As you pull into Mancelona, the highway narrows, following alongside railroad tracks and past a couple of abandoned warehouses. And then, there it is – a red, white and blue chicken, the unofficial mascot of the Iron Skillet.
Inside, Chuck Johnson and Mel Kitchen are sipping coffee together, talking about three of their favorite topics – politics, snowmobiles and fishing. Mel just returned from a fishing trip in Florida.
“I brought a whole freezer full home,” he says. “Porgies and hogfish and groupers … mutton snappers. About everything in the ocean.”
His buddy Chuck has been driving a school bus just for something to do since he retired. Both men have lived in Mancelona all their lives.
Chuck says the town hasn’t been the same since the Dura Automotive plant closed eight years ago, taking 300 jobs with it.
“It’s a drive-thru town now,” he says. “They just drive through here and go north, or they turn and go west to the resorts or to the lakes.”
“It’s like all the towns … they’re shrinking,” says Mel. “All the little towns are losing their industry and losing their jobs. It’s no different here than anywhere in Michigan or all the way down in Florida.”
The automotive plant was the last of three large factories to close in Mancelona. And not only has the town lost many of its jobs, but one of those factories poisoned the town’s well water.
It’s been a tough few years, but Chuck and Mel think the town can come back.
So does Mike Nygren, owner of the Iron Skillet. Nygren has been in the restaurant business since he was a kid, when his parents owned a pizza place downstate.
“It’s definitely a fast-paced kind of life,” says Nygren. “I was always working in the restaurant growing up. There were times when I’d even get called out of school to go work in the restaurant when they were slammed.”
Nygren takes that family approach with the Iron Skillet, which he opened six years ago. It’s reflected in his food, which is all made from scratch.
“To me, having a business in a small town is all about being part of the community,” he says. “Not only for us to make money, but for the community to grow.”
Nygren donates some of the Iron Skillet’s profits to local charities, and holds fundraisers at the diner for families in need. He says his diner can help Mancelona rebound, and part of that is taking care of his employees.
“Yeah, it’s really cool to see multiple people that have worked here for years growing and buying their own houses,” says Nygren. “They’re able to do that because they are making a good living here. It gives me a sense of gratification.”
Nygren says business at the Iron Skillet has been good, thanks to regulars like Mel Kitchen.
“It’s home,” says Mel of his hometown. “It’s a good place. We could just use more jobs for the younger people.”
Mel says the Iron Skillet is part of the solution.