It’s a Monday in mid-August, five months into the grip of COVID-19, and a quintessential small family-owned business in Midland remains standing.
Shier’s Deli & Catering is closed on Mondays, but that doesn’t mean it’s an off-day for the husband-and-wife team of George and Kristen Shier, who have owned and operated the deli and restaurant that bears their name since 2014.
The restaurant business is a notoriously tough one, requiring a steady, almost maniacal ability to work long hours, often at the expense of family time or a social life.
Even when you’re closed, your mind is constantly thinking and evaluating, especially during these unprecedented times. You have to really love it, and the Shiers clearly have a passion for the food industry.
It’s food prep Monday and the Shiers would love to say they are preparing to re-open their quaint, UP-influenced restaurant for in-person dining. But that’s not an option right now because the eight-table, 26-seat-capacity deli isn’t large enough to allow for social distancing.
So the Shiers, like many small business owners, are continually making adjustments and “taking it one day at a time,” said Kristen Shier. “That’s all we or anybody else can do. We’re open for take-out and delivery only.”
Shier’s Deli & Catering may not have the name recognition of many other local eateries, but it has certainly earned the admiration of legions of loyal customers who swear by its UP-style pasties and smoked brisket, and offerings that include a house favorite, the “Smokin’ Joe.”
“It’s like a Philly cheesesteak,” said Kristen. “It has a smoky flavor. George has a smoker and really has a system that brings out the flavor in our meats.”
If you like pastrami or prefer a reuben, coupled with a delicious bowl of soup, Chef George Shier will hook you up. His house-smoked meats and specialty pastrami and corned beef are all the rage among food lovers.
Whether it’s a burger, a sandwich or anything else on the eclectic menu, the Shiers’ vision to offer distinctive, homemade food that customers crave is a hallmark of the business.
As one customer put it: “I’ve been coming to their deli for years and have never had a bad meal. To me, consistency is key and Chef George never has a bad day, at least not when it comes to prepping and cooking food, anyway. Just an awesome little deli.”
A Midland native, George got his culinary training at the prestigious Johnson & Wales University. The Shiers lived in Colorado for about 10 years before returning to Midland in 2010.
In Colorado, George began selling pasties out of a food truck and, struck by how much people liked them, decided to do the same in Midland. He sold the UP favorite and other handcrafted sandwiches at the Midland Brewing Company, where he struck up a friendship with the late Cliff Dawson, a veteran of the food and beverage industry, who lent his own flair for cooking and restaurant management to the mix.
“Cliff came to work for us when we opened the deli and catering business,” said Kristen. “He had a lot of restaurant experience in various capacities. Just a friendly guy. A big guy with a big personality. Customers loved him. He helped us a lot. He was born in the Upper Peninsula and lent that UP charm to our place. We all miss him.”
Kristen calls their restaurant and deli “the best-kept secret in Midland. Six years into business and people say to me, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were here.” (Hint: look for the big red storefront awning).
That is beginning to change, though, as Shier’s won a Silver Award (best caterer category) and a Bronze Award (best sandwich category) in the MDN Readers’ Choice Awards.
“The recognition is a good thing for us,” Kristen said. “We rely a lot on word-of-mouth advertising, so it’s nice to get some formal recognition, too.”
The restaurant started using Door Dash delivery service just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’ve implemented it on a larger scale since COVID,” said Kristen, noting that the majority of customers have been good about social distancing, wearing masks and following other health and safety precautions.
The Shiers have been married for 19 years and have worked side-by-side for the past six. The couple that works together, stays together?
“It’s not all smooth asphalt road,” said George, a smile creasing his face as he gets ready to operate for yet another week in the COVID-19 climate. “There have been a few potholes over the past six to seven years.”
He added: “We got married four days after 9/11 and here we are today dealing with COVID 2020. We’re transitioning as best we can.”
And Midland “foodies” are all the better for the couple’s dogged determination to keep their labor of love, Shier’s Deli & Catering, up and running.
Just look for the big bright, red awning at 2218 North Saginaw Road, about one-half mile west of Eastman Avenue, on the north side of the road. It’s worth finding.