GTPulse: Fresh Meat, Fresh Ideas: A Diner of Philosophy
Although there is some controversy over the origin of the hamburger—beef and bread have been consumed separately in different countries for centuries—combining the two basic ingredients and dressing it up with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, pickles and onion, is unquestionably American. Being that America’s contribution to the culinary world is the Hamburger, finding the best burgers in town almost feels like my patriotic duty. So, when I discovered that a new burger joint would be opening at the former location of Ham-Bonz on 8th Street in Traverse City, I dug in to find the details.
The concept behind Oakwood Proper Burgers is beyond thoughtful: It’s a philosophy that carefully considers each and every step of the process. Owners Leslie Bilbey and Josh Gray have passion that goes beyond the bun. Indeed, the diner is dedicated to quality—their beef, for example, will be fresh ground daily in house, with locally sourced ingredients. But, even the grinder Oakwood Proper Burgers will use has a story. In fact, you might be hard pressed to find a single element of the business that isn’t attached to a charming anecdote. The name “Oakwood”, for example, eludes to Josh’s workshop— where he would donate scraps of oak and other wood to artists and co-op members—who would create a new story from his contribution.
“Something as arbitrary as a piece of wood— artists and others are able to create something with our wood—for us it’s much more ethereal,” Josh says, while Leslie adds, “My father, who passed away, was a woodworking hobbyist and he also had a collection of oak. It all feels very connected.”
Preserving and honoring both history and memories is an important piece to the Oakwood Proper Burgers story, “We are honoring my Dad,” says Leslie, “We are honoring the previous owners of Ham-Bonz, we are even honoring what the building was before being a restaurant. It was a barber shop, and, Josh’s late wife Jennifer was a hair stylist. So, we loved discovering that history and we honor her with this project, as well as with everything we do.”
“It’s pedagogical,” says Josh, referring to the theory and practice of learning that influences the social, political and psychological development of learners, “It’s important to us that we have a philosophy and that beef isn’t our commodity.”
“Every transaction will be thoughtful,” says Leslie.
Beyond the philosophy of the restaurant is a family. Josh and Leslie’s four children have been actively involved in the process of renovating.
“They’re all excited about it,” says Leslie, “the boys are excited. My oldest son looks at it more as an opportunity to work and earn money, and as for the girls,”
“They’re excited,” Josh continues, “but that hasn’t manifested into hard work yet,” he laughs.
As for the burgers—Josh has every confidence they will deliver an exceptional product, “I’m from Texas, the birthplace of the burger. Philadelphia might claim to be where the burger was invented, but that’s wrong.”
Josh and his brother started a burger bistro in Texas, and his brother still runs it. “We were in the heart of beef country and we knew we wanted to refine the burger, curate a more elegant menu. It’s the same with Traverse City, our food culture, this is a foodie town, and we’re going to put a lot of thought into our burgers, hand cut fries and shakes. We mean “proper burgers” sincerely.”
Opening a restaurant at any time can be taxing, but opening a restaurant during a pandemic adds more challenges to the process. But, Josh and Leslie say they have models ready for both a pandemic and post-pandemic scenario, “We have patio space, we will have curbside options available, and when we open in February, it will be a soft opening, so if we have to adjust hours and staff, we will do that.”
Josh, Leslie, and their kids will continue working purposefully on a diner that is built on connecting traditions. Come February, 2021—when you bite into a burger that is much more than ground beef on bread—you’ll become a part of that tradition.