Pioneer of farm-to-table meals in Kalamazoo, the owner of Food Dance prepares for the final dance

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KALAMAZOO, MI — Since Julie Stanley announced on March 22 that she would be closing Food Dance after a nearly 28-year run, every day has been as busy as a Saturday, she said.

Even if Saturday April 9 will be the last of his restaurant.

“I will miss the Food Dance entity. I will miss the people and the guests. I had amazing guests,” said Stanley, 69. “I just want the next part of my life. I want to travel, do a lot of things. I look forward to being able to do my art whenever I want; I have a whole studio in my basement.

It was the travels that ignited Stanley’s passion for food at a young age and laid the foundation for her eventual farm-to-table approach as a restaurateur.

Trips to Europe with friends, family and later fellow restaurateurs opened his eyes to a different value system where food was bought daily in markets and prepared in the evenings in restaurants. Sourcing was of the utmost importance, as it has been for Stanley in every endeavor of his culinary career.

“That was happening in San Francisco, Los Angeles and all the way to Portland in the 90s, but it wasn’t happening in the Midwest back then,” she said. “The Midwest always seems to be about 10 years behind the coasts when it all happens.”

Related: Food Dance was ‘ahead of its time’ bringing farm-to-table fare to Kalamazoo, say longtime customers

An entrepreneur through and through — who says she could do another project but won’t — Stanley’s career as a restaurant owner began with Slice of Heaven in downtown Kalamazoo.

The fine dining and catering business then moved to Ann Arbor and a few years later Stanley returned and the longest chapter of his life, the Food Dance chapter, began at Kalamazoo’s Haymarket at 161 E. Michigan in November 1994.

“When we went to the Haymarket, there was literally nothing open on Sunday, and everyone said, ‘You’re going to open on Sunday, do breakfast and lunch in the back of a building? You’re going to go bankrupt. Well, they were wrong,” Stanley laughed. “And I knew they were wrong, because I knew what the city needed.

What Stanley said the town needed most was a place where the community could come together over local food.

Nor has the Food Dance community ever been defined by a specific type of guest. And that, like everything else in the restaurant, was by design.

“The who’s who were here but also the who’s not,” Stanley said. “I wanted people to come in mink and ripped jeans. I didn’t want to tell people what they could and couldn’t. They just had to be nice, that’s all.

A strong believer in “servant leadership,” Stanley led by example. She could often be seen grabbing a table on the bus, or in the kitchen or meeting food purveyors at her bar. And if she came to eat at her own restaurant, she always paid, she said.

In the past two weeks since the announcement, she said it has been both gratifying and humbling to hear so many long-time customers and former employees talk about what the restaurant means to them.

“I just feel honoured,” she said. “I never wanted this stardom. I can talk all day about food and values, but I don’t like that kind of attention. We were just trying to provide real food. That was it. And not because it was the fashionable thing, but because that’s how we should all live.

Providing this “real food” didn’t just mean shining a spotlight on local farmers. Farmers like Norm Carlson at Carlson Farms in Lawton, or Dave Young at Young Earth Farm in Decatur, as well as farms like Butternut Sustainable at Sturgis Tiny Giant Farm in Kalamazoo and Crisp Country Acres in Holland, but offering these farmers the opportunity to create their own legacy and pass it on, Carlson said.

“Anyone can come to town and build a warehouse and say, ‘Hey, I’m your local supplier. I would like to supply you, here are your purchase orders. But building a relationship with a farmer is what Julie was the first to do and she took it to a level that people dream of,” Carlson said. “And not just with meat and eggs with us, but vegetables and all aspects of what she did.

“She learned the importance of knowing your farmer and knowing your food source and others are picking up the slack and that’s thanks to Julie. She paved the way for so many years and laid the groundwork for other chefs to step in and become part of a farmer’s life and some aspects of their business to be continued.

Stanley has had a number of chefs over the years, from the restaurant’s beginnings in the 4,000-square-foot, 100-seat Haymarket Restaurant to the much larger 11,000-square-foot, 220-seat space at 401 E Michigan who has served the community for the past few years.

From Brad McKenzie to Rob Hammond to Cory Nelson, Pat Watkins and Matt Overdevest, they each brought passion and influence to the restaurant’s menu, Stanley said. Like the service staff, many of whom have been with her for 10-15 years, they were all concerned with the quality of service and the customer experience.

These staff, as is the case with so many restaurants and businesses, were family, she said.

And the same day she told this family that the restaurant was closing, many of them cried. Everyone applauded.

It was no secret that she had wanted to retire for a long time. Stanley had been looking for the right person to take him over, but that person never emerged. She put the business up for sale in January and no deal was reached. So she decided it was time.

In the weeks since that announcement, Stanley said she was flooded with mixed emotions and feelings, but at no point did she guess the decision was the right one.

“The past four years have been very tumultuous,” she said, alluding to a fire in 2018 that shuttered the restaurant for two months and the pandemic that kept its doors closed for months.

As she prepares to serve her last dishes and watch the cheers for the last drinks on Saturday, Stanley pauses to reflect on the sense of community she has been able to create at Food Dance, through her connections with farmers and locals. guests, but more importantly by providing a space for guests to gather over a meal.

“That’s what I wanted,” she said. “I decided to build a community and eating together is the answer. In every other culture in the world, people gather around the table and that’s how it is. I grew up with trays TV. My family never spoke to each other. They were horrible.

“But I grew up in the 50s and that’s why it was like that.”

Community may be the legacy she thinks she’ll leave behind, but for people like Carlson, that’s what Julie and her husband Ed Stanley have meant to local farmers in southwest Michigan.

With Stanley, all food had a story, he said, and that’s the key for people – to know where their food comes from and what that story is.

“When she puts a story on her menu, it’s because she went out and picked up the eggs, she went out and saw our animals,” he said. “She can recommend the cut of beef because she saw this beef when it was alive and she picked these fresh vegetables herself at the farmer’s market.

“I am extremely blessed and lucky and it is thanks to Julie that our family farm is fortunate enough to survive the legacy we have built, and it is thanks to Julie that we manage the volume we do through Bronson and 600+ at Burger Lake. These guys all imagined what local origin is supposed to be because of her.

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