Growing with Central Michigan: Charting the Hunter family's success in Mount Pleasant
Carrying nothing but a brown paper bag holding his personal belongings, Dave Hunter came to Mount Pleasant in 1975, steadfast in his goal to own and operate a popular college bar.
After working his way up from a dish washer, cook, doorman, bartender and helping manage Wayside in Kalamazoo, Hunter had come to Mount Pleasant on an offer from local businessman Joe Cekola to help run the Wayside's Central Michigan University analog.
Almost 40 years later, Dave has successfully purchased and run four different bars with his family.
It wasn’t easy. Right from the beginning, Hunter faced competition.
“We got it so where we could compete against the Alibi, which is where the public broadcasting station is now," he said. "They were the Cadillac and I was the Ford, but I knew how to run a college bar.”
Hunter's myriad establishments have become mainstay destinations for alumni, students and townies alike.
Evolution of an attitude
Wayside changed from a bowling alley to a night club after Hunter arrived.
But the Wayside wasn’t the only thing that was changing. Central Michigan University was also in the midst of change.
Namely, the university's athletics department was in the process of going from Division II, to Division I.
“There was a 'we can do this' attitude,” Hunter said. “I was part of that. I was the new guy on the block.”
Dave’s oldest son, John, connects their growth with CMU’s.
“My dad has been here throughout it all,” John said. “We have grown as Central has grown. From being Division II, to growing today to Division I, we have been able to grow with them. We are very appreciative, and very thankful for CMU being in our hometown of Mount Pleasant. We are all about this community succeeding.”
In addition to holding functions before, during and after CMU sporting events, the Wayside has recently become a stage for up and coming music artists. John's efforts in attracting talent has helped him and the club book big acts, many of them visiting town before they became popular.
Artists like Krewella, Jon Connor, Chainsmokers and L.M.F.A.O. have all played at Wayside before attaining super-stardom.
“The artists that come here are skeptical at first,” John said. “They are then astounded at how intimate and great the atmosphere is and how many CMU kids come out and support it. We’ve had all sorts of great acts and people perform, and they become big after.”
Birth of O'Kelly’s Sports Bar
After graduating college from Chicago Loyola, John decided to come back to Mount Pleasant in 2001 to help his father open up O'Kelly’s Sports Bar next to the existing Wayside.
John spends most of his time at O'Kelly’s, but you couldn’t tell him apart from any of the college students.
The lively atmosphere is what makes work fun for John.
“It was weird when I first started off,” he said. “It was all new to me and I still talk to my originally staff who were all older than me. It’s a lively atmosphere and I love working with the students at night because they are here to have fun. These are the years they will look back on and it be a fun time in their lives.”
While college students mostly inhabit O'Kelly’s, John has seen clientele ranging from former Red Wings’ player Darren McCarty, country band Rascal Flatts and the entire Detroit Tigers team stop in spontaneously.
The experience, although fun, does have its drawbacks.
“The business never sleeps,” John said. “It’s always year-round. It’s daily and different things come up. Any small business owner has those things, where you’re always on call. You’re always one call away from the pipes being frozen or the frier is broken.”
Building The Cabin
Before the Hunter purchased the Cabin in 2003, stories about the building's checkered history were the stuff of urban legend. When prohibition ended in 1933, the Cabin was the first bar in Michigan to get its liquor license.
Rumor has it that the Purple Gang from Chicago and its associates were known to hang out at the Cabin.
More than 80 years later, it is now a place where college students and alumni go to enjoy pizza or the famous “cabin sticks” that were created by Hunter's wife, Cheryl.
Cheryl started out as a server in 1975 at Wayside but has come a long way since. Creativity is her speciality, and works to develop the brands of the four buildings.
“I do a lot of concept,” Cheryl said. “I’ve done a lot of the interior of the buildings, and designed the kitchens. I’ve also designed the menus. If you look at all the buildings, they are all uniquely designed.”
An ale house with a personal twist
If you watched this year’s Super Bowl halftime performance starring Bruno Mars and his band The Hooligans, chances are you saw pianist Phred Brown.
Brown got his start playing dueling pianos at what was first called Coco Joe’s in 2007 when it was opened by the Hunters.
In 2012, the Hunter switched the name to Hunter’s Ale House and started serving craft beers. The locale also became a popular place to hold community and student fundraisers.
“We have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from our businesses,” John said. “I think it’s important to give back. We do a lot of fundraisers there. If it’s not for a church group or a leisure program, we do tap take overs or have live bands there.”
While the craft beer scene has caught on with phenomenal success, Hunter’s Ale House is always evolving.
“(Constantly changing) has led us to opening the first Hunter Brewery in our brew pub," Cheryl said. "We are thrilled about that, it should be opened by next fall. We will have growlers so people can have their favorite craft beer at all their places from back home.”
Family an important factor in Hunter's success
Maintaining all four bars has been a family effort and even includes John’s wife, Danae. She's in charge of human resources, pay rolls, hires and trains servers and staff. That team also includes Norm Smith, who has worked beside Hunter since the beginning.
“We are very family run,” John said. “We do everything from assisting, fixing stuff, marketing, operations, if it’s busy I’ll even hop behind the bar and help them out. There is no job too big or too small to get involved with.”
But just like all families, they can get annoyed with each other.
"We get on each other’s nerves but in the end we love each other," Cheryl said. "We try and stay out of each other’s territories and let everyone get their job done and I think that’s what makes us strong as a family.”
At 72 years old, Hunter has come a long way from his days of keeping his few possessions in a paper bag.
“My dad is the backbone of the organization,” John said. “He has been here in the beginning and is very passionate about his work. He still works as hard as anyone in the business.”