Americans love dining out, spending more than $675 billion at restaurants in 2018, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The pandemic showed the economic force of the industry as many restaurants closed for good, and millions of people lost their jobs in the following years.
However, the number of customers dining out has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, and they are making up for lost time. National Restaurant Association statistics showed the industry employed more than 14 million people at the end of 2021, which grew during 2022 to meet demand.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation owns seven dining establishments, and the Tribe’s food service employees account for nine percent of its workforce. February 6 through 10 is Pride in Food Service Week, and the Hownikan talked to chefs, servers, kitchen staff and others who enjoy serving the public and find passion in food.
Lunch, love at Title VI
CPN’s Title VI program serves community elders lunch on weekdays at noon. The full-time kitchen staff begins their days early to prepare fresh, delicious meals with new recipes on a regular basis. Kitchen manager Christina Jones fills her calendar with recipes and continues adding to her bookshelf of cookbooks, some dating back to the 1920s.
“I like asking them, ‘What did you all used to have at Christmas?’ and then trying to recreate it. And ‘What was your favorite meal when you were a kid that your mom used to make?’ and then I’ll go back and look for really old recipes of it,” Jones said, noting their tastes range from barbecue or Shepherd’s pie to liver and onions or alfredo pizza.
Jones crafts unique menus each week and looks for ways to serve some of the regulars’ favorite restaurant dishes as well. Cook Julie Patterson called Jones “the sauce queen” for her ability to make various flavors from scratch. Both Jones and Patterson enjoy cooking, but Patterson’s favorite part of the job is the calm after everyone hustles to get to the front of the line.
“It’s so nice to hear the rumble of conversation, and then, it gets quiet. And you can hear the clinking of the silverware as everybody is eating. It makes me all happy. It’s an honor to serve the elders,” she said.
Chefs, servers at the Grand
The Grand Casino Hotel & Resort is home to many restaurants and cuisines. Soto Sushi, Flame Brazilian Steakhouse, Grandstand Sports Grille and Grand Café range from casual to more formal — all with delicious food within steps of quality entertainment. Austin Kitsmiller is the executive chef for the Grand, and he enjoys the challenge the diversity of restaurants adds to his job.
“With all the different stuff we have here and the very talented team of chefs, we can do all kinds of cool stuff. … The majority of our food is scratch cooking. And we just invest a lot of time into it and a lot of resources. It’s a very cool place,” he said.
In fall 2022, the Grand also opened a new food court in the center of the casino. It offers Italian, Mexican, ramen, pizza, a coffee and bakery bar, and more. Kitsmiller and his staff take pride in keeping the kitchens and seating areas everywhere clean and organized, and he said the chefs work hard every day for their customers. He believes cooking is “an extension of yourself.” As executive chef, he is responsible for smoothly running the restaurants and hotel catering.
“It’s not my ecosystem; it’s our ecosystem,” Kitsmiller said. “But you have to put the maintenance in to keep the ecosystem healthy and working well and everybody meshing together.”
Vanessa Sumner began working at the Grand as wait staff more than a decade ago. Though she has spent time at many of the casino’s dining establishments, her favorite is the Grand Café. For the self-described “people person,” getting to know her regulars and mingling with guests is her favorite part of serving others.
“It’s always good to come in for a new day, and you hear something positive that they’ve done or something positive that happened to them, or they moved or something, and they still come back to see you,” she said.
The breakfast menu is her favorite, and she orders their strong coffee and an avocado and pepper jack omelet.
The Grand Café reopened to customers following the pandemic on Dec. 1, 2022, seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Grand Food Court is open for lunch every day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Bar, bistro at FEC
The Tribe constructed FireLake Entertainment Center as its first gaming establishment in 1982. Since then, it has been remodeled and improved to include the best gaming experience possible — including its dining establishments.
Janice Tiger is the bar manager of Lucky 7s. She began working with FEC 18 years ago and said it feels like a hometown casino, which keeps people coming back. Tiger enjoys hearing about a patron’s day and making them their favorite cocktail.
“Some of them will ask why mine tastes different than others. And I just tell them because I make it with love. … I make all of them with love. And you’re in a casino. And I always tell them that they’re lucky when they come to the bar because they always get something. It’s not chance. You’re already a winner when you come up to the bar,” Tiger said and laughed.
Across the casino floor from Lucky 7s, chef Tylor Whittet supervises the FireLake Entertainment Center bistro during the breakfast and lunch hours. He loves cooking and finds it motivating. Whittet has been preparing food his whole life. He puts his regulars’ orders on the grill as they roll in. Some customer favorites include the quesadilla and the Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
He began working for CPN approximately six years ago, and the Bistro and FEC provide customers with a homecooked meal and plenty of entertainment.
“The food is made with love and tastes so good. And after you’re done eating, you can go out to the casino and play some games — hope to win some money,” Whittet said.
Lucky 7s hosts karaoke on Friday nights and live music on Saturday evenings.
Find jobs across Citizen Potawatomi Nation, including its dining establishments, at firelakejobs.com.