Column: Please don’t mention Olive Garden

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

Will there ever be an Olive Garden in Berrien County?

This is a question many have asked over the years and continue to ask this business reporter whenever a new development begins. Hence the meaning behind this column.

The answer to this is, probably not. And yet, any time a store closes or a building is on the cusp of a renovation, my email is flooded with this very question.

For those who don’t know (or haven’t bothered to read my story), The Herald-Palladium reported on the recent construction by the Secretary of State’s Office in Benton Township. The Orchards Park Shopping Center began its expansion by adding on a few store fronts to its existing buildings.

There are still mounds of dirt being pushed to make way for an expanded parking lot, but the project is expected to bring more business to the retail hub of the Twin Cities area.

With the stores not even built yet, here’s the conversation I had the other day concerning the expansion.

Stranger No.1: What’s going on near Wings Etc.?

Me: Oh, the Orchards Park Shopping Center is adding a few storefronts.

Stranger No. 1: Cool. Any chance one of those store will be an Olive Garden?

Me: Probably not.

Stranger No. 2: Really? Well, at least there might be one at 5 O’Clock.

When I began working here at the paper, one of the first stories I wrote was about the 5 O’Clock Sports Bar & Restaurant closing in May 2015. The general manager at the time was Michael Wittlieff, who now works for LECO Corp.

While many in the community spoke of the possibility of an Olive Garden opening up along the Red Arrow Highway corridor, Wittlieff has repeatedly said those rumors were untrue. In fact, Wittlieff doesn’t know where the rumors began.

It seems as though those hopes for never-ending bread sticks and unlimited soup were dashed away when the former sports bar was sold last month to a gentleman from Indiana, who plans to build a car care center.

In truth, the spot might have worked out well for the Italian restaurant.

I discovered this though research of my own. I was curious about the possibility of an Olive Garden opening here after so many of my co-workers kept asking me in a joking manner.

After a handful calls and emails, I was put in touch with Jessica Dinon. She works in media relations for Olive Garden, a division of Darden Restaurants Inc.

Darden Restaurants owns other stores, such as LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Yard House. Until 2014, the multi-brand restaurant operator owned Red Lobster. With more than 800 Olive Garden locations in the United States, the closest ones to this region are in Indiana – Michigan City and Mishawaka.

Dinon said they don’t discuss or share specifics on how they choose the locations of future sites, but she did give me a quote for my column.

“We’re always looking at any potential sites and pass along any feedback we hear from any guests to the appropriate real estate teams.”

Luckily, I was able to get some insight into how locations are spotted.

Amid my attempted calls in getting in touch with Dinon, I stumbled across a friendly operator and explained my story. Before transferring me again to Dinon’s ever-expanding voicemail, she divulged that Olive Garden doesn’t license its stores to franchise owners in the U.S.

Instead, Darden Restaurants buys land – rather large quantities of property – to develop for a restaurant, and potentially other stores that can operate on the same piece of land.

Because of this it becomes a harder chance to see Olive Garden opening in Berrien County.

But again, that’s why many people pegged an Olive Garden for the prime 5 O’Clock real estate along Red Arrow Highway, which is near the I-94 exit in Stevensville and across the road from Meijer.

It also likely means the new development by the Secretary of State’s Office won’t get an Olive Garden because the land is owned by another developer.

So now, hopefully, any rumors or questions about Olive Garden can be put to bed because I’ve exhausted all options on the story. That, and I’m more of a Chick-fil-A kind of guy.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2017)

Column: The best way to remember my grandfather

My dad (far left) and my grandpa (far right) work on the lawnmower while I attempt to help as a kid.

My dad (far left) and grandpa (far right) work on a lawnmower while I attempt to help as a kid.

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

GRAND RAPIDS — What can I say about my grandfather that hasn’t already been said?

A lot of things actually.

More than two decades ago, Lawrence Bernard Wittkowski Sr. was given another chance at life. After major heart surgery, he was told he would only have a couple years left to live ‒ which he somehow stretched into 25 years. Being the stubborn and hard worker he was at General Motors, my grandpa proved his doctors wrong by changing his diet and daily routine.

His new breakfast consisted of Raisin Bran and Rice Krispies with the occasional banana. No matter what lunch he had that day, it was always followed by an apple and an orange. In the mornings, my grandpa would go for walks. Long ones.

I tell you all this because this how I remember my grandpa. I remember him as the only guy, other than Michael Douglas, who could pull off wearing those thick-rimed glasses and an Army crew cut.

I remember my grandpa as the guy who took me to Lions and Tigers games in Detroit. We would convoy to Ford Field or Comerica Park on a party bus each year to watch a team that found new ways to disappoint us and another team that gave us a reason to believe in sports. My two favorite sports growing up were baseball and football because my grandpa took the time to share something with me that he liked as a kid.

My grandpa was always down for a nap.

My grandpa was always down for a nap back at the house on Buchanan.

One of the relics my grandpa held onto was his Pontiac.

One of the relics my grandpa held onto was his old Pontiac.

I remember my grandpa as the man who would pick me up during the summers when school was done and take me to see a matinee at Studio 28 ‒ a Wyoming theater which has since been abandoned. He would call me up to see what times were best and what movies piqued my interested. Even when there wasn’t anything good to see, we would still watch something (this included “Napoleon Dynamite”). Watching movies is perhaps my biggest hobby because my grandpa learned to sit through movies he was not so interested in (this also included “Napoleon Dynamite”).

I remember my grandpa for the type of beer he drank and the music he listened to. One of the records he never needed an excuse to play was by the Scottville Clown Band. Don’t ask me which one, all their music sounds similar. Grandpa’s beer of choice after a day’s worth of work was Bud Light. If he was sitting in one of his lawn chairs ‒ the ones with the folded webbing that left lines on the back of your legs ‒ it was almost a certainty he would have a Bud Light wrapped in a mug cozy.

I remember my grandpa for his creativity. When I was younger and my birthday was approaching, he would bust out his old typewriter and make what to me felt like an official ID card. He added an extra touch by laminating it. I was too young for a driver’s license, but I thought it was cool how he would take my picture each year and update my weight/height/updated address (which all changed quite often). Unlike the DMV, this process left me smiling.

I remember my grandpa as a creature of habit. He would catch both the local and national news every night. Between 6-7 p.m. his focus was on Peter Jennings. He would pick up his daily copy of The Grand Rapids Press and read it front to back. On the occasion my byline would pop up in the newspaper while I worked at MLive, he would keep a copy for me.

Most of all, I’ll remember my grandpa for standing outside his cabin, waving goodbye to any visitor that left. His cabin in Baldwin was not only his sanctuary but a home for several childhood memories. Not just for me, but for my dad and uncle. From the snowmobiles he kept running since the 1970s to the barstools from inside the cabin’s living room, it was everything a kid could ask for.

To the average reader, one might wonder why I’m telling you so much about a man you’ve probably never met. In all honesty, this has been more for me than anyone else. It’s always been easier for me to put something down on paper than to actually think it through.

That’s why I intend to remember my grandpa the best way I can ‒ through the written word. Well, that and the occasional Bud Light at Comerica Park.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

Column: Top 10 movies to hit theaters in 2014

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike appear in a scene from "Gone Girl." The film, based on the best-selling novel, is Tony Wittkowski’s top pick. (Merrick Morton | AP)

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike appear in a scene from “Gone Girl.” The film, based on the best-selling novel, is Tony Wittkowski’s top pick. (Merrick Morton | AP)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

What a year it’s been for fans of cinema.

We’ve seen Mark Wahlberg take over the mantel of the Transformers series — we miss you, Shia Labeouf — and we’ve also paid witness to how many headlines Seth Rogen and James Franco claim with their take on North Korea in The Interview.

Since everyone is a fan of lists these days, I decided to generate one of my own to offer what I thought were the best movies to hit theaters in 2014.

While it was difficult to narrow my list down to 10 full-length films, I did include a few parameters for the readers to keep in mind.

I limited my picks to movies I have seen and did not include ones I missed despite my best efforts. So, while movies like Birdman, Foxcatcher and Inherent Vice might deserve a spot on my list in the future, I was forced to exclude them as some of my original choices played in select theaters.

When determining my list, I considered how well my selections finished with their Rotten Tomatoes score. While it did not make a large impact, I did not include any movies that completely bombed. Only two of my choices fell under a 75 percent approval rating.

The third criterion I looked at included how well the movie did in the box office domestically, and not how well it performed on its opening weekend. Thankfully, all my choices cracked the top 100 among movie earners for 2014.

Without further ado, here are my choices:

 

 

10. 22 Jump Street

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 84 percent

• Box Office Results: $191,719,337

The movie was something many moviegoers wanted to be made after the success of 21 Jump Street. While the majority of characters returned, including a brief appearance from Dave Franco in prison, it was the bromance between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill that made the movie what it is. It proved to be one of the rare sequels that was better than the original, because it made fun of how much sequels tend to be the same as their predecessors.

 

 

9. The Judge

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 47 percent

• Box Office Results: $46,907,979

The Judge put Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall together in the same room for the majority of the film. What more could you want? Yes, the plot of the damaged father-son relationship is a bit cliché. But the film makes up for that by having Downey Jr. spew dialogue in Tony Stark-esqe fashion as a lawyer who is arrogant and successful.

 

 

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 89 percent

• Box Office Results: $259,766,572

We all knew it would come to this. Marvel has been killing it the past few years, and sequels were a hot ticket in 2014. Having Chris Evans suit up once more in the stars and stripes was a no-brainer. Getting the Russo brothers to direct put it over the top. The Winter Soldier sent the Marvel Cinematic Universe through a loop, sending the plot for the rest of the series in different directions. It proved to be the second best Avengers movie created to date (more on that later).

 

 

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 92 percent

• Box Office Results: $233,921,534

Like I said, superhero movies and sequels remained supreme in 2014 and holds true for the latest installment of the X-Men series. Bryan Singer was the one constant in good X-Men movies and his return guaranteed success. Time travel can be difficult in any plot, but Days of Future Past found a way to make it work. The movie combined the best elements of the series to produce an adequate outing with both humor and drama.

 

 

6. Chef

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 88 percent

• Box Office Results: $31,424,003

While it didn’t do too well in the box office, Chef was one of the big surprises for 2014. The film was written, produced, directed and starred in by Jon Favreau — yeah, the same guy who directed Iron Man (the best Avengers movie). I especially enjoyed this film’s use of Twitter and the dangers it comes with. The cast of Favreau, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara and Dustin Hoffman, combined with a funny script made for a great comedy that left me hungry for more.

 

 

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 92 percent

• Box Office Results: $59,076,019

For those of you who do not know Wes Anderson, much is being missed. The independent director has become famous for his stylish film-making. The Grand Budapest Hotel uses decorative, visual environments that complements the acting of Ralph Fiennes as womanizing concierge Gustave H. The structure of the film is interesting, as it is a story within a story that is being told through a book.

 

 

4. This Is Where I Leave You

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 42 percent

• Box Office Results: $34,296,320

I strongly disagree with the majority of critics, who felt this film had its moments, but left an uninspired effect on the audience. The movie had some of the best banter between the likes of Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda. Maybe I’m just a sucker for films that include a witty display of what happens when you bring a dysfunctional family together and force them to live together for a week.

 

 

3. St. Vincent

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 76 percent

• Box Office Results: $42,911,965

Bill Murray is funny again and all is right with the world. I normally dislike child actors, but St. Vincent had a great one cast to go toe-to-toe with Murray. While it does create a lot of laughs and is heavily compared to Bad Santa, the film also produces a handful of sentimental moments. One of its weaknesses was the heavy amount of potential it had, which may have hampered its chances for the award season.

 

 

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 90 percent

• Box Office Results: $332,862,030

It made the most money at the domestic box office this year and found a way to join the love of superheroes and the following of Star Wars. Chris Pratt was stellar, and who doesn’t love a talking tree named Groot? The soundtrack was amazing and the way the music was used evoked every emotion the songs were intended for. James Gunn did a wonderful job with one of the lesser-known stories from Marvel, proving we’ll watch anything.

 

 

1. Gone Girl

• Rotten Tomatoes score: 88 percent

• Box Office Results: $165,929,744

My No. 1 choice belongs to David Fincher’s film adaptation of Gone Girl. The film had everything you expect from Fincher — it was dark, intelligent, stylish, and you never trusted any of the characters until the end. The film brought out the Ben Affleck we know and somewhat love, mainly because he was playing himself. Gone Girl was another way of Fincher telling the public that everyone goes a little crazy sometimes.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 1, 2015)

TONY VS. FOOD: Death by pizza at The Grotto

Metro Editor Tony Wittkowski and University Editor Kyle Kaminski are defeated Wednesday by The Grotto’s pizza challenge. (Arin Bisaro | Staff Photographer)

Metro Editor Tony Wittkowski and University Editor Kyle Kaminski are defeated Wednesday by The Grotto’s pizza challenge. (Arin Bisaro | Staff Photographer)

By Tony Wittkowski | Metro Editor | Central Michigan Life

Last week I took on the challenge that has been weighing on my mind for the entire semester: The Mother Trucker at The Grotto.

In fact, its been something I have been anxious to do since I first heard about it four years ago during my first semester on campus. Unfortunately, it did not pan out as I thought it would over those four years.

The Mother Trucker Challenge is something so overwhelming, so gigantic, that even Gabriel Iglesias would faint in its presence.

Last Wednesday, myself and University News Editor Kyle Kaminski took a stroll down to The Grotto to watch the 10-pound pizza be created.

Watching the crew make this pizza was like watching someone carve your tombstone.

A pound of each of the following meats went on this monster pizza: whole slices of ham, pepperoni, strips of bacon, ground beef and sausage on top of sausage. I had to keep reminding myself that I could not die from a food coma.

RELATED: TONY VS. FOOD — Mission Impossible

The pizza was so enormous we pulled an adjoining table next to ours to house the doughy behemoth.

The Mother Trucker was cut into eight different slices — each slice weighed as much as a medium-sized, one-topping pizza.

It put me in hog heaven from the first bite. But halfway through the second piece, my stomach started to catch up with me.

My partner — who is known around the office as “Wolverine” due to his facial hair and hair cut — shred his second slice into so many pieces that it was equivocally a meat salad. As a side note, he technically did not finish his first slice. The crust was still there when he started number two.

To my knowledge, only one duo has eaten the pizza since the challenge’s early conception.

We were not the second. Between the two of us, we consumed half the pizza, minus a few piles of meat that were too discombobulated to be considered pizza.

The end result was another dash in the loss column for myself and a designated puke session for Wolverine, the guest eater of the week.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 4, 2013)

TONY VS. FOOD: Mission Impossible

(Tianyu Han/Staff Photographer)

(Tianyu Han/Staff Photographer)

By Tony Wittkowski | Metro Editor | Central Michigan Life

After a two-week hiatus, I got back into the food eating mood by attempting Robaire’s Bakery challenge: A 23-inch long doughnut, covered in chocolate and filled with custard.

I tried to summon my inner Homer Simpson.

Unfortunately, the 12-pound doughnut gave me what I can only call a hyper nap. This odd occurrence comes when a person consumes enough sugar to make Betty White do a back flip, and enough bread to fill a gorge.

It’s important to know for any would-be challengers that you have your choice between custard and creme. All the employees asked me why I chose the heavier substance, and all I could say was go big or go home.

While it was tasty, it was also filling, forcing me stop eating after only consuming one-fourth of the intense pastry.

Finding the correct way to eat it was too much to handle. Picking it up was out of the question, and cutting it became a task of its own. In fact, at one point, the head of the plastic fork I was using snapped off, leaving the three-pronged head lost in a sea of custard.

RELATED: TONY VS. FOOD — ‘I think I had a contraction’

It was so thick and sugary that on the walk back from the bakery I couldn’t stop shaking. But, it’s six-inch waistline was what surprised me the most.

When I first heard of the challenge, I didn’t think much of it because I can normally eat an entire bag of doughnuts. But after catching a first glimpse of the behemoth made out of dough, I knew I never stood a chance. This would be a challenge meant for two, maybe three people.

I’m just thankful I ate enough to reach the lettering. It was hard enough eating the doughnut without several spectators poking their heads in the store to take a look.

What seemed to be the most unnerving aspect of this challenge was the two older women in the bakery who continued to laugh as I shoved more pastry in. They reminded me of the two old guys from the Muppets because they continued to heckle me and my “thin frame.”

It was by far one of the messier challenges I have attempted. My hands had more chocolate on them than Taylor Swift’s on Valentine’s Day.

All in all, the sugar proved to be too much. Food won.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 25, 2013)

TONY VS. FOOD: ‘I think I had a contraction’

By Tony Wittkowski | Metro Editor |Central Michigan Life

It was gut-wrenching.

That was the thought that escaped me as I attempted to swallow the last few bites of La Senorita’s four-pound burrito.

The first half of the chicken and bean burrito stuffed with everything imaginable went along smoothly enough. Equipped with a 13-inch shell that could double as a shower cap for Mr. Clean, I finished the massive burrito in 25 minutes.

I didn’t know there wasn’t a time limit. However, I ate fast anyway.

A11_TonyVSFood

(Arin Bisaro | Staff Photographer)

If I had one complaint, it would be the cheese. It seemed like every bite (or spoonful, because it was a wet burrito) was dripping with cheese that would clog both my arteries and my senses.

The results afterward were not pretty.

Walking back required some assistance from a laughing coworker who “came along for the ride.” I had to stop on several occasions just to catch my breath and hold my bulging stomach.

I have much more respect for all mothers, because now I know what it feels like to walk around eight months pregnant. On my way back from the restaurant, I had at least three contractions.

In retrospect, humans are not meant to consume this much food.

Through all the cheese, flour tortilla, meat, bean paste, sauce and tomato I learned not to order a soda with the food. Water works just as well, if not better. Because in the end, the killer is salt and the amount you are willing to put into your body.

RELATED: TONY VS. FOOD — I’m on the wall

In all honesty, when they began to make the burrito, I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I saw the final layer piled on top and doused with enough sauce to make Charlie Sheen blink twice that I began to have second thoughts. Luckily, I have stomached through $1 burrito night at enough restaurants in Grand Rapids to help me get past La Senorita’s challenge known as “The Big Juan.”

Like the Lions, I plan on staying just over the .500 mark for the remainder of my challenges in the hopes of attaining mediocrity. Or not. Who knows.

It’s comforting that I have managed to complete the past two challenges. I’m looking forward to the next one, whatever it might be.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 2, 2013)

TONY VS. FOOD: I’m on the wall

Metro Editor Tony Wittkowski finishes his massive meal at Pixie on Wednesday. (Samantha Madar | Staff Photographer)

Metro Editor Tony Wittkowski finishes his massive meal at Pixie on Wednesday. (Samantha Madar | Staff Photographer)

By Tony Wittkowski | Metro Editor |Central Michigan Life

Good news everybody. I won my first challenge in this ongoing series.

This week I took on the Pixie Hall of Fame Challenge of 10 Bitty Burgers, and finished them in 15 minutes. Not that the time was much of a factor.

Eating in Pixie was like walking onto the set of Grease.

I got to hang out with Elvis, I ate with James Dean’s cardboard cutout and I got my picture taken with Marilyn Monroe.

It’s true, the challenge I chose this week was done by countless others. In fact, it has been accomplished by hundreds. Every inch of the walls in the joint that isn’t covered by ’50s memorabilia is filled with small name tags of past winners. Just tiny gold plate after tiny gold plate.

But this was needed after last week’s failed attempt at Dog Central. I was more disappointed than Redskins’ fans in RGIII’s performance so far this year.

RELATED: TONY VS. FOOD — Not the Best Start

For those familiar with the Pixie challenge, each challenger is given the option of completing either 10 bitty burgers or six coney dogs in under an hour.

One thing I have noticed after only two challenges is how intimidating eating this much food can be when you have people staring at you, along with two cameras following your every movement. It’s as if those lenses add another pound of food.

For this challenge, it wasn’t the meat I had to worry about, but the bread. Each bitty burger is no wider than my hand balled into a fist. However, the bun was the filler which slowed me down toward the end.

My main goal was to focus on the burgers themselves, and not the overbearing music playing in the background — although I’m a big fan of the Man in Black.

I’m not one to complain, but after the first two rounds of TONY VS. FOOD, I think I will also switch to water. The “complementary soda” they provide is more of a filler in these challenges.

Going into next week with La Senorita’s challenge, I have to have a better mentality, at least a slightly better one than the NFL’s reigning rookie of the year.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Sept. 23, 2013)