We expect to find them at fish fries. We anticipate ordering them from lakefront restaurants. Yet when husband and wife Dean Brainard and Susan Hennie visited their favorite haunts in Vermilion in search of the fish, they came up
“It was strange to us that a harbor town didn’t have perch and walleye,” she admits. And so the seeds for opening their own restaurant were planted.
As a former NASA business executive, Susan recognized the importance of market research and began a yearlong study of the area. Her conclusion was that their restaurant vision could be successful. They discovered a former Ford Plant bar that had potential. It was a “punch bar,” a place where patrons got punched out and where holes remained in the walls as evidence. The patrons did other things, too, like shoot up the bar. (Susan found the shells in a bucket to prove it.) An illegal gambling operation and prostitution ring were operating out of the basement. There was moonshine in the bar’s history, too, with a pipeline created to run it from the basement upstairs.
“It was a tough place,” she concedes. “It was so bad the locals thought we couldn’t turn it around because of its reputation.”
The bar closed nine years prior to their taking ownership. After six months, Susan and Dean changed history, opening a comfortable, no-dress code, 14-beer tap, successful restaurant.
Blind Perch is now an 88-seat restaurant, 36 of which are at the bar. It’s a place where burgers are made from remnants of last night’s cut-to-order filet mignon and topped with softshell crab. Its chef, a transplant from a Chicago gastropub with the unlikely name Joe Fish, believes in farm-to-table. His menu includes a fried Brussels sprouts appetizer, poutine, truffled potato chips and a perch and bacon sandwich that has quickly become a restaurant mainstay. There’s chowder that looks like it’s from New England but is chock full of walleye. The walleye, like the perch, is most likely purchased from Joe Bennett, the son of the founder of Bennett Fish Company. “He gets it directly from the fishermen,” Susan says.
In October, the Blind Perch opened its 25-seat patio and dog park. There’s still work to be done on it, but you can bet that Susan and Dean will have it ready when the weather changes.
“We’re having fun with this,” she says. “The most rewarding thing is the people who come in and appreciate everything we’ve done. My staff are my babies. We hug each other. Some of them have moved in with us for a while when they’ve had rough times. We’ve become very attached to them.”
Still, Susan admits that she thought she’d actually be retired by now. “This was Dean’s baby,” she says. They’re giving it two years of working 24/7 and hoping that after that time they can take some time off and afford to hire some others to handle the day-to-day operations. For now, “it’s very successful. It’s filling a niche in Vermilion that’s been missing. We love it.”