It was a typical October day when the earth began to tremble and roll. Thousands of homes on California’s central coast were knocked from their foundations, cracked open or destroyed altogether. Dozens of lives were lost. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was centered near Santa Cruz, and its effects on residents would be felt far and wide, reaching all the way to the rustic U.P. town of Au Train.
The present-day owners of Au Train’s legendary Brownstone Inn, Deb Molitor and Jeff Van Bremen, were among those in Santa Cruz whose lives were forever changed. Having grown up on a farm in Michigan’s Montcalm County, Deb said, “I knew that the earth takes care of you; it doesn’t reach up and knock your house down around you!” Thus, the couple determined to move themselves and their children back to the stable ground of their Midwestern roots.
Jeff, a native of Ohio, worked in the custom freight industry, attending culinary school at night and on weekends. Deb held numerous degrees in special education. While still living in Michigan in the 1970s, Deb took frequent trips to visit friends in Marquette and arriving at the Au Train Bay was always her cue to slow down and relax. The place had special meaning.
Following the earthquake, Deb and Jeff let it be known they were in search of new opportunities. One day she received a call from her vacationing parents telling them that Au Train’s legendary Brownstone Inn was for sale. After several visits to the Inn—and a strong reminder by Deb to Jeff that “We have really BIG winters here,” the couple took a leap of faith and became the fifth owners of the Brownstone.
Built in 1946 by retired Detroit police officer, Clark Haskins, the Inn was constructed of locally harvested wood and stone, as well as materials salvaged from the defunct Ford Motor plant in nearby Munising. It is believed that the interior mahogany wainscoting is scrap from a Kingsford veneer mill that used the wood to create gliders for the World War II Allied invasion at Normandy Beach. The Inn’s vintage whole-log dining furniture was handcrafted by Rittenhouse of Cheboygan.
The original luster of the place wasn’t quite obvious when Deb and Jeff first took possession. “It had been closed for two years. The heat didn’t work; the drains didn’t drain and the water didn’t run.” But within four short months, in December 1991, the couple moved themselves and their children into the upstairs living quarters and reopened the doors to the now legendary and historic restaurant.
The Brownstone Inn’s menu draws from local ingredients, and the owners pride themselves on fresh, creative flavor combinations. The core menu Jeff created 25 years ago has remained relatively fixed. But it does include changing specials that, as Deb puts it, “allows Jeff to take care of his ‘Chef ya ya’s.’ Right now, for instance, we’re running curry specials.” And their most popular dish? Fresh-as-can-be Lake Superior Whitefish supplied by
After 25 years, the business is even more than a family affair. “We have staff that has worked for us since the day we opened. We are blessed to have employed people that truly have the health and welfare of the business in mind. They care for it as their own.” Even more, the local community maintains a vital role in the business. “When the tourists aren’t here, it’s our neighbors who show up to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries,” Deb reflected. “I really feel like we’ve been a part of so many people’s lives.”
The Brownstone Inn continues standing and thriving more than 70 years after Clark Haskins fled the city to build his dream from scratch. Reflecting upon their own decision 25 years ago, Deb’s sentiment probably echoes that of Brownstone founder Haskins: “We showed up at the edge of the planet and found we had everything we needed.”