NEW BUFFALO – The Stray Dog Bar & Grill has risen from the ashes.
The portrait of Jack, the original “stray dog” that inspired both the name and logo of the eatery, was uncovered by workmen clearing the rubble days after an electrical fire destroyed the popular 360-seat New Buffalo restaurant on July 17, 2012.
Rebuilt on almost the same footprint at 245 N. Whittaker St., the slightly retouched portrait now hangs above the new cobblestone fireplace in the center to the restaurant. Suzanne Frazier, the portrait’s artist, added a four-leaf clover to the upper left corner of the picture when she was cleaning it up.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate,” said Leslie Danesi, owner of the Stray Dog with her husband, Marc.
She was referring to the feat of “reopening in less than a year during the winter on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan.”
Both Leslie and Marc repeatedly praised those that helped them over the hurdles, from the police and firemen, city officials and office staff, architects, designers, insurance adjusters, lawyers and construction crews.
“There are a lot of friends we have now that we didn’t know before,” Leslie said. “We’re glad to be back and part of the community.”
With the philosophy “practice makes perfect” in mind, the restaurant opened to family and friends, including all those who helped them rebuild, on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 25 and 26, prior to their official re-opening on Thursday, June 27.
Jim and Linda Moore of New Buffalo were the first customers seated for the “practice makes perfect” lunch on June 25, and the faithful Stray Dog patrons said their patience was rewarded both by the food they’d been craving for nearly a year and with a pleasant surprise when they first got inside.
“When we walked in the front door we were happy to see the huge waiting room to keep people inside rather than outside in the hot sun waiting for tables,” Jim said.
The July 2012 blaze started around 9 p.m., and smoke was billowing out of the roof of the structure less than a half hour hence. Firefighters continued to converge on the scene as the evening went on, and the New Buffalo Fire Department employed its biggest ladder truck to battle the stubborn, smoky blaze.
No one was injured, and New Buffalo Fire Department Assistant Chief Jack Kennedy credited the Stray Dog staff with shepherding patrons outside in an orderly manner.
“People ask me if I’m nervous about opening but I think I’m traumatized. There is nothing worse than watching your building burn,” Leslie Danesi said on June 25, recalling the night she, Marc, and their three children watched the blaze destroy their restaurant, and all the hard work the fire left in its wake.
But as patrons and friends enjoyed their first meals at the Stray Dog since that night, some of the trauma seemed to wash away.
“Everybody’s happy that we’re open again … I think it’s great for the town of New Buffalo,” Leslie said. “We’re kind of an anchor at the end of the street, so when everybody goes to the beach they can come down and enjoy a nice meal … We’re very happy to be back.”
Brian Overley congratulated the Danesis on their imminent re-opening during the June 25 “practice” lunch.
“I think it’s beautiful, I love what they’ve done with the interior,” he said.
Mark and Karen Martin of LaPorte, also enjoying lunch on June 25, said they were very glad to have The Stray Dog back and to make a visit to New Buffalo again part of their routine.
Isaac Stenger, stopping on his way to a Chicago White Sox game with his father, Timothy, to see where his uncle, Ted Stenger, works as a manager, noted that it “seems nice,” while their friend, Paul Martindale, was excited about his first visit.
About 70 per cent of the Stray Dog’s former employees have returned and many new employees have been hired to make up what Marc Danesi termed a “good starting point” staff of about 140 people. At the time of the fire, there were 183 employees.
One of the new employees is Chef Jackie Shen, a longtime friend of the Danesi’s, who has moved to the area from Chicago where she managed several large, well known restaurants.
Heading into opening week, the wait staff underwent more than two weeks of training on the menu (mostly unchanged with old favorites such as a variety of pizzas, sandwiches and French fries sharing space with a few newcomers including Ahi Tuna), computer, policies and procedures.
“We want the staff to be comfortable from the first time they welcome customers,” said manager Ginger Scott.
“It all comes together in the end,” said Joey DiMaggio, another member of the returning management staff which also includes Lori Prinkert and Ted Stenger.
Of course, part of the lesson plan for new employees is the history of Jack, the stray dog owned by Marjorie Bloom, original owner of Whittaker House, a New Buffalo clothing store opened in the early 90s.
The Jack Fund was started in 2010 by Madeline Danesi, the owners’ oldest child who is now a junior at Colorado University. A new T-shirt is designed annually, and the profits from the sale of the shirts are donated to various animal charities.
Shirts, hats and other accessories bearing the Stray Dog’s omnipresent logo are available both at the adjacent Gear Shop (which also re-opens on June 27) or in the expanded lobby area of the restaurant.
After the fire, the restaurant issued a call to patrons for pictures of their “dogs” — a pre-fire tradition. The response was “phenomenal,” Marc said.
So much so, that the task of affixing them to various positions within the new building was ongoing as of June 25.
Waiter Shelby Anderson, who worked at The Stray Dog last summer, said the new layout with the kitchen in the rear was a major adjustment as well as some changes in the menu. A 2011 graduate of Bridgman High School and now a college journalism major, Anderson said she was compelled to work there after completing a 100-page research project about it for DECA, her high school marketing club.
New employee Ruth Phelps, a familiar face to patrons of several Michigan City restaurants, said she was attracted because The Stray Dog had a good reputation with several of her friends who were employees and “I’d been here several, several times.”
Marc Danesi said that although the building is similar in square footage to its predecessor, it’s better laid out. He pointed to the larger entranceway without a step, the upper deck’s new stairwell and rooftop dining area (slated to re-open about July 8), plus a lift for handicapped accessibility, a basement for improved storage and new bathrooms as the most obvious changes.
The new restaurant was designed by architect Bill McCollum of Union Pier-based McCollum Architects.
“We are very glad to be back and be a part of the New Buffalo community. I hope folks are patient at first. It takes a little time to get your legs under you again but we have good people, so we’ll get it right,” he said.
The Danesis have been part of the area’s restaurant scene since 1991 when they opened Dakota’s Restaurant at Baker and Buffalo streets. In 1998 they opened Tratorria Enzo in downtown LaPorte, which they continue to own. At that time, Dakota’s came under different management although the Danesis retained ownership of the building.
In 2001, the Danesis returned to the Buffalo Street building, which became the original site for The Stray Dog. Danesi continues to use the Baker Street building as a warehouse.
In 2003, after The Stray Dog concept proved popular, the couple purchased the former home of Surf Gardens Restaurant near the harbor on Whittaker Street that had been vacant for more than two years. They undertook a ground-up renovation and moved The Stray Dog to its current location.
— David Johnson contributed to this report