OSCODA – At a time in Oscoda Township’s history when many people had fears about the future – given the closure of the Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB) in 1993 – Dean Wiltse stepped up and faced the challenge head-on.
He became directly involved in base redevelopment efforts, among a multitude of other duties, while still managing to operate his successful restaurant, Wiltse’s Brew Pub and Family Restaurant.
The establishment entered its 40th year of business this summer and, as if owning a restaurant isn’t time-consuming enough, Wiltse has made considerable efforts and taken on numerous projects to put his community first.
Some of Wiltse’s greatest outreach efforts began in 1991, when he spearheaded construction of a lighted bicycle path on F-41, following more than one tragedy involving children who were killed while riding their bikes in that area.
“We raised over $50,000 of private money and we created a safe pedestrian walkway because there never used to be anything along F-41,” he shared.
“The success of that got me recruited into the chamber of commerce,” he continued, adding that he became treasurer of the organization, before going on to serve as president.
According to Wiltse, the chamber offices at that time were housed in a converted garage off of a side street in Oscoda.
When a man offered to donate a building to the chamber, Wiltse headed up the fundraising efforts and made his first attempt at grant writing, which brought in $35,000 from the State of Michigan. Another $50,000 was raised through the hard work of Wiltse and other chamber members, and the structure was converted to what is now the Oscoda-AuSable Chamber of Commerce, located in AuSable Township Shoreline Park.
Wiltse said those involved knew at the time that the base would be closing, so they had to up their game in tourism. Therefore, the building served as a visitor’s information center so that people on their way into town would have a convenient place to stop and learn about the area.
Wiltse remained with the chamber until the election in November of 1992, when he ran for township supervisor. He served in this capacity for eight years, during which he says he worked very closely with the other elected officials to redevelop WAFB.
It was during this process when Wiltse says the township acquired property north of Three Mile Park to create the 14-acre Oscoda Huron Sunrise Park, located along Lake Huron.
“We doubled the size of the Oscoda Beach Park; acquired several private parcels and put them into public ownership,” he added.
“We also purchased the land that’s being used on the south side, River Road, where all the tubers come in now,” Wiltse noted, saying the once private land was put into public ownership.
Wiltse is also the one who recruited and conducted the initial negotiations with Conrad Kalitta, a personal friend of his. Since then, the Kalitta Air engine repair facility/aircraft maintenance operations on the former base have provided careers to a large number of residents throughout Iosco County.
“Most people don’t know that the base was built on state leased land, and the state actually owned it when the base closed. And we went through a process whereby the township actually acquired it all and gained control of it. These were just huge milestones,” Wiltse recalls of his time as supervisor.
He shared that he still feels obligated to one day write a book about this period in Oscoda’s history because, as supervisor, he was uniquely positioned as one of the people on the front lines, and there are many stories to be told.
“I gave eight years of my life – which is not easy when you’re in business,” he said, noting that he also served on the Alcona Health Center Board to work toward bringing medical services back into the community.
“When the base closed, there was only one practicing doctor in this town,” Wiltse said. “We had a huge medical shortage in Oscoda, so we reopened the base hospital.”
A couple years prior to him becoming supervisor, township officials had voted to make the position a part-time job, since a township superintendent was also hired, according to Wiltse.
“But then the based closed and I literally worked 40, 50, 60 hours a week for peanuts. But I did it for the community. And, of course, a rising tide lifts all boats,” he recalls.
Wiltse, as a parent himself, said he was driven to work so hard because he was considering the younger generation in the town.
He raised two stepsons, Jeremy and David McGraw, and has two sons of his own, Eric and Luke Wiltse.
“Nobody wanted to work in the restaurant business!” he said of his children, with a laugh. “This business is one of the toughest businesses, and I think most people recognize that.”
As Wiltse was taking on countless other projects, he said the need for highway improvements was being recognized at the state level, so he also spearheaded the US-23 Freeway Coalition.
“And so, amongst all my other duties, my job was out there to build consensus and awareness of the need – which we’re finally seeing some of the fruits of those efforts now, in actual construction,” Wiltse said.
In promoting a freeway, he said he and his colleagues pushed to make the state and federal governments aware that northeast Michigan had been largely ignored, compared to other parts of the state. “And we’re finally seeing some nice things happening.”
Wiltse was recognized for many of his community service efforts when, in 1992, he received the Ray Andrus Memorial Award.
He says this has only been handed out to a few other select recipients, and it is one of the highest honors to be given to a citizen in the community.
“Ray Andrus was the former owner of the Redwood Lodge, which was a flagship lodging facility here, back in the late 80s and 90s. And Ray was huge in promoting all of the sportfishing and he was a huge community benefactor,” Wiltse explained.
He received the award from Andrus’ widow, Agnes, who said at the time that Wiltse followed in the footsteps and promoted the same ideals as her husband when it came to goals for the community.
While he no longer serves in a governmental role, Wiltse has continued to give back to his community by donating food products and gift certificates from his restaurant, and making cash contributions to upwards of 200 different charities, organizations and township events each year.
“We support just about anything that walks through the door,” he said. “Our philosophy is give back ‘til it hurts.”
Another way he stays true to this goal is by keeping his own purchases local, whenever possible, such as with buying restaurant T-shirts from Truly Yours in Oscoda and purchasing steaks from Klenow’s Market in East Tawas.
Further, Wiltse’s Brew Pub and Family Restaurant provides jobs to about 35 people in the busier months of the year and 25 people during the slower times, with several of them having been with the business long term.
“I’m most proud of that. I have many employees that have been with me well over 20 years; probably six of them. I have one lady that’s been with me the entire 40 years. And we now have a lot of second generation, where their moms or parents worked here, and now the kids are working here,” Wiltse said.
“Our whole philosophy has always been that it’s the people that make the restaurant, and no one person can take credit for it,” he continued.
He also shared that, when the brew pub was incorporated into the establishment, the word “family” remained in the name because, “That’s how we feel about our staff and everybody here.”
He said his goal was to create an environment like that of Cheers and classic speakeasy settings, where everyone could feel comfortable at the local hangout, and he prides himself on creating a family feel for both patrons and employees.
“I don’t know that there’s any other restaurants that can say they’ve operated contiguously for this many years in northeast Michigan under the same owner, under the same name,” Wiltse pointed out.
He shared that another motto of his team has always been, “We are only as good as the last meal we serve.”
For diners, the meal choices at Wiltse’s include hearty breakfast options, fish and seafood dinners, steak, salads, burgers, sandwiches and appetizers, such as wings, smokehouse pulled pork nachos, blue cheese chips and Wiltse’s blooming onions.
“Over the past 40 years, our number one seller has been and still continues to be our fish and chips,” Wiltse said of the old-English style, beer battered selection.
A close second has been the smoked meatloaf, ribs and pork shoulder, which became a hit with customers when Wiltse added an outdoor smoker to the restaurant.
“One thing that’s really killing it right now is we have a peanut butter bacon cheeseburger that we added to the menu this year, and we get more feedback about how amazing that is,” he added, admitting that it sounds like a strange choice, but people love it.
In fact, it is stepping out of the box and mixing things up which has contributed to the success of the business. Whether by changing up the menu, adding an outdoor patio seating area a few years ago, introducing a line of smoked foods, featuring a banquet hall for private gatherings or offering custom quoted catering, Wiltse says innovation has been key.
“We don’t wait for somebody else to do something in town; we try to be the first to do a lot of things like that,” he remarked.
“We built that in December of 1993, just as the flag was coming down off the base and everybody thought we were absolutely nuts because the town was supposed to “dry up,’” he said of the banquet hall addition, which basically doubled the size of the restaurant.
He also established an on-site brew pub within the restaurant in 1994, which was the third in the state and the first for northern Michigan.
The first brew pub in Michigan was built in Detroit, after which another was established in Grand Rapids. Wiltse said what’s unusual is that there are now several hundred brew pubs in the lower part of the state, but still not very many in northern Michigan.
“We rotate in and out, but there’s probably 30 or more styles of beer that we’ve had at one time or another,” he said of the brew options at Wiltse’s.
In another nod to his local community pride, Wiltse brews such favorites as Paul Bunyan Ale and Old AuSable Weizenbier.
“We were recently recognized by the Craft Brewers Guild. We were featured in an article a couple months back that basically credited us with having been one of the oldest in the state – and yet we are known as doing traditional styles of beer very well,” Wiltse shared. “And that is all we ever set out to do.”
When he added the brew pub, he said he had a choice of becoming a microbrewery and going into distribution, as is the case with Founder’s and Bell’s.
But, Wiltse said, “What inspired us was the European kind of model where every little town in Germany, in the U.K., had a local brewery that the locals called it their place.”
Wiltse’s Brew Pub and Family Restaurant has undergone a number of changes throughout the years, with Wiltse saying the 14,000-square-foot space has been remodeled at least four times.
Originally from Standish, Wiltse came to Oscoda in 1979, at the age of 21. He said he took a hiatus from school to help his brother set up the restaurant, from a building once known as Bunyan Land. The previous establishment was a drive-in type restaurant, which had been closed for a few years before Wiltse and his brother took it over.
When his brother stepped away from the venture after a few months, Wiltse stuck with it and the rest is history.
Aside from his restaurant duties, Wiltse also started up a business called enviro-BRITE Solutions, which began from his garage more than 10 years ago and is now located, rather fittingly, at WAFB.
The products offered by enviro-BRITE are designed to be environmentally friendly, and the company employs local residents.
Wiltse says the business creates everything from jet aircraft cleaners to hotel laundry stain removers, adding, “We make over 100 different formulas.”
According to Wiltse, the products are taken all across the state, yet many people in the local community are not even aware of the company. He said an open house is being planned for some time next spring.
“We have a very sophisticated operation and no one even knows what we’re doing here,” Wiltse said, adding that partial owner Thomas York will eventually take over the business one day.
As if he didn’t already have enough on his plate, Wiltse has also traveled for the last several years as a consultant, servicing brewery, winery and distilling industries throughout the state.
Wiltse says this has reinforced his decision on where he has chosen to live, because, “Happiness is coming back home to Oscoda.”
He added that the community has some pretty amazing people who put a high value on the quality of life that they have.
Wiltse’s Brew Pub and Family Restaurant is located at 5606 F-41 in Oscoda Township, and staff may be reached by calling 739-2231. Further information is also available by visiting wiltsesbrewpub.com.
Wiltse’s is open Monday through Thursday, from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.