When it was first constructed on the bank of the Saginaw River back in 1966, centrally located in the heart of Downtown Bay City, The Blackhawk restaurant & supper club stood like a welcoming Mecca, looming over a land of opportunity at a time when American ingenuity was at a zenith, and its appetite for unveiling high-water mark products was not limited to the assembly line.
While many wonderful restaurants, bistros, and supper clubs have come & gone over the last 50 years, the establishment located on Bay City's legendary riverfront district at 1019 N. Water Street has withstood the ravages of time, evolving through the decades like a finely polished pearl.
Changed to the Brass Lantern in 1972 and then renovated by former owners Greg Kimbrue and Willis Wells in 1995, who changed the name to The Lantern and later re-branded it as The Kingfish Restaurant & Tiki Lounge in 2004, last April fresh vision and new light infused the walls & decks of this legendary eatery when new owners Eric Malmo and David Becker decided to take the helm, purchasing the restaurant and treating it to an expansive renovation that went well beyond merely slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls.
Replete with an inviting & comforting layout, the most expansive outdoor seating and deck facility in the Great Lakes Bay, and freshly cut light cedar walls embracing guests to the expansive overhaul or the impressively varied menu, the new Dockside is exciting to understand and not easy to categorize, functioning as a top-notch restaurant, a happening outdoor & indoor nightclub, and a welcome addition to the sadly limited list of establishments that offer top-notch live musical entertainment on a regular basis.
The Birth of a Vision
Back when he was only 15 years old, Eric Malmo got interested in the food & beverage business when he started working at the now-leveled Sullivan's North on Saginaw's Bay Road as a busboy. He worked there for nine-and-a-half years until they finally closed their doors on New Year's Eve. And for Malmo, it was a life-changing experience.
“During that time my parents and I had an Oriental restaurant in downtown Saginaw at the Florentine Inn, where I first started cooking,” he explains, “and mostly I waited tables at Sullivan's. But after they closed, I started working at Red Lobster in Bay City and after a couple months, they started giving me duties like handling liquor and food orders and writing schedules. Within 8 months they made me the culinary manager and I spent 7 years with them, working from everywhere to Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit to Bay City. I was also the training manager for the Cincinnati division, which supplied over 127 locations, so you could say I cut my teeth there.”
Needing to refocus his energies, Malmo decided that he needed to take a hiatus. “The corporate world is great,” he reflects, “but if you have any creativity that you wish to express, your hands are basically tied and ultimately you become a high-paid babysitter. But it does give you structure and as an independent owner now, my experience there has proved invaluable, so it's not all bad. There's a reason that this is a billion dollar industry.”
Four years ago Malmo went on sabbatical from the restaurant business, attending Saginaw Valley to become a CPA. Eventually obtaining his B.A. in accounting, Eric would sit at Saginaw's Red Eye coffee shop with his soon to be partner David Becker and talk about things.
Becker has served as a financial advisor for the past 23 years and was itching to try something new. “We discussed possibly purchasing a restaurant and tried several times to acquire different properties both in the area, out of the area, and out of state, but nothing ever worked out,” explains Eric. “After two years of searching I thought this wasn't going to happen, so I kept pursuing the CPA options, even though it seemed there wasn't a lot of interest in a 42-year old college graduate. But eventually we heard through the grapevine that the Kingfish was for sale, so we pursued it, came to terms with the previous owners, and here we are!”
Courting the Eye of the Rising Sun
When asked what he feels distinguishes their endeavors with the newly refurbished Dockside, Malmo begins by addressing how when it comes to food & dining establishments, emulation is inevitable insofar as there is hardly anything original out there anymore.
“What may appear original in a regional aspect has probably been done somewhere else,” notes Eric. “We have a prime location with this establishment and it doesn't get any better for the river, so we wanted to concentrate on building both quality of food and quality of service. If you provide those two items along with atmosphere, everything else will fall into place.”
“People ask, 'Are you a sports bar or do you serve seafood? Well, we do have TV's to watch sports and do have seafood, but are not claiming to be a Red Lobster, but we offer is the opportunity to have a good meal and be happy with friends while doing it.”
With a kitchen in the restaurant and a small kitchen on the dock, one of the first changes Malmo instituted was to offer the same menu for dock diners as he does on the inside restaurant, so he pulled together a broad menu that is also sprinkled with rotating seasonal items.
Apart from offering steaks and seafood, Malmo believes it important to keep the menu fresh, so revises his core menu every six months. “We offer five or six seasonal items for a few months at a time, because as an independent owner, we have the flexibility to change the menu. In this day and age with food prices tied to fuel prices and fluctuating, you've got to stay on your toes to maintain your margin, which isn't a big one. As Mr. Sullivan always would say: “How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.”
Capable of servicing 160 customers on the inside and featuring eight cooks, often working together at the same time, especially during the recent Tall Ships Festival, Malmo says he has been busy from open to close.
“When we first put the menu together the goal was to feature a nice variety of lunch entrees; and so far the feedback has been that we offer a very nice burger. Our Ruben sandwiches have also been getting rave reviews; and we feature a few unique items, such as back wrapped jalapenos along with mac & cheese bits. As for unusual dining fare, we offer a jumbo pretzel that feeds six people and then some and is served in a pizza box, which has been a surprisingly big item.”
“Another thing that starts people talking is our Thunder Sauce, which is spicy mayo based sauce that people are asking for to use with different applications,” he continues.
A small sampling of the varied menu indeed ranges from Beef Skewers and Calamari fries, to Lake Perch, Whitefish, Walleye, BBQ ribs, Smothered Chicken, steaks, and pasta.
As for beverages and libations, Dockside offers about 10 different house wines and patrons can also buy a bottle off the shelf and for a corking fee, drink the wine on premises. Additionally, they feature an impressive craft beer selection and a broad canopy of specialty drinks.
And to top it all off, is the expansive renovation that truly lights up the splendor of this ageless structure. “Like any renovation project it starts at the letter A and ends at Z and we changed our plan a dozen times, but we wanted to freshen the place up because it had not been overhauled in a long time,” explains Malmo. “We made it lighter and brought in the cedar and cedar shake on the awnings and have received a lot of compliments. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I've been told how bright and clean the place looks, I could shut it down,” smiles Malmo.
Dockside also caters anything from business meetings to funeral luncheons, bridal showers, and special occasions for parties ranging up to 140 people. “We just had two functions going at the same time the other day, one for 50 and another for 30 people,” he notes.
And as for Live Entertainment, The Process' David Asher can be found spinning his impressive collection of reggae tunes on the dock every Thursday night, with live local rock acts performing on Friday & Saturday evenings. “It's amazing how on Friday or Saturday night you see the transformation between restaurant to live club scene. We added an awning outside over the stage, so it's an amazing transformation to witness.”
As for the most challenging component involved with creating this vision on the bay, Malmo points to several items, none of them necessarily obvious to the eye.
“I've always worked within four walls but with the outside area, that's a fifth wall we're dealing with,” he reflects. “Needless to say, I've been running up and down the stairs a lot. I can honestly say last fall I was a good 40 years heavier and smoking cigarettes, but I quit and lost a lot of weight running around here,” he laughs. “Now I'm running twice as hard as kids half my age. In fact, anybody that I hire has to race me up the stairs. But I honestly love it. Nowhere else can you go to work wearing shorts and tennis shoes, bask in the sun, and drink sweet tea.”
“The days are long, yes,” he concludes. “But people are starting to gel and become a team. I saw that during Tall Ships. We're set to be open all year round and take our patrons exactly where they want to go.”
Employing over 55 people and replete with numerous changes and renovations, The Dockside is decidedly one of the premier dining & entertainment venues open to patrons in the Great Lakes Bay.
If you haven't experienced its wonders yet, do yourself a favor and book a trip soon.