Wood Fire turning 10 with new owner

Published 10:11 pm Monday, July 1, 2013

Wood Fire owner Jim Kramer is a minister who entered the restaurant business as a "hobby."

Wood Fire owner Jim Kramer is an Illinois minister who entered the restaurant business as a “hobby.”

Can a restaurant learn from church?

New Wood Fire owner Jim Kramer sees similarities, perhaps because of his unique perspective.

“The Rev” served as minister of a Chicagoland church until taking a leave this summer to devote more time to his “hobby,” fixing restaurants along this side of Lake Michigan.

In New Buffalo, it’s Nancy’s at the Lake, Jake’s at the Beach and Roma’s Pizzeria.

It St. Joseph, it’s Tim’s Too Asian Grill, which his son runs. The previous owner of Nancy’s manages Roma’s.

Tim’s Too draws a considerable number of vegetarian customers from Seventh-Day Adventists around Berrien Springs.

It seems natural to Kramer. Church is about serving people, nurturing souls through the spiritual bread of life, building community by connecting people and spreading the Good News.

The “Master Chef” is always on the premises, ever watching over the operation and overseeing every detail, concerned about each person who enters and those who serve them. That’s the church mission.

Truly great restaurants do the same with a twist, Kramer, who acquired Wood Fire June 7, said Monday afternoon in the Pompeii Room, which will be opened with French doors replacing windows so visitors can hear summer concerts at 134 S. Front St. in Beckwith Park.

“Like Rush Street in Chicago,” he said, uncertain whether to call it The Patio Room or Wood Fire Too. “This is the last place people want to sit. I want it to be the first place, and it could be if you were almost sitting outside. This restaurant is a destination. People come from Kalamazoo, South Bend, St. Joe. That’s the hardest group to reach — outside a 15-mile radius. It has a difficult time reaching people within three to four miles — and that’s the challenge. You have to do both.”

One way might be something he instituted at Roma’s — free pizza for the basketball team when it wins.

“This town’s sports crazy, but I don’t know how I could afford to feed the football team. There are things like that you can do to become more inclusive with the community. At Christmastime, we could use the balcony to invite church choirs on Sunday evenings. LaGrange, Ill., where I live, has 35 restaurants, and all the other shops do well because of it. Vendors don’t bring in people — restaurants do.”

Great restaurants build an atmosphere where community is felt, create a place where people can connect, provide great food and spread the news. That is a restaurant’s mission. Wood Fire food is served at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church lunches. The wood fire stoked with apple, cherry, even grape vine, means a $23-a-month gas bill — a tenth of Tim’s Too.

While the master chef may not be The Master Chef, in good restaurants there are similarities. They are often on the premises, watching over the operation, seeing to the details and concerned about each person who enters and each person who serves them.

So it seems Kramer has combined the two: His family and friends manage the business, he feeds their souls.

Perhaps you noticed his name is absent from his eateries.

“I like behind-the-scenes stuff,” Kramer said, “and meeting people as they come in. I love to eat good food, and I’m very involved in the service end.”

“There were 12 Roma’s up and down the coastline. I bought the original,” he said. “Nancy’s is run by a friend of mine from church. Most ministers are introverts — very focused and studious. I’m not. I was the only extrovert out of my seminary class. I’m energized by people. It’s always been a hobby. Now, it’s become a bigger hobby. In the past, I’ve owned cottages and vacation rentals. I’ve been in Chicago for 20 years. Before that, I was in Wichita. I kind of stumbled into the whole restaurant thing 10 years ago.”

He leaves cooking to others, like his “absolutely amazing” Hawaiian chef, Cheryl Horiuchi.

Kramer ate there several times during the past year while deciding to buy the place from Larry Seurynck and “the food was always excellent. People order Italian dishes, but they order fish just as much.”

“I’ve liked hotels and hospitality since I was a little kid,” Kramer said. “My parents said when they took the four of us out to eat, I would be the one who would escape from them and go from table to table — just to go talk to people.”

Not surprisingly, he married an introvert, Robin.

The one difference between his culinary calling and church is that the latter is pursued without expectation of profit while it’s necessary in the former, which is why Wood Fire probably will no longer bring in big names, such as Leon Redbone or Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.

“I love Dan Hicks,” he said, “but with a staff of 25, you have to keep on top of the business end and make money.”

Wood Fire will be returning entertainment Wednesday, Friday and Sunday nights, starting with soul-jazz trumpeter Lin Rountree on July 17.

Also booked are such acts as Hutch, Venetia, Keith Scott and Jim Pickley.

Another change he anticipates is adding a bar menu.

“We get requests for it all the time, like people at 10 o’clock wanting a burger,” he said.

Wood Fire “is a gorgeous restaurant that really feels good when people are in here,” Kramer said. “To use another church term, it’s a nurturing environment. It’s like walking down the center aisle of a church. I don’t know if Larry did that consciously, but it’s like walking into the sanctuary.”