Festival food service a family tradition

Marie Havenga • Aug 2, 2018 at 12:00 PM

The hours are long, the working conditions are hot and the profit margins are sometimes slim.

Still, the mother-daughter team of Gretchen and Heather Sheldon have been committed to serving food at the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival for nearly four decades. 

Gretchen has been running a concession trailer she calls Gretchen's Kitchen since 1980. After working with her mom seasonally since she was about 8, Heather, now 47, recently bought her own concession trailer and named it Heather's Kitchen — or, as it's sometimes referred to, “Gretchen's Daughter's Kitchen.”

Both mobile restaurants are parked side by side in the Wessel's/Tip a Few parking lot at the intersection of Harbor Drive and Franklin Avenue in downtown Grand Haven. The Sheldons say they are grateful for the space they rent there, and even more grateful for all the friends they've made along the way.

Gretchen recently encountered a health scare and spent several days at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids. While in the intensive care unit there, she recognized the face of her physician's assistant.

“He used to work for me,” Gretchen said.

It's like that in Gretchen's Kitchen's world. She runs into successful business people who once called her trailer their “first job.” People who dined there years ago now bring their children to eat, she says.

Gretchen said it’s what keeps her going and motivated.

Gretchen's 35-foot trailer offers a full line of food — specialty hot dogs, burgers, bratwurst, “neat Joes,” unidentified fried objects (elephant ears) and more. Next door, Heather specializes in burritos, tacos, nachos and funnel cakes.

“She wanted to have her own,” Gretchen said of her daughter. “She was looking around at trailers and finally found one that was reasonable. We put it all together. I appreciate the fact that she has different items than I do.”

Gretchen says the business comes naturally for her two children. Both practically grew up in them. Gretchen's son, Johnny, also helps with the concession trailers.

“They had to go with us,” Gretchen said of the early years. “What else are you going to do with the kids?”

Running a concession trailer isn't just a job for the Sheldons — it's a way to provide food for people in places where there otherwise might be none. For them, it's almost an extension of the community service they perform throughout the year.

Gretchen, Heather and Johnny volunteer every year at the Thanksgiving Community Feast, now held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Spring Lake.

The family set up both trailers Sunday evening. As they hauled water and set up menu boards and condiments, customers started to stream in. They greeted each with a smile, much like they do in their other Coast Guard Festival duties — Gretchen and Johnny also double as clowns Bubbles and Tootie.

Monday night, Gretchen left her food service trailer late after cleaning up, got to bed at 4 a.m., and then reopened for breakfast service at 7 a.m. By late morning, she had other staff working the trailer while she and Johnny donned their clown costumes and made their way to Mulligan's Hollow to pass out candy to children at the festival's Kids Day.

It's all in a day's work for this tribe.

Then, it's back to the concession trailer — where indoor temperatures, with continuous cooking, have already rocketed above 100 degrees. By evening, they're hooking up one of the trailers and hauling it to Central Park to serve food to Tuesday in the Park-goers.

On Wednesday, there was a trip to a food truck gathering in Muskegon. Then back to the Coast Guard Festival, where they'll be serving food through Monday.

“It's a lot of work,” Heather said. “People think the money pours in, but by the time you get done with food costs and labor, it's a lot of work and a little profit. But we enjoy taking care of our customers. It's a passion we've always had.”

With temperatures hovering in the 80s this week, it's a burning passion.

“When you're working in the kitchen, it's always 100 degrees or more,” Heather said. “I'm used to it. You just have to take a lot of breaks and make sure you're well hydrated. You have to have a tolerance for heat, that's for sure.”

Prior to following in the tire prints of the family business, Heather worked in nursing home administration and also managed a restaurant. During the summer, the food trailer is her full-time business.

“I have to get a winter job to take me through the winter,” she said. “In the summer, it's fun to be in the food truck and hang out with my mom.”

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