Don’t blink, or you might miss The Grafted Root Eatery, on the edge of the Coach Stop shopping plaza near where South Saginaw Street meets Holly Road in Grand Blanc. Its understated exterior works for owner Michele Matthews, who likens the vibe to a speakeasy and would much prefer a secret knock to intrusive signage.
“I like it low key. I like it personable,” Matthews says about the restaurant, whose name is a horticultural technique. “It fits because of how I wanted to run it: in my community, for my community, with my community and with Michigan products.”
This intention sets the tone for The Grafted Root, where folks can enjoy a simple-yet-flavorful breakfast or lunch—or breakfast for lunch—and catch up with old friends while maybe even making new ones. “They just feel comfortable, and that’s what I love about it,” Matthews says. “They’re talking and enjoying themselves. It’s good.”
Matthews loves catching up with regulars and newbies alike, serving them house-made goodness or cocktails with a flair. It comes natural to her: The food connection runs in the family. “I was already cooking everything from scratch. It’s just the way we did things,” she says. “My grandfather was a baker.
Growing up, he always wanted to have a bakery.” That drive to feed people must be in her DNA. After becoming an empty nester and earning her horticultural certificate—hence the restaurant’s moniker—Matthews saw her opportunity. Luckily, shopping center owner Kristina Feller took a chance on the novice restaurateur.
“Coming from where I came from, I knew exactly what she wanted to do,” says Feller, a native of Switzerland. She says what people like about the eatery is both its café-style intimacy and the food. Feller also provides a small garden space for Matthews.
“She got my concept,” says Matthews, describing it as a dedication to house-made fresh foods. Nine months after signing the lease, with the transformation from retail space to commercial kitchen complete, Matthews quietly opened The Grafted Root in January 2014, letting friends and family know.
“I’d never run a restaurant before so I needed it to grow organically,” she says. “I just unlocked the doors and word started spreading.”
From the menu to the hours to her disinterest in advertising, The Grafted Root is all Matthews. Initially people tried to tweak her vision. She politely resisted. “I’m glad I stayed true to that and didn’t panic,” she says. And as far as advertising: “I have seven tables. I fill up quickly.”
Those tables, plus six spots at the bar and a handful of tables on the patio, help Matthews deliver her keep-it-simple mantra with house-made delights. Serving breakfast was a no-brainer for Matthews.
“That’s my favorite meal of the day and I make great pancakes and French toast,” she says with a smile. Breakfasts can be simple, a la carte or dishes unique to the eatery. “Dharma’s is the one people are most skeptical, but they always love it.”
Dharma’s Breakfast features Michigan products: two poached eggs atop Calder cottage cheese, atop Slow Jams jam, atop Stone House Bread nine-grain toast. Another favorite is the Mornin’ Oatie, a grilled steel-cut oatmeal patty, topped with organic vanilla yogurt, fruit and nuts. Started as a joke with employee and oatmeal aficionado Cathy Edgar, the oatie now has a loyal following, particularly with the local running group.
Then there’s the Quiche Lorraine, made with bacon from John Henry’s Meats, domestic organic raw Swiss cheese from Oliver Farms and a house-made crème fraiche. “People love it,” Matthews says.
For diners more in the mood for lunch, options include a daily soup special, plus a host of salads, including The Grafted Root salad, featuring avocado, tomato, bleu cheese, dried cherries and freshly roasted nuts. The Grafted Root also offers smoothies and rotating sandwich specials.
Sometimes folks will come for breakfast and then stay for lunch. That’s fine with Matthews, who explains that her concept isn’t about table turnover. “It’s just about people being together,” she says. “It’s about inviting people in, and they can stay as long as they like.”
Cara Catallo is a Metro-Detroit writer and the author of Clarkston (Images of America).
This piece was originally printed in Edible WOW’s Fall 2016 issue.