Kolu Stevens and the art of the Deal

Posted on April 20, 2012


One of the defining features of life in Antrim County is that every township and village is well-supplied with individualists, marching along to the beat of their own bongos.  People who grow mushrooms and heartnuts and edamame.  People who design and cast bronzes, print handmade books, sculpt snow.  People who cook slow food and serve it up with sides and stoke up a working person for the rainy afternoon ahead.  People like Kolu Stevens, proprietor of the $5 Meal Deal.

It was a very rainy day. Usually that OPEN flag is waving merrily in the breeze.

Last summer Betty Jo and I bought picnic lunches from the tidy trailer Kolu had set up like a County Fair vendor’s booth. The Deal has moved up in the world since then, and offers window seating indoors.

The move was challenging in every conceivable way, and a lot of people helped to make it work.  See those signs up on the wall over the tables?  Those are thank-you notes.  Thank you, they say.  We couldn’t have done this without you!  and they are signed by Kolu and her family.  Each one is different, honoring the guys who did the electrical work and the plumbing, other business owners who offered encouragement and support, the customers who cheered them on.  Taken together the notes are a remarkable historical document.  You know those shiny bronze plaques that are installed in the public buildings you paid for?  The ones that honor the people who were Chief Poobah and Associate Poohbahs of your unit  of government at the time that you bought the buildings?  Well, these thank-you notes are like that, but different.  Really, really different.

In addition to the window seating and a nice area for washing up there is a tiny but efficient serving area.  Everything is within reach.  It’s 11 o’clock.  Showtime!

The food is classic comfort food.  On this rainy Friday there are half a dozen entrees (ribs, pulled pork, fried chicken, grilled chicken, meat loaf, Cajun curried! chicken) and seven sides. You can choose any two.  Baked macaroni and cheese, baked beans, simmered sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn, herbed rice, and a concoction Kolu describes as sort of a stir fry: chopped cabbage, onions, green beans, zucchini and sweet red peppers cooked together and spiced to a nice heat.

A customer arrived while I was taking pictures of the food. Your usual meat loaf? —  Nope. Today I’m in the mood for some of that fried chicken. In 30 seconds flat he had his fried chicken with corn, macaroni and cheese, and three pleasantries on the side.  Add a plastic fork and a napkin.  Five dollars.  Looky here:

More regulars arrived, guys in Carhartts who left their hardhats in the truck and brought their appetites inside where it was warm and smelled good.  They ordered meat loaf, mashed potatoes and corn, pulled pork and baked beans, and headed to the back to wash up.

I think Kolu is onto something.  Maybe it’s just that she’s doing what she loves, feeding our whole selves at a very favorable price.  Maybe there’s more to it, having to do with things like community and neighborliness and filling a need.  Simple things, really, though filled with subtleties, like the aromas that fill the Deal.  I left with my fried chicken—with stirfried cabbage concoction and sweet potatoes on the side—leaving behind a $5 bill plus a $1 in the tip jar.  I felt deeply satisfied, and I hadn’t even put the first forkful in my mouth.

Kolu’s $5 Meal Deal is in a tiny commercial strip on Ames Street, just east of the Blue Heron Gallery.  I don’t see how you can go wrong.