‘Overwhelmingly grateful’: OAK + ASH owners reflect on opening day
Published 1:40 am Thursday, June 2, 2022
DOWAGIAC — No advance notice, no problem. Local residents were champing at the bit for a bite of BBQ.
Despite giving no warning to the community, OAK + ASH BBQ, 109 S. Front St., officially opened Thursday to an ‘overwhelming’ community response. According to restaurant co-owner Tim Tinker, the restaurant posted to Facebook at 4 p.m. that its doors were open for business, and by 5:30 p.m. the post had over 4,000 views. As 10 p.m. rolled around, their post had reached more than 16,000 people, and the restaurant was still bustling with customers.
“The community support is phenomenal,” Tinker said. “The fact that people changed their plans so quickly on a Thursday night to come in and pack the house … it’s amazing.”
By 9 p.m., the restaurant was sold out of most of their smoked meats.
“Overwhelmingly grateful,” said chef and co-owner Alain Helfrich, of his feelings after the busy first day. “It was better than I expected, which is super sweet.”
With Helfrich manning the smoker he rented from Niles’ Cotton Gin Smokers most of the day, he said he doesn’t get to see people enjoying the food very much. However, when he did get a chance to step inside the restaurant, he was pleased with what he saw.
“My favorite part is seeing their jaws drop when they come in, because it’s so different,” said Helfrich, of the changes they made since they took over the former Zeke’s Restaurant space last fall. The old Zeke’s awnings have been removed, the building has a new paint job, the interior has been stripped down to its original late 1800s construction and historical Dowagiac memorabilia has been placed throughout the restaurant.
OAK + ASH is owned by Haunt of Hounds restaurant group, which consists of Helfrich, Tinker, Jordan Mullins and Austin Cabello. The group also owns Propaganda Pizza in Sister Lakes, Fatbird in South Bend, as well as other restaurants. As far as opening day experiences go, Tinker said if he were to grade the day, he would give it a B+.
“I’m excited for the next chapter of this restaurant,” Tinker said. “We’ve been building it for six or seven months, and now we do what we know how to do, which is run restaurants. So, we’re really excited about that.”
The reason for the relatively quiet opening, according to Tinker, is because is allows the restaurant to execute the same level of service from the first guest on, without outside expectations or a line out the door.
“I’ve worked a lot of really bad opening days, and I’ve worked some really good ones,” Tinker said. “Doing it slowly and quietly is the best way. … The last thing I want to do is alienate a bunch of people on the first day because we’re not prepared to serve 200 people at once. This way, we can give everyone the service they deserve and that we expect our staff to give.”
To start, OAK + ASH hours will be Wednesday through Saturday from 4-10 p.m., and noon to 8 p.m. Sundays. Tinker said once the restaurant is fully staffed, they would like to open seven days a week, including lunch service.
The OAK + ASH menu is based on Texas-style BBQ. Helfrich has traveled the country searching for the best BBQ, and said he has used all of what he learned toward the development of the OAK + ASH menu.
Smoked meat options include oak-smoked brisket and pork shoulder, mesquite-smoked ribs, cherry-smoked turkey, pecan-smoked sausages and hickory-smoked chicken. Beef ribs smoked with oak, hickory and cherry are also available by the bone. Meat prices range from $4.50 for a quarter-pound of smoked turkey to $60 for a bone of beef ribs the menu calls “The ribeye of BBQ.” Chef Helfrich said the beef rib is smoked for 16-plus hours, has more than a pound of meat on it, is one of his favorite foods and is well worth the cost.
“One of the first tables today we had order two beef ribs,” Helfrich said. “I was very happy about that.”
The restaurant also has meatless options, including a smoked Portobello mushroom sandwich, pimiento cheese spread, poutine, fried pickles and many sides. Starters include pimiento cheese, BBQ nachos, Frito pie and burnt end-loaded waffle fries. Soups and salads available include a smoked turkey salad, brisket chili, and tomato soup. Sandwiches range from pulled pork on brioche to a brisket on a bagel to the “Ladder 240,” an homage to the Dowagiac Fire Department featuring pulled pork, brisket, jalapeno cheddar sausage and Carolina BBQ sauce.
The menu also features a birria taco, pulled pork taco, BBQ burrito and several classic burger options. Additional sauce options include mole BBQ, Japanese BBQ, Alabama white, hot BBQ and more.
(Images courtesy OAK + ASH)