BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY — Todd Gokey turned the recession into a business opportunity.
The longtime Traverse City builder and owner of Northland Signature Homes and his partner, Beth Maclean, purchased the old Pinecrest Motel several years ago, refurbished it and reopened as the Knights Inn. Two years ago, they bought the Howard Johnson of Traverse City and also operate it after renovation.
"It's certainly a far easier business than the construction world; much more predictable," Gokey said. "It's something I wish I'd done many years ago."
Now Gokey has renovated the former Big Eazy Rhythm & Blues Grill near the corner of Garfield and Airport at the Cherryland Mall, and reopened it the fine dining Copper Falls Steakhouse.
"We kept the shell of the building and we stripped it," Gokey said. "Other than that, it's 100 percent new on the inside."
Gone is the dark interior, replaced with windows and open space. There's a huge bar, with tablecloths and rich wood finishes completing the upscale look.
"We are trying to create an atmosphere where people go out to dinner and dinner is more the event of the evening as opposed to just going to get a quick bite to eat and then finding something else to do," Gokey said.
Executive chef is Josh Benedict, who had the same role at Apache Trout Grill. General manager Jeremy Martinchek comes from Stafford's Hospitality in the Petoskey area. Working with other staff, they've devised a menu of mostly from-scratch items using fresh, local ingredients when possible.
Benedict said the menu will change seasonally, retaining some items year-round. Right now, they're flying in fresh seafood. His source for beef is Randy Rice in Benzonia.
On the appetizer list are bacon-wrapped bleu cheese-stuffed dates, whitefish fritters and meat and cheese boards. Short ribs, whitefish, roasted chicken with saffron risotto and "any good cut of beef that you want" are among the entrees, Benedict said. Many items are available for lunch, including sandwiches and salads.
Prices for appetizers begin at $9. Sandwiches are in the $9 to $11 range, with entrees starting at $16.
The restaurant quietly opened a few nights ago.
"We put some signs out front that said 'open' and waited to see if people came in," Benedict said. "We did probably 10-12 tables. Not bad for your first night."
The restaurant seats about 260. A huge new covered outdoor patio will add another 60 in the summer. About 60 people will be on the payroll, said Gokey, who declined to disclose his total investment.
"It was a lot," he said. "But I think we're offering something that isn't out there so much.
"It's not a convenience-type restaurant. We are definitely a destination."
Copper Falls Steakhouse is open for dinner from 5-9 p.m. through Saturday this week. Closed Sundays, it will start lunch service with hours from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday as of Jan. 28. For information, call 943-1103.