The Wicked Sister in Sault Ste Marie

Cathy Howell is the owner of Wicked Sister in Sault Ste. Marie. Cathy shares her journey and challenges in the restaurant industry. She talks about her experiences starting from being a server to owning a restaurant that has transformed into a beloved local hotspot. The conversation sheds light on her decision-making processes in expanding the business, managing multiple roles, creating a unique menu, hiring a chef, and nurturing a supportive and passionate team. The session ends with Cathy explaining the Wicked Sister’s community initiatives and future plans.

Links:

Wicked Sister Website: https://www.wickedsistersault.com/

Location:

712 Ashmun Street

Sault Ste Marie, Michigan 49783

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Transcript
Cathy Howell:

I had no management experience. I didn't know how to do an order. I wasn't really comfortable checking with vendors. And it was, there was a lot of stuff that needed to happen. And thankfully we had a really good staff in the beginning. There were four or five people that had as much or more experience than I did and really had a passion for helping to build a business.

Cliff Duvernois:

Hello everyone and welcome back to Total Michigan, where we interview ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I'm your host Cliff DuVernois. I am up in Sault Ste. Marie, and one of the restaurants that I always make it a point to visit when I'm up there is the Wicked Sister. And I come here because not only is the food good, but the service is good. And if the food is good and the service is good, then the person behind it must be doing something right. Because having a restaurant is definitely not an easy business to be in. Today I'm sitting with Cathy Howell. Owner of the Wicked Sister in Sault Ste. Marie. Cathy. How are you?

Cathy Howell:

I'm wonderful. How are you?

Cliff Duvernois:

I'm doing awesome Thank you for asking. Why don't you tell us where you're from? Where did you grow up?

Cathy Howell:

I grew up here. Born and raised. So pretty quick story, but I, My family's all from here. We're a huge family. My dad is one of six. My mom is one of five. And most people settled here. So a huge extended family. I moved to Chicago to go to school. I lasted a semester because theatrical set design apparently wasn't really what I needed to be doing with my life. And a few years later, I moved to Baltimore. Because I needed to spread my wings. And when you have family that's involved with the police department and involved with all of these things within the community I really wanted to be able to make my own mistakes and not have to answer to my parents unless I made the national news. So it was a good place to be for, probably three, four years, I think I was out there.

Cliff Duvernois:

When you talk about spreading your wings in Baltimore, what was it you were doing there?

Cathy Howell:

I waited tables. I was hanging out my, one of my roommates was a musician. So I spent a lot of time at open mics. And he was also an apprenticing tattoo artist. It's like all of the things that you do in your twenties that you might be don't love as an adult.

Cliff Duvernois:

so you're waiting tables, but Obviously now we're fast forwarding and you're owning a restaurant. So. Is being a restauranteur just something that's always been in your blood? Is it something that you stumbled into? How did you get on this path?

Cathy Howell:

I started working at Antlers, here in the Sault, when I was 14. And I loved it. I loved the speed and the fast pace. And the people that worked there, the people that came in. I loved it. By the time I was 16, I distinctly remember chatting with Phyllis Kinney, one of the owners, and she was like what do you want to do when you grow up? And I said, I want to own a restaurant. And she said, oh, honey, no. And And, right, because I saw how difficult it was. so I tried to do other things. I went to school to be a theatrical set designer. I went to school to be a social worker teacher. And none of them fit. I kept always going back to the restaurant. And I thought, why not? So I figured what I would end up doing is having a career, and then retire, and then this would be my hobby. And then in 2014, my grandpa bought what was the Gin Mill, at auction. And he gave it to my mom and three aunts. They had minimal restaurant experience, so they tapped me to be their GM. And I guess the rest is history. And they really didn't love it the way that I did. So after a few months they started talking with Grandpa and got his blessing that I would buy it and be the sole owner. And then they could all go back into retirement.

Cliff Duvernois:

Let's take a step back here for a second. Because you were talking about how you were working at the restaurant, the Antlers in St. Marie. And you really started to fall in love with it. What was it, about the restaurant business, that you fell in love with.

Cathy Howell:

What I loved the most at the time was this like in spirit of hospitality, right? This welcoming people in. And I think what's really exciting to me is that the restaurant industry seems to be in this really weird spot of, we fill a. basic human need, right? Everyone needs to eat and nourish their bodies. We just provide, a convenience level to it, or maybe an experience to it. And having that having that really just brought me so to welcome people in. And even today, like welcoming people in and this is our house. We spend more time here, waking hours than probably anywhere else, you know in our daily lives. So to have that sense of pride and to welcome people in and to make them feel appreciated and comfortable is sometimes a challenge, but it's a really great place to be.

Cliff Duvernois:

Grandpa gets the place at auction. And your mom and her sisters are running it. You're the one that clearly shows a passion in this. So the question I got ultimately for you is, 'cause you talked about your background there. How is it that you step up and start running a restaurant without really, you worked at a restaurant, but

Cathy Howell:

It was trial by fire.

Cliff Duvernois:

Okay. All right.

Cathy Howell:

Before Wicked opened the highest position that I had held was I was the lead server. For maybe six months in Baltimore. That was it. I had no management experience. I didn't know how to do an order. I wasn't really comfortable checking with vendors. And it was, there was a lot of stuff that needed to happen. And it was just little by little. And thankfully we had a really good staff in the beginning. There were four or five people that had as much or more experience than I did and really had a passion for helping to build a business. And if you've never been in that startup situation, it's either for you or it's not. Because we changed things so quickly to go, oh, we thought that was gonna work, but clearly no. Let's try this, plan B or C or and so on. And really, my cousin Char she's been here since day one and started in the kitchen. I'd never cooked before. So I stood in her way until she taught me to cook. And we got our butts handed to us, quite a few lunch shifts right? Mostly because she's, can't carry a team of two and I wasn't that great. And Bob's been here since February of 2015. Those are my two longest running employees. And we just had a lot of people that cared and helped. And I think that's what started this internal culture at Wicked. Where we wanted everybody to be successful and I didn't always have the answers. And I wasn't too proud to tell people I don't know what to do. So we would come together and say, okay what seems to be the best solution to this issue? And that really worked. And it helped and it ingrained people into Wicked and it made it this family and this amazing thing. It worked. I don't know if I had to do it over again but I would know more, right? But that's how it happens. And you just have to, I think, keep pushing on and not be so proud that you pretend to, have all the answers.

Cliff Duvernois:

you come here and you start working did you have a vision for what you wanted this place to really be? Or was it something that just organically evolved over Time?

Cathy Howell:

So I wish that I had this like really amazing answer of Yes, this is exactly what we wanted. And so during the planning process after grandpa had bought the bar. And we spent about a year, renovating it and had to wait for licensing to come through. So we had lots of time to think and plan. And if you think that my grandpa and his girlfriend were in their 80s at the time, and I have aunts and uncles, parents that run, 70s to 50s, and then, I was in my 30s, I have children, I have cousins that are in their 20s, it really became this chaotic beehive of everybody wanted something right? My grandpa wanted the 75 cent Bud Light shells. And just a good old fashioned roast beef sandwich because you can't get that anymore. And I'm like maybe there's a reason for it. But okay, under consideration and whitefish croquettes were thrown out and you know It's just all of these ideas that you know really need It was really frustrating, I'm not gonna lie, it was really hard. But it, it really became this place for everybody. Because we had so many different generations that wanted something that represented them or something that made them happy that we just cast a wide net. And it became this place for everybody. I think even now today we try and be very inclusive and welcome everybody. So that's how it all came to be. And then really in terms of the menu we, we had to start with what we knew. We couldn't be these this great culinary experts. Because I didn't know I know I couldn't teach somebody how to cook a steak, right? I couldn't cook a steak. And so we really started with a very basic menu with just some really unique flavors, some really unique ingredients, but when you break it down, for a very long time, we were a burger and chicken sandwich place.

Cliff Duvernois:

When you first got this place, it was just a bar. And then at some point you added the kitchen on the back. When you add a restaurant on the back, you're adding a whole level of complexity. You're bringing in all of these other state organizations. You've got inspections that go on. You got to make sure that your food is good and the food typically doesn't have a high margin like booze does. Why did you decide to add the kitchen on?

Cathy Howell:

So I think, and just from what I've witnessed, in the community, the bar industry's dying. And it's been accelerated, I think, even since COVID. We can back up to 2014 when we were still, I was trying to convince my grandpa into investing into putting in a kitchen because it's not cheap and it's It, a bar brings a different clientele. And I didn't know that we would be this high end cocktail place, we were just, we would have served mixed drinks and some beer And that didn't feel right and it didn't feel very profitable to me for what we were doing and I worked at a restaurant, at Zorba's, for nine years off and on, through marriage and babies and all of this, and I loved it. So if I was going to jump on board and leave a job that I loved, I really wanted to make sure that it was going to be a stable career. And I didn't see that happening without a kitchen.

Cliff Duvernois:

How basic was your menu when you first opened?

Cathy Howell:

It wasn't I'm trying to think of what some of our original things where we started with like a Maryland style crab dip, right? Because we knew that the Drunken Cow which has been a signature number one seller on our menu since we opened. And it's beer, cheese and bacon and beer onions. We did a Dirty Uncle, which is still on our menu, fondly named after one of my dirty uncles. We have a bourbon chicken sandwich that we retired and then brought back after a few years where it was bourbon sauce, or we were doing our signature barbecue sauce. So we were really taking comfortable, familiar items and then just putting a twist on it. And even today if people come in and they're like, I just want a cheeseburger. Yes, that is okay. We judge a little bit but it's fine.

Cliff Duvernois:

Right. Awesome. it's fine For our we're I gonna take a quick break and thank our sponsors. When we come back, Cathy's going to continue to share with us the interesting journey of the Wicked Sister and the impact it's having on the local community. We'll see you after the break. Are you enjoying these amazing stories? Michigan is full of people that are doing some pretty extraordinary things. If you want these amazing stories sent directly to your inbox, head over to total michigan.com. Enter your email address and get them today. What are you going to get? I'm glad you asked. First, you're gonna join our awesome Michigan community Second, you will get an email that includes the top five interviews from the show sent directly to your inbox. Third, you're gonna get exclusive behind the scenes information about the show. There's a lot of things that are happening to grow this movement beyond the confines of just a radio show and a podcast. You'll get advanced notice of upcoming guests and early access to their interviews. Now to get all these goodies, just head over to total michigan.com/join. Enter your email address and join our awesome community today. Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Total Michigan, where we interview ordinary Michiganders doing some pretty extraordinary things. I'm your host, Cliff DuVernois. Today, we're sitting with Cathy Howell of the Wicked Sister up in Sault Ste. Marie. And Cathy, before the break we were talking about the very interesting journey that the restaurant has had over the years. And how you came in and started really making the place your own. Talk to us about how you come up with the menu items that you have on here. Talk to us about how you make that happen.

Cathy Howell:

In the beginning, it was, myself and Charlene and, the handful of cooks that we had in the back and it really started out with, geez, this sounds good. Let's try it. And that was successful. Now I hired a chef in 2020, 2019, and she started just as a line cook. And then we grew in need and then had the budget to hire a kitchen manager. And she's since been promoted to chef. And she does an amazing job of collecting ideas from everybody else. Or, again, geez, this sounds good. And that's really where our menu comes from. Kat just has this amazing ability to do really wonderful things and fancy techniques that we really weren't able to do before. So we do have steak on the menu now. Because she is able to train people to cook a steak. So having her on board has really taken our menu to the next level. And because she's a fantastic leader and is doing all these creative things that we've had really high quality people come in and want to work underneath of her, which has then bolstered kind of the, I call them the nameless faceless army in the back that They just, they do such amazing things. Things I didn't think were ever going to be possible here. Just a complete game changer on, on what we're able to do.

Cliff Duvernois:

Why did you make the decision to hire a chef?

Cathy Howell:

So I think it really came down to a business decision. In I'm a front of house girl, right? So I'm not so much a bartender. But that's where my domain is in front of the house, greeting guests, waiting tables. That's what I know. It's what I love. Back a house. It's not, I'm not strong at it. And I don't love it the way that other people like cat and people that are used to a kitchen that she does. So it really came down to the business has grown to a point that I can't effectively manage both sides. And I need to bring somebody in to do that. So she became that's just how it started and no regrets. She was 22 I believe, when I hired her as a kitchen manager. She has blown my mind on all of the things that she's capable of. And the food is outstanding. But really, truly her as a leader has really, she turned kitchen morale around. And it's just been, it's been a really great thing.

Cliff Duvernois:

You talked about, business was doing good so that afforded you the opportunity to hire, a kitchen manager, hire a chef, you were talking about how it was starting to really grow and you couldn't manage the front of the house and the back of the house. What do you attribute this growth to?

Cathy Howell:

Ooh I think, right, I think it's the idea that we offer great food, we offer great service, so you don't have to choose. I've been victim where I go out to eat, and I might really love the food, but I don't really love the service, or vice versa. And I think here you really truly get both sides of it. And you get this experience of, we, we can have beer, we have a great wine list, we've got really interesting cocktails. But also we have food that's consistently good. And one of the things, I think that's been the biggest compliment that I've heard several times is that people ask if we're a chain. Because not only did they come in once and they loved it. But then they came back and it might be a year later. It might be three months later and they had similarly a great experience. And they said, we've only seen this happen in chains. And I'm like no, I would love to be a chain, but no.

Cliff Duvernois:

And then another thing too that pointed out is I was out with dinner with some friends the other night and we were talking about How it seems like when it comes especially when it comes to restaurants that if the owner is, absent or really doesn't care then it seems like the employees don't care. And you have a really substandard experience when you do that Do you agree with that?

Cathy Howell:

Oh 100%. And it's so it's so amazing. I went to South Dakota in August for a family wedding. I was gone for 10 days. While I was at the dude ranch where the wedding was, I had no internet and I had no cell service. And I knew going in that's how it was going to be. And I just told him you guys are going to have to figure it out because I can't, you won't be able to call me. Wait, you come back as a business owner after 10 days. And you think, what fires am I going to have to put out? There was nothing! Nothing! When we finally got into cell service and we're on the drive back. And my phone's not blowing up. And I think exactly did the place burn down and everyone just walked away. Like what is this? No, it just ran business as usual. I actually think it runs a little bit better if I'm not here. I tend to overthink things. I tend to get a little bit anxious. And everybody does care they have a vested interest. So it is as a business owner one of the coolest things to have a group We usually have about 24, 25 employees on staff That come in every day and they give a hundred and ten percent. And they honestly they shame me as a former employee because I don't know that I always did that And they're just I think the world of them I would walk through fire for every single person that we have on a schedule. But they really truly are amazing. And if something's not right or if they think that we can do something better, Most of them feel very comfortable coming to me and saying, Hey, could we, what do you think about doing it this way instead? And I love it because I still, we're eight years in. I still don't have all the answers and right day in and day out. These are my people that are customer facing that are in the trenches working. I've been able to work my way into more of a back end, marketing, accounting position. So I still want to hear all those things. Because if we've had 20 guests come in the last week asking for a beer that we don't have, maybe we should bring in that beer.

Cliff Duvernois:

One of the things too that I wanted to talk about is, a very concerted choice, decision to really focus on getting customers who are local versus relying on tourists. Talk to us about that business decision because it is a business decision. Your marketing and everything is impacted by it.

Cathy Howell:

Yeah, so I think that tourism is a really volatile place to be. And in the Sault in particular June, July, August, even September. Those are good months because people are driving up here and spending time in the community. But what happens in October through May, and there's not the same amount of people and I grew up here I'm, really proud of the community. I'm proud of what we've done to the community. And so it's really I really want to support our locals and I want to say thank you to that by really saying you're the people that we find I don't want to say of value. But you're the people that keep us open. You're the people that make Wicked possible. So that's just what we do. And also in the summer, sometimes tourists are very grouchy and not, and I have three kids, so I understand that driving in a car and it's a lot and whatever, but like our locals are just like really nice And laid back and they're fun. And it's fun to get to know people and have that relationship with them, where you see them week after week. And you can say, Hey, you had this big, interview. What, how did that work out? Did you get the job? Or, Hey, I see it's your birthday. Happy Birthday. And it's, I just like it. It really, I think, goes back to embracing that hospitality, and this sense of the kitchen table. I always grew up around my grandparents kitchen table. And we would eat, and drink, and snack and just, share memories or experiences or ideas. And that's really what I like about here is I think we're doing the same thing and kind of modeling that aspect of something that's near and dear to my heart.

Cliff Duvernois:

You made a comment about things that you're doing in the community. Talk to us about that.

Cathy Howell:

So we just finished our ninth annual Battle of the Breweries which is something that we started in 2015, on a whim. And the idea behind it is that all of our proceeds for the event go to benefit our hospice of the U.P. Which is, I think, the last free hospice in Michigan. I think hospice is an amazing cause and it touches a lot of people. Two of my grandparents have gone through hospice. And I just don't know how that grieving process would have went without them there. I feel very strongly about it. I am so proud to be in a position that we can do something to support such an amazing cause. Battle of the Breweries turns into, we have eight taps for beer. And, we invite two breweries. They each get four taps. And Cat comes up with this beautiful menu, four courses. And we give the brewers the menu. And they do whatever they want to bring four beers. We have 80, we cap out at 80 tickets. We sell tickets for 50 a piece. Each person gets four tickets to vote. And so we count tickets at the end of the event. And the person that has, the brewery that has the most tickets, they're our champion and they get invited back the following year. But it's a great, It's a great night. We're really fortunate that the community donates to a live auction which Tim and Lindsay Ellis at Eagle Radio hosts, they're our MCs for the night. And So this year we raised between our bar sales, the servers donated their tips back to hospice it's a lot of smaller buckets and it all pulls together, I think we raised almost $10, 000 this past year for it. And it's a ton of fun. In the second year, we had this they're a group of retired guys that all get together and play poker. And in 2016, Al Suggett and his niece, Kelly Avery, they were dancing in Dancing with the Stars for hospice. We partnered with them as the fundraiser, and all of their poker crew came in and helped us pour beer and run food. And they had so much fun that they come back year after year. So I have a hundred percent volunteer staff that night. And then, but we also have community members that just come in and volunteer to do that. So it's always great to see the guys and they've done it so long now they're like same as last year. And I'm like, yep.

Cliff Duvernois:

That's perfect. if somebody's coming here, if they've never been here before, what would be like a dish or two that you would recommend that they try?

Cathy Howell:

Oh, so I am personally a little sick of eating the Construction Dip. However, I feel like that is quintessential Wicked Sister is this construction dip. Garlic, bacon, cheesy goodness. It's like we serve it with our house cooked chips and soft pretzel bites. And it is, it's delicious and it's addicting. So that I think, if you've never been here before and you're not afraid of some like good cheesy comfort food, that has to be there. And then, I think, so we run these seasonal menus that are usually six to eight weeks long. I would pick something off of that. We're coming up on a new one. It'll hit Wednesday, as long as everything goes according to plan. And so wait. If I was coming in next week, I would get the Bistro Steaks. So they're steak medallions, grilled to order. Kat made this amazing bourbon cream sauce to go on top of it. And it's just like delicate, but all the flavors come through on it, and it's such a wonderful complement to the beef. And then it's baby baker potatoes, in a green garlic butter, which if anybody was familiar with the green garlic steak, it is the exact same butter. It was so popular that we're like we've got to use it again. So potatoes will be tossed in that and then some grilled asparagus. That's and then we're gonna have, oh, jalapeno popper dip is gonna come up on the menu. That's, I'm a sucker for jalapeno poppers. So I might actually skip construction dip to get the popper dip. So there's gonna be a spicy chicken sandwich. I really don't think you can go wrong. Even if you're vegetarian, our black bean burgers, we make them in house. And they're not frozen. so there's really something I think for everybody except for vegans. We're not very good at vegans, Like you can eat here. You just don't have a lot of choices

Cliff Duvernois:

if somebody is listening to this, and they want to come by, check out the Wicked Sister. Maybe find you online. What's the best way for them to do that?

Cathy Howell:

Wicked Sister Sault S-A-U-L-T dot com. And we just redid our website. So I'm pretty proud of it. I really didn't do much. Somebody else made it all because I can't be great at everything. And but beautiful pictures of our food. So if you were curious to see what it looks like yeah, we're still working on getting all of the pictures up there. But we try really hard to keep that moving along so you can see what you're getting into.

Cliff Duvernois:

Right. Cathy. I'm now hungry.

Cathy Howell:

EXcellent. I know. We're almost open.

Cliff Duvernois:

Thank you so much for taking time to be with us today. I really appreciate it.

Cathy Howell:

Thank you! This was a ton of fun.

Cliff Duvernois:

Yes, it was. And for our audience, you can always roll on over to TotalMichigan. com, click on Cathy's interview, and get the links that she mentioned down below. We'll see you next week when we talk to another Michigander doing some pretty extraordinary things. We'll see you then.