Jeni Willingham and the staff at Jeni's in East Jordan recently celebrated the restaurant's first anniversary.
The restaurant at 101 E. Main St. features American comfort food. Willingham describes the restaurant and its food as "home-cooked, diner-esque with a unique spin." Her menu features burgers, sandwiches and soups, along with classic favorites such as macaroni and cheese and meatloaf. Popular new favorites include Kickin' Chicken Spaghetti (as featured earlier this year in The Graphic) and unique sandwiches named after family members and people she met along the way.
Jeni's is open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Weekends feature a breakfast buffet from 8 a.m.-noon. This rotating buffet menu is all-you-can-eat and brings in several regular customers for old comforts and new favorites. Buffet items often include various frittatas, casseroles and pancakes. Prices are affordable and the meals typically are made from scratch with local, fresh ingredients. Burger meat comes from Tannery Creek Market in Petoskey, coffee is fresh-roasted from Backdraft in Ellsworth and the ice cream hails from Moomers in Traverse City.
As Willingham reflects on the last year after she reached the landmark one-year anniversary, she talks about how it all began. She worked several jobs to make ends meet, including construction, computer work and in a deli. She found late in life that food is her passion, even though she's always enjoyed cooking. It was when Willingham began entertaining and volunteering to serve food at community events that friends began to request her "Jeni food." It was this support system of friends that encouraged her to launch the restaurant. It would be this same group that offered helpful hands so she could open the restaurant. Her husband painted and a fellow church member made the curtains, she said.
Willingham decided to go to culinary school to "fill in the gaps." And while Willingham had "a natural talent," she said she learned important areas of restaurant ownership, such as ordering and purchasing, things she never before did.
While at culinary school, Willingham was contacted by the owner of the restaurant's space who was eager to see a positive new business in the downtown corner building. The space allows Jeni to reach her goal to impact the community where she lived and raised her family for the last decade.
Willingham laughingly said she would love for the restaurant to turn a huge profit for her family. Yet, she said it's more about what the place has become to her. It's a place where people can meet and catch up on family life. A group of regular customers even developed.
Willingham said her restaurant is a place for strangers to become regulars and develop a connection with each other. She enjoys both nurturing and feeding, and said the positive feedback and requests to meet the chef are her greatest rewards. For example, an 8-year-old girl wouldn't leave the restaurant without an opportunity to tell Willingham that her macaroni and cheese was best the child ever tasted.
With a smile in her voice, Willingham said the restaurant has "taken on a life of its own" just one year after she "jumped in with both feet," having never previously owned a business. She "took a chance on a dream," she said.
Now, with one year of experiences, she looks forward to future years of "making good food and loving on people."
Jeni's Restaurant is at 101 Main St. in East Jordan. The business can be reached by telephone at (231) 536-9247. You can also view the full menu on the restaurant's Facebook page.