Keeping It Local at Gilly’s Bistro

    icon Feb 02, 2023
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No matter the season, there’s something refreshing about being able to walk into your neighborhood market and select from shelves stocked with locally produced products. For all the modern convenience that an Amazon Prime mentality may offer, it doesn’t nourish the soul – and fortify the area economy – like doing business with a local owner who is creating reality from his entrepreneurial dream.
Gilly’s Bistro, located at 1023 N. Johnson Street in Bay City. stepped into the former home of 3rd n Johnson Market & Eatery on September 10th of last year. The transition was smooth: previous owner Paul Hennard was open September 9 and turned over everything – the keys, recipes, and the kitchen sink – to Guillermo “Gilly” Gonzalez. In its 7 years of operation, 3rd n Johnson had earned a loyal contingent of customers who craved their homemade “take-n-bake” specialties: frozen pre-cooked meals like lasagna, chicken pot pie, and meatloaf, as well as locally produced eggs, microgreens, fruits and vegetables, honey, salsa, quiches, soups, baked goods, and more. 
“I was looking up commercial properties, and this one really caught my attention,” says the 40-year-old Saginaw native. “The fact that it was an already-existing business was a big plus for me.” Above all, Gilly says, “This is a business of passion. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and heart.” Instead of buying a Corvette to quench any midlife crisis triggered by entering his fifth decade, he left his 10-year career at S. C. Johnson & Son and followed his passion for family, food, and community.
Gilly learned much from his experience helping his father at work. “My dad owned Chico’s Party Store in Saginaw,” he says. “He bought it my freshman year of high school and I worked there through school.” Gilly’s father passed away in 2017, but his photo is prominently placed over the entrance of the new business. 
Now Gilly is passing on his passion to his two sons, Ivan (10) and Giovanni (8). “They’re learning the same way I learned,” he says. “One of the reasons I invested in this business is so they could see [the daily operation of a small business].... They don’t teach this in school – how Dad talks to customers, how cooking brings people together.” 
The “recipes rather than processed meals” ideology is swimming upstream against a Lunchables-meets-KFC culture, but more and more people are embracing the healthy local option, as long as they know where to look. 
In addition to the established favorites on the previous menu, Gilly is adding a healthy assortment of Mexican cuisine inspired by family recipes from his dad and grandmother. Peach and pumpkin empanadas, tamales, wet burritos (“They’re selling like crazy,” Gilly marvels), and a special treat when it’s on the menu, authentic pozole from his grandmother’s recipe.
“Technique is key [to making pozole],” he says. “It’s a common Mexican recipe that is considered the chicken soup of our culture for its healing properties. It’s also a hangover remedy,” he adds. 
Whereas most people would add chili powder for the subtle kick that characterizes the dish, Gilly de-seeds an ancho chile pepper and boils it into a liquid. He offers me a sample, and one sip confirms it is indeed the real deal. Flavorful, soothing, and hearty, the spice of the ancho chile prickles my taste buds. 
“We use cocoa powder in our marinara sauce,” he tells me. “It cuts down on acid reflux.” Ah, the things you can learn by visiting your neighborhood market.
It’s late afternoon and Gilly’s boys are hanging out and helping their dad, so I get some of their perspective. “What’s your favorite part of helping your dad out at the market?” I query. Ivan is a fan of cracking eggs and can already crack and shell an egg with one hand. Giovanni is sort of a jack-of-all-trades. In the short while I’m there, he mops the floor (without being asked) and patiently observes his dad’s technique while preparing and boxing a to-go meal. His ambitions, however, are direct. “In 10 years we’re gonna own [Gilly’s],” he predicts. Judging by his work ethic, the path is already being set. It’s apparent both boys are getting an early education in the value of honest work.
At the moment, Gilly is the primary employee, but he does have an opening person helping him. “We’re four months in and we’re looking to build out our team,” he says.
 Ivan and Giovanni come to the market most days after school, either sitting up front to do homework or helping out where they can. Gilly’s partner and wife, Diana, comes in on Saturdays and does the books for the business. “She has her own other career,” Gilly says. 
Gilly’s is not a licensed dining establishment, which limits the market’s seating capacity to 12. “It’s limited seating, but you can dine-in,” he adds. There is a patio in back with three tables, and there are plans to have a couple TVs outdoors as well. 
Once farmers market season heats up, Gilly is hoping to make fresh relationships with local purveyors of more locally produced goods. 
Gilly appreciates the loyalty of his community of customers, and he wants people to know that as he is busily putting the word out about the bistro, he’s not all talk. He actually listens. “If someone asks for vegan tamales, I’ll make it happen.” (Someone did, and now they are a regular item.) And he’s looking forward to meeting more new customers. “If someone has something they really want, I’ll make it happen,” he promises. “I’m here for the people.”
Gilly recalls an early piece of advice his father gave him that is the foundation of his philosophy for creating a welcoming, successful endeavor. “He told me 90 percent of a sale is ‘presentation.’ When he ran his store, I learned about that.”
As Gilly’s begins its first full year in operation, the stage seems set for the market’s long-term success as more people find out about the homespun charm and tasty, locally produced foods that nourish the local economy. Perhaps in a few decades, Ivan and Giovanni will be showing their kids the ropes as they follow their familial passions.

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