Stateside Podcast: Sleder's tavern, going 141 years strong
Sleder’s Family Tavern can be found just off a side street in downtown Traverse City. The owners say it's the oldest continuously-running restaurant in Michigan.
The white, two story-building was built in the 1880s. A small mounted black bear wearing a top hat greets each visitor from its spot in the window.
While Traverse City has changed a lot since Sleder’s got its start in the late 1800s, the restaurant has stayed true to its origins.
“What we serve today is what we served back then,” said Megan Cox, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Ryan.
At Sleder’s, patrons can settle into the tavern’s creaky booth benches, which look like 19th century church pews. An antique wooden bar spans the length of the front of the house, with a few Northern Michigan brews on tap. Behind the cash register, Sleder’s t-shirts and hats are on display for sale.
The tavern was founded in 1882 by Vincel Sleder, an immigrant from Bohemia (today a part of the Czech Republic) who felt the neighborhood needed a restaurant. Ownership of Sleder’s has shifted to three other families since then.
Ryan and Megan, a husband-and-wife team, are locals. Both held jobs at Sleder’s as servers, dishwashers, and bussers before moving out West to finish college. But as their family grew, Ryan and Megan wanted to raise their children closer to family. Northern Michigan, where much of their family still lives, called them home.
Just before the pandemic, the couple agreed to take over ownership of the restaurant from Ryan’s mom and stepdad.
“Ryan very much supported me and said, ‘Honey, we can walk out at any time. We can be done with this.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not. We are going to make this work.’”
And they’ve made it work, even through the toughest years of the pandemic. Their approach to staffing has evolved, largely as a result of the hostility that food service workers have faced in recent years.
“Some of the customers just aren’t very kind to the staff. And so many people have decided, ‘I don’t want to do this any longer.’” Megan said. “We’ve been kind of lucky that I have some very hard-edged people that can fight through it.”
The team at Sleder’s has to be prepared for staffing changes on any given day, Megan said. For every position and shift, she assigns someone to be on-call.
“And that’s kind of the new norm of the staff,” Megan said. “And you just have to be ready. Workers are not in the same frame of mind that they were before.”
But despite challenges, many of Sleder’s staffers have stuck around for years. Some of the tavern’s patrons are just as loyal. Among them are Sandy and Dale Herman, residents of Suttons Bay.
“Back when we were young, the drinking age was 18. So [we started coming] that many years ago,” Sandy said.
Sandy is a fan of the taco salad, while Dale’s go-to is the olive burger. Both insist their favorite dish is the best. Sleder’s specializes in locally-sourced beef and bison burgers, and their hand cut fries. They also serve deep-fried smelt, a local delicacy that’s been around for generations.
“We've got a lot of things that we pride ourselves on, but they're just foundational things that we just don't change,” Megan said. “So when people come in here … maybe they found us because we're the oldest place in the state of Michigan that has been continuously run, or they've heard that we have great burgers, wings, you know, [and we’re] a great location just to come and hang out.”