Sweet Water Café
A two-decade long group project,
by Lucy Hough
The errant snowstorm in April made the perfect backdrop outside the Sweet Water Café for breakfast on Saturday.
Enjoying various fresh foods that come from the surrounding community, I felt I was enjoying the best of what makes Marquette special: the snow, the sense of community, the simplicity.
All of these things stand out about Sweet Water and hint at what has made it a permanent fixture in Marquette for twenty years.
As the café celebrates its two-decade history, owners Ursula Stock and Sean Murray are considering its and their own history.
The married couple has not only raised three sons in Marquette but has created this restaurant, and when they talked about some of their favorite memories of the restaurant’s past, they both were moved to tears.
When Stock and Murray were in graduate school for hospitality and hotel management, pedagogy was moving toward collective problem solving.
“Everything was a group project,” Murray said. So when they moved to Marquette and decided to start a restaurant, that idea of group projects became central to their mission and, they say, was integral to their success.
Even in the very beginning, when Murray and Stock agreed on the 517 Third Street building, the concern was that the building was too big for their function.
As Stock said, many restaurants fail in the first year or first five years due to undercapitalization.
Sweet Water would have been in the same situation, she said, if not for the various people who helped them in the beginning as part owners or for donating their time and skills throughout the history of the business.
“We took an existing form and crammed function into it. You know, you hear function before form, but we just took this building and then said, we’re going to do everything in here because food is so good and fun, and that got us into some trouble. But we survived that, too,” Murray said.
When they talk about the memories of running the restaurant for the past twenty years, they laugh and talk together about how much fun they had.
There was the hot summer years ago when Stock purchased a bunch of small squirt guns and put one on each table. Guests squirted waitstaff or other tables, but it was all in good fun.
There also was “hide the Furby,” an ongoing game where people in the restaurant would hide a Furby in plain sight of the dining area and patrons or employees would try to find it. It’s still hidden somewhere in the restaurant, though no one has seen it for a while.
These are just some of the fond memories the couple has that overshadow any challenges they might have had to overcome in the twenty years.
“You never get to the point where, ‘I am the expert and I’ve got it all down,’” Murray said. “And the best food service people know that and they’re willing to learn more and get more training for things that they haven’t thought of before. That’s one of the great things about this business, to me, it’s a pleasure to always be challenged, to always be learning and to have opportunities to learn.”
Murray and Stock learned early on that it was important to hire people who could teach them something.
Following from the idea of this restaurant being a group project, it was important to them to work with people who could add something to the restaurant that they might not be able to do.
An example of this is the chefs they hire. Right now, there are eight chefs at Sweet Water, and Stock and Murray give them artistic license to make diverse foods with the natural selections that come in the door every day. “They’re artists,” Stock said.
It is the people who work for Sweet Water who create the atmosphere and culture that so many people enjoy about being there.
Stock said though she and Murray have a set of beliefs that act as pillars of the restaurant––such as the use of fresh food––they let the passions and abilities of the employees fill in the rest.
And it’s that feeling in the restaurant that has fostered a welcoming community for customers and even visitors who have been so impressed by the restaurant, that it has influenced their decision about whether to live in Marquette.
“The vibe is (made by) the people who are working here. They bought into what we’re trying to do and they’re doing the best they can to make it happen. And that has impacted at least five couples who were being interviewed by the hospital, by Northern, by the mines, thinking, ‘Yes, they could live here,’ because something about what’s happening (at Sweet Water) tells them about this community,” Stock said.
“To me, that’s profound and that’s way bigger than us. I’m proud of being a part of something that has a positive impact on the world like that. That’s meaningful to me.”
A part of what makes Sweet Water so unique is this commitment to local and fresh foods. Right now, the entire dinner menu is made from local foods.
Some of those options include meats from Seeds and Spores in Marquette, basil from Cloverland Farms in Skandia and maple syrup from Olson Brothers in Bark River, among others.
“Produce is coming from all sorts of local farms,” Stock said. “It kind of depends on what they have and when it’s in season, but I’m most excited when a farmer comes to the back door, sells us something he harvested that morning, and then it goes on our plates for lunch and dinner.”
This passion for fresh foods is what Stock and Murray think draws their regulars. Even as we sat at breakfast, Murray and Stock pointed out two brothers who come every week to catch up.
“You can’t describe the feeling that goes with knowing that they’ve chosen to come to our place every week. That’s their place to hang out together,” Murray said. “It’s so deliberate.”
These customers, the farmers who come to their door every morning, and the employees who choose to work here all make up the community that makes Sweet Water a successful group project.
“I guess the thing I didn’t think of as a young woman was how many of those people I would grow to love. It just didn’t occur to me … I think that caught me off guard,” Stock said.
“We’ve had some of the crème of the crop in Marquette on all sides of the fence come through our doors with an opportunity to meet them and get to know them. It’s been a pleasure.”