In a Class of its own
By Kathleen Knowles
Originally Published on April 4th, 2018
Every business begins with a dream. It takes a special person to make it come true. The Vintage Tavern was Jeff Payton’s dream. However, it did not manifest itself right away.
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Jeff graduated from Port Huron High School in 1979. Like many young people, he was not quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. He made a decision to go to Saint Clair County Community College to study computer programming. He soon discovered it just was not his forte. Jeff could not envision himself sitting at a desk in front of a computer eight hours a day, five days a week. He had entirely too much energy to sit all day. He altered his education and earned an associate’s degree in business. A personable young man, Jeff enjoyed talking to and interacting with people. He came to realize he wanted to work in a business which included serving the public. The idea of working in management definitely interested him.
In 1983 Lynn Secory and Vicki Peterson opened the Victorian Inn on 7th Street in Port Huron. They offered Jeff a job as the bar manager. For the next few years, he spent his time honing his people skills, learning what worked and what didn’t in communication skills while dealing with the public. At the same time, he began his education in fine wines and craft beers.
“I don’t think I would be where I am now without Lynn and Vicki. They gave me the freedom to explore opportunities within the industry and allowed me to try different methods.” Jeff Payton
As he continued working at the Victorian Inn, Mike Guerin, the owner of The Wine Merchant, located at Lapeer and 10th Streets, offered to take Payton under his wing to learn the wine business. He became Payton’s mentor. Guerin started taking him to wine tastings and seminars. He suggested they fly to Napa Valley in California to further his education in wines. Jeff eagerly agreed. He received a hands-on education attending wine tasting classes as well as a tour of the vineyards, where he learned the process of creating the different types of wines. In looking back, Payton said, “The Vintage Tavern would not exist today without the generous time Mike spent teaching me the wine business.”
With his newfound knowledge, Jeff left the Victorian Inn and went into wholesale wine sales, taking a job with Lakeside Beverage. He delivered wine to restaurants and did staff training for their employees on how to select a proper bottle of wine, and how to present and open it. Payton continued to work for Lakeside Beverage until 2005.
Despite enjoying his job, he was becoming restless. Jeff Payton now knew where he belonged; running his own business. Having been in both the restaurant and wine businesses, he decided to combine the two and began seeking a building to open a restaurant-bar.
Mike Guerin encouraged him to stay and open his establishment in his hometown. It would be the first of its kind in the city. No other restaurant-bar had extensive wines by the glass and bottle. After six months, Jeff had checked out eight different buildings but was not satisfied with any of them. It was not until Brian Wurmlinger, approached him about the old Arden’s building, which he owned. The shipping and receiving rooms were available for sale. He suggested Jeff take a look at them. When Payton arrived and walked through the building, he knew he had found the future home of the Vintage Tavern.
Jeff bought the building and would spend the next two years renovating the two floors and the basement. For the first year, still waiting on the bank loan to go through, he began tearing down walls, jackhammering the plaster off others and power-washing them. He tore out the fluorescent lights and replaced them with track and indirect incandescent lighting. When that was completed, he sanded and finished the hardwood floors.
In the basement, a wine cellar was constructed and would hold 500 bottles of wine, which would include 100 selections by the bottle and 30 selections by the glass.
After a year of renovations, the bank loan went through in 2006. It became time to hire the contractors who would do the finishing work. Rich Mills, a general contractor-builder was hired. He shared Jeff’s vision of what the Tavern should look like. Loton Eastman was hired as the architectural engineer; he was responsible for making sure load limits, code requirements, and feasibility was met.
Three fireplaces were constructed. Belt and pully ceiling fans were put in. A handcrafted back bar was built on the main floor. The original tin ceiling, hardwood floors, and brick walls were utilized.
With the renovations completed, the next step was to choose the furniture. Jeff decided it had to have a vintage look since he was aiming for a classic vintage feel. Once it was delivered and in place, the next task was to decide on a menu, a wine list, draft beers and other drink options. Knowing he would expand the menu in the future, The Vintage Tavern would start with a dozen selections.
Twelve employees were hired, and The Vintage Tavern opened in May of 2007.
Jeff immediately began building his clientele. He made a point to visit every table at least once, making sure his patrons were happy with the food and the service. It was so important to him that he asked each table what they would like to see on the menu. As a result of their suggestions, the menu for The Vintage Tavern increased from a dozen to nearly thirty items. His concern for satisfying their needs has built a clientele where two-thirds of them are regular returning customers, including friends and family.
Success came quickly to the Tavern, yet after three years, Jeff realized if the success was going to continue, he would have to add a second kitchen. As he and his builder stood on the rubber roof, they tossed around the idea of adding another floor. The decision was made and the planning began. The additional floor would have the same vintage feel as the rest of the tavern. They would take advantage of the view of the Canadian skyline, the St. Clair and Black Rivers, with an outdoor patio theme.
The floor was added with a full kitchen as well as another bar and a full seating area. Retractable vinyl curtains were put in with the intention of opening them in late May, dependent on the weather; it would allow those who chose to enjoy their dinner on the patio. The vinyl curtains would remain open until September as long as the weather remained warm enough.
With the additional floor, it became necessary to either hire a new manager, or Jeff’s wife, Barbie Payton would have to leave her job and join the staff. They decided Barbie would join her husband in the running of the Tavern. Additional staff was also hired. “They have become an integral part of our success. They take a lot of pride in their work,” Payton said.
The Vintage Tavern now boasts four levels which include:
- The main floor with a bar and fireplace
- Three private party and meeting rooms
- Seating for 15 in the Library with a fireplace
- Seating for 22 in the Terrace room on the roof
- Seating for 32 in the Wine Cellar with a fireplace
- Roof Deck with a great view of Canada and St. Clair River which includes outdoor seating during the warm weather
The entire restaurant now seats 275 people. Parties and dinner meetings are available by reservation.
As for the menu, the Vintage Tavern has something for everyone from Sonoma County Brie, Angry Shrimp Tapas, BLT and G Panini, to Grilled Tuna.
If you prefer a burger, you can’t go wrong with the Natural Burger – 100 % natural, 1/4-pound, Black Angus Beef, or a Black Bean Chipotle Burger. Do you prefer pork? Try the Pig Wings – pork shanks simmered in BBQ sauce with a side of sweet potato waffle fries or slaw.
For those chicken fans, you will find Baked Chicken Caprese or Cajun Chicken Tortellini. If you prefer beef, how does Cajun or Teriyaki Tenderloin Beef Tips, Filet Mignon or a Grilled Rib Eye sound?
For fish lovers, the Baked Halibut is divine. The Grilled Norwegian Salmon is delicious and the Loire Valley Scallops are mouthwatering. If shrimp is more to your taste, you can try the Angry Shrimp Tapas. You won’t find a better tasting shrimp anywhere.
Rack of Lamb, salads and even Vintage Pizza are there for those who prefer them.
These are but a few of the selections on a menu of great food. The Tavern takes pride in a varied selection, all cooked and served to perfection with an outstanding, attentive staff whose sole purpose is to see that everyone has a pleasant evening and a positive experience.
Are you a connoisseur of fine wines? If so, you will love the selections available which include, but are not limited to:
- Newton Unfiltered Wines
- Caymus Napa Cabernet
- Groth Napa Cabernet
- Shafer Chardonnay
- Silver Oak Alexander Cabernet
- Mollydooker “Boxer” Shiraz
- Justin Isosceles
- Kim Crawford Wines
- Shafer Hillside Select
- Cakebread Wines
- Davis Bynum Pinot Noir
- Righetti Amarone
- Ferrari Carano Wines
- Veuve Clicquot Champagne
- Special, Limited Release Bourbons, Scotches, Tequilas, and Vodkas
- Thirteen Regional and Imported Draft Beers, and dozens of Specialty Bottled Beers
- Specialty Martinis and Mixed Drinks
The Vintage Tavern also offers:
- Wine Flights & Retail Wine Sales
- Single-Malt Scotches
- Catering for up to 100
- Espresso, Cappuccino
- Free Wi-Fi & Gift cards
“The goal is to offer upscale dining with a casual atmosphere,” Payton said, explaining the numerous selections on the Vintage Tavern Menu. “We expanded the menu to contain healthy items because that was what was requested the most by those that frequent our restaurant.”
So, what is the secret of Jeff and The Vintage Tavern’s success?
Jeff also credits his parents, Eric and Peggy Payton for his work ethics. “They taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right. Both of them worked hard at what they did, setting an example for me. They also helped teach me people skills as both of them were teachers, and of course, they instilled the proper values.” Jeff also mentioned three other people that had a profound influence on him. “When I was in high school, Principal Chet Wydrzynski and Assistant Principal Tim Haynes let me know when I had gone too far. They pretty much helped to keep me on the straight and narrow! Lew Secory Sr. also had a great deal of influence in my life. He showed me day by day how hard work and dedication paid off.”
Dedicated, he certainly is! Jeff works 60-65 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. On Sundays, he works a half a day, making up the work schedule and completing the food, beer, and wine orders. He even does occasional maintenance work.
Have the years changed anything for him?
“In the beginning, it was about making a living, now it means so much more than that. Making people happy and ensuring they have an enjoyable evening as well as excellent food and drink.” Jeff Payton
Positive feedback is absolutely essential. Through his conversations, while visiting tables, he learns from patrons what is working and what is not. If something is not working, he changes it. If something is working, he expands upon it. If a large number of people ask for something which is not being provided, Jeff sees to it that it becomes available. It is important that each and every person leaves the Vintage Tavern, having had a pleasant experience; that he has made their party, anniversary or birthday dinner successful and memorable.
So, if you are looking for a place for good food with great service, and a pleasant time with family and friends, the Vintage Tavern is the place for you. Whether it be a dinner date, party or dinner meeting, you will be treated like family! The Vintage Tavern is the place to be!
The Vintage Tavern
103 Michigan St.
Port Huron, MI 48060
Hours of Operation:
Monday – Thursday – 11:00 am to 10:00 pm
Friday & Saturday – 11:00 am to 11:00 pm
Sunday – Closed
Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.