By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — A week before the Senior PGA Championship was to arrive at his doorstep, the owner of North Shore Inn was running through a checklist of things to do.
Tom Howe knew what was at stake.
When golf aficionados converge on the Twin Cities through Memorial Day Weekend every other year, the restaurant flourishes because of its prime location.
Known as the unofficial 19th hole for The Golf Club at Harbor Shores, the North Shore Inn is at the corner of Higman Park Road and North Shore Drive. Senior PGA golfers and spectators alike pass by it when moving from hole 13 to 14. The 18th hole is across the river from it.
Tom and Nancy Howe had no idea what they would come across when they bought the restaurant/bar in the winter of 1991.
When he first heard of the potential golf course being put in, Howe didn’t think the Jack Nicklaus-designed course would become a venue for the Senior PGA.
“They had a lot of the property acquired by the time the news got out on what they were doing,” Howe said. “Good thinking on their part.”
Surprisingly, no one wanted to buy the North Shore Inn. The Howes were never approached because everyone knew they expected to stay put.
So, the golf course was quickly built up around the Inn.
Where it began
The first Senior PGA Championship in Benton Harbor came in 2012. Howe remembers it because of how hot it was.
Howe took a lesson from St. Joseph’s now-defunct Venetian Festival when he noticed a popular pizza place temporarily expand its operations for the three-day event.
“They had a huge party during the festival. They fenced it in and sold beer,” Howe said. “In keeping with the Liquor Control Commission rules and regulations we fenced in an area. I had a tent to give people some shelter. We had hot dogs outside because our teeny little grill would never keep up with the traffic. And it still won’t.”
This year Howe again fenced off his area along the road and provided outside service to take pressure off the bar. Furthermore, he installed large fans that blew air spritzed with water.
Unfortunately, everything returned to the Inn this year for Senior PGA week – including the sometimes hour-long wait for Howe’s fabled burgers.
“If everybody is ordering a hamburger, it might be two hours all together,” Howe said. “We make them to order. I am not going to compromise what we do. If you want a North Shore burger, you might have to wait.”
The customer comes first
What was most special to Howe for his first Senior PGA was the particular customers he would get.
Because Harbor Shores did not have its clubhouse completed, the Inn welcomed the majority of the golfers – with the exception of Roger Chapman, Howe remembers.
“Yeah, he won the first one and went to the Grande Mere Inn, but I don’t hold a grudge,” he said. “Of all the golfers that were in the final, he was the only one who didn’t come in here. Everyone else was. That was cool seeing them eat with their families. Sometimes they showed up with their caddies.”
Normally the restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During the tournament, Howe said they open at 7 a.m. and stay open until the last customer leaves. The latest they’ve closed during the tournament was 2 a.m. – giving them a five-hour turnaround the next day.
This year the Senior PGA has food trucks, more vendors and concessions stands. The roads leading to the North Shore Inn are closed, leaving visitors with the choice of getting to the Inn by foot or trolley.
But none of that seems to affect the Inn’s influence over spectators this time of year.
“It’s been busy regardless,” Howe said. “My favorite part about doing this is the people. I love meeting so many interesting and fun people. Everyone seems happy and are glad to be here.”