Restaurant closes after 36 years
After 36 years of mud volleyball, Motown nights, karaoke and friendship, Otsego’s Upper Crust restaurant and bar closed on New Year’s Eve for good.
Owner Kevin Bronson said that while he had been inching toward retirement for a while now, it didn’t make closing any easier.
“The staff has known for three weeks or so,” he said. Upper Crust employs about 20. “I’m very concerned about my crew. They’re all family.”
He said many were longtime employees, several of whom had worked there more than 20 years.
The South Haven native said he and his older brother Russ had opened the first of three Upper Crust locations on Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo in 1977 after seeing their uncle’s success in Boulder, Colo. After hunting for a college town location throughout the West, they heard of the building opening up near Western Michigan University and jumped at the opportunity. Two years later, they opened the Otsego location. By 1982, they’d opened a third location along Westnedge Avenue in the Kalamazoo-Portage area.
“We found the building here (Otsego) and just thought it was a great community,” Bronson said. “We liked the area and it worked out well.”
They later landed a liquor license and added the bar. In the early 1980s, Bronson’s younger brother Dennis, with Chicago culinary training, came on board to run the Otsego location, upgrading the menu from pizza and sandwiches to its more full line of American dishes.
The Otsego Upper Crust is the last to close, the other brothers having sold their shares of the business to Kevin Bronson along the way.
The restaurant’s history is much more than that to Bronson, however.
“I have so many fond memories here,” he said. “People have met here—people have gotten married here, inside the building. Three that I know of.”
Rick Hutchinson tended bar at Upper Crust for only six months, but that was long enough for his future wife, Marcy, to spot him.
“That was 28 years ago,” Marcy said. They married two years later.
The couple grew up in Otsego and live now in Plainwell.
“We come here every now and then for deep dish pizza,” Marcy said. “There are a ton of memories here. It was a great place.”
She remembers attending her best friend’s wedding in Jamaica and bringing along with them a Jane Jetson toy that was the unofficial mascot of the bar. They made sure to bring back pictures of Mrs. Jetson enjoying Caribbean life.
A longtime patron, Andy Winter met his future wife, Trish, at the restaurant five years ago, where she tended bar.
“We married eight months later,” he said. “We just connected. We just hit it off, for sure.”
Upper Crust holds a special place in his heart for another reason too: his father Harold.
“My dad and I, when he was still alive, would come in at least once a month, just him and I. We’d come here drink beer, eat pizza,” Andy Winter said. “He so looked forward to his nights with me here. It was very cool.”
He said his father died in 2010 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that attacks cells that control muscles.
“We came in here even when he was in a wheelchair,” Winter said.
He said their favorite dish was the pizza, all different varieties.
Tom Smalla said Upper Crust was almost the last of its kind in the area.
He started coming there because his future wife, Deb, knew the couple who organized the popular karaoke nights.
“We were regulars all the time then, back when they had karaoke, the Motown night with the mud volleyball,” Smalla said. “It started in the afternoon and then bands went till 2 a.m.
“They had hundreds of people here. No place like that had it around here.”
Mud volleyball is exactly what it sounds like—an annual, outdoor, nonprofessional volleyball tournament—on mud—with teams of people in the community competing all afternoon long in an adjacent lot to the restaurant which was later sold. Otsego Main Street volunteers recently revived the tradition.
The Motown show would follow the original mud volleyball, featuring bands throughout the evening playing that genre.
Smalla said it truly gathered the community.
He said, “It’s a neighborhood hangout; all these corporate places don’t have this anymore.”
He and his wife share many memories at Upper Crust. After dating for 20 years, he and Deb have now been married 13 years. He said his favorite food there was the lasagna.
Larry and Beth Harness ran the DJ business that provided the karaoke nights for Upper Crust for eight years. They both remember coming in to see what it was at first—and then Larry just decided to get into the business.
Beth said, “Larry can sing. If you’re not a singer, it’s no fun. We started getting (five to six) people we knew together who had a lot of talent. My mom and I made costumes—we really put on a show.”
Beth didn’t sing but helped promote the show—and was even conscripted at times to sell shots in the crowd during the shows.
They said the restaurant was always packed elbow-to-elbow for those Saturday nights, many of which were themed—toga party, beach party, pink underwear.
“We had a couple guys do the Blues Brothers,” Larry Harness said. “I did an Elvis thing.”
The couple, married 42 years now, said they had many fond memories at Upper Crust, many revolving around the Motown night and mud volleyball.
Beth Harness said, “There are so many, I can’t think of them; Motown was just unbelievable. I could never come here without having a good time. The owner was like family; the people you’d meet were like family.”
Ellyn Deneau worked at Upper Crust for more than two years as a waitress and bartender and met Jim, her future husband, there.
“I was his waitress on one of the first times he came in here. After that he was a regular,” she said.
“The beer was really good,” Jim Deneau joked.
That was more than 29 years ago. They married two-and-a-half years later.
Ellyn said, “We spent a lot of weekends doing karaoke here; we’re good friends with Larry and Beth.”
She said their three children, Kayla, Jimmy and Sam practically grew up there. “I think they must have thought we owned the place,” she joked.
The couple live in Alamo, where Jim grew up; Ellyn grew up in Martin.
“We’ve just made lifelong friends,” she said. “Kevin has always treated us like family; Dennis did too. They’re a staple in the community. It’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”
Jim said, “It’s about like Cheers,” referencing the fictional Boston bar from the hit sitcom of the same name.
Bronson said it was wonderful to see the crowd packing in on the restaurant’s final night.
“It’s been fun. I love it,” he said. “I’m going to miss these people dearly. I can’t believe the people coming in and sharing memories—their kids have grown up—I’m talking to their grandkids now.”
Contact Ryan Lewis at email@example.com or (269) 673-5534.