beezy's cafe: Long may Bee Roll
Photo by Amanda Vogelsang
The art of the simple, honest meal: A slice of orange and black coffee; a sandwich, perfectly alternating between tiles of pink capicola and provolone; avocado with egg. To know these elements, to honor them, requires a confidence and cooking prowess that few chefs possess.
Bee Roll, 34, Canada-born and Michigan-made, is among this small number. Her Ypsilanti restaurant, beezy’s cafe, pays homage to the simple and honest via a menu of fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.
Bee, dually salty and sweet, has a vision.
"Everything about food and cooking is intrinsic to what we do as people. It immediately provides a sense of place and belonging, or it can isolate people," she said. "The cornerstone of that philosophy is that I want things to be approachable — I want all of the ingredients to be pronounced."
And what better way to pronounce such flavors as Dos Hermanos Market chorizo than to pare down: Not one of Bee’s dishes has more than 10 ingredients. She attributes this minimalistic approach to cooking to her childhood, one that's left pins across the map of North America.
Bee ticked off Quebec, California, Oregon, Maine, Iowa and Michigan off a list of living locales. Between the exponentially more moves between cities, she became quite proficient at adapting her cooking to the ingredients that were available — particularly those readymade in Southern California.
"From a very early age, I learned to make do. I would make burritos, tacos, home fries and what I ended up calling elephant ears — which were tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and butter," Bee explained. "They were great, but I didn’t know anything about cooking. Nobody taught me."
Jessica Levine I Contributor
Part out of necessity, a bigger part out of interest (her mother, a single parent, was a bartender familiar with the fast-paced craziness of a kitchen), Bee snagged her first restaurant job at 14. Two years later, she started work at Petoskey’s Roast & Toast owned by Bob and Mary Keedy — a restaurant where you get "fruit instead of a pickle and chips with your food."
After a few years of on and off work, she really came to admire Roast & Toast's style and taste. Bee worked as a dishwasher and salad-maker before insisting on learning the ins and outs of breakfast and lunch cooking.
"I made a lot of my own mistakes cooking and putting flavors together," she explained. "It’s a bit of a formula, but if it works — stick with it. Keep it simple."
The Keedys' philosophy of maximizing a few fresh ingredients combined with Bee’s drive to learn, goof up, add cold water and just cook helped shape beezy's as it stands today. A fixture in downtown Ypsilanti, the diner known for its weekend French toast and homemade soup (which, she says, is so multi-faceted it can serve as the base for macaroni and cheese and tuna casserole — the more you know).
"Every person I prevent from getting McDonald's or KFC is a huge win for me personally and for society," said Bee, proud of her own brand of breakfast and lunch fare.
"People recognize that there's flavor here, and that it's fresh. They can see everyone that's a part of making their meal. It's not coming in a giant bag that gets ripped open, thrown into a steam table and served at warp-speed."
Her crew is pretty fast, she quickly amended. Fast, versatile and truly colorful. Hair swooped and pinned in a 40s style 'do, beezy’s cashier Erin Dion sometimes sings as she roves the dining room.
"I couldn’t do anything without them. They are absolutely intrinsic to my success. It’s a 'we' thing," explained Bee.
"It’s beautiful when you bring a group of people together who have incredibly different skillsets; you recognize the strengths in each person, and make their strengths better and minimize their weaknesses by having other people who compensate for that. That’s my own self-reflection."
Photo by Amanda Vogelsang
In acknowledging her own limitations (at this point in our conversation, she commended her cashiers' ability to make genuine talk with customers), Bee fosters a vibe not often seen in the restaurant business. Whereas many owners and head chefs carve deep divides between servers and line cooks, between the front and back of house staff, Bee insists on an egalitarian balance.
"Yes, it's about the bottom line. But if you don't have the crew, then you're not going to ever have the bottom line," she explained. "If you don't have a bottom line, then you're not going to be able to bring it back to the people and keep this thing weaving towards something bigger than yourself."
Something, you could say, that is as big as a community. Ypsilanti, an aging industrial town with a visible underbelly, needed Bee and her fresh food just as much as she needed a fresh start. In 2008, just three months shy of her 31st birthday, she found the location for her restaurant — a space on Washington Street painted with a bright tropical mural. On a bit of street lined with bars and a strip club, simple and honest food would be a welcomed fit.
"I fell in love [with Ypsilanti]. Having moved around so much — something about setting foot here and wandering around made me comfortable. It made me feel at home," said Bee.
While Ann Arbor has tried to recruit her to the packed restaurant streets of Main and East Liberty, Bee remains loyal to Ypsilanti. She plans to continue feeding and hosting her 175+ daily guests — college students, nurses, musicians, hipsters (keys effectually clipped to their belt loops) and moms — in the town she loves.
So, to Ypsilanti’s rock star: Long may beezy’s Roll.
Jessica Levine profiles the culture, history and personalities of Washtenaw County restaurants for AnnArbor.com. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. And please heartily welcome Amanda Vogelsang, the gal behind the camera.