Leelanau Uncaged or even gone to The Cheese Shanty [in Fishtown]. We want to be Northporters. All of these relationships might change but they won’t go away.”

She teases that the special sauce might make it into stores, and that a Happy Hour food truck has been tossed around half-jokingly, but what’s next is a wild card for now. “Anything we do decide to do, we will update the community,” says Kristi. “We don’t want to create false hopes.”

But that’s all in the future. For now, bartenders Tim Bowman and Tiffany Dean are keeping the libations flowing, and Kristi is vowing to keep the bar-broasted chicken and the burger till the bitter end. “The goal is to run out of food, and we’ve never done that before. It could be December 29 or January 3, we just don’t know.” For the Fischer family, which Kristi says includes their close-knit staff and customers, these final weeks are a time to bask in the warmth of this one-of-a-kind watering hole.

Stay up to date with Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern on their Facebook page where you can catch real-time updates and their official closing date.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell