When a restaurant has a loyal clientele and staff, the pitfalls that owners run into can be easier to overcome.
This is true for Pepino’s Food & Spirits, a family-owned restaurant in Oakland County that two years ago suffered one of the worst things a business can experience: a fire that decimated the entire restaurant.
At the time of the fire in early November 2015, Pepino’s had a 30-year run at 118 W. Walled Lake Drive in Walled Lake. Swiss-born chef Joe Bernardi, a former executive chef at Ford Motor Co., opened Pepino’s in 1984. His daughters run it now.
It has a reputation for being a busy place where friends gathered for strong drinks — really, do not underestimate the liquor and wine pours here — and an American menu with specialties like a golden brown rainbow trout and char grilled lamb chops. It’s a classic vibe, where a freshly baked assortment of bread is brought to the table right away, and steaks and seafood are served with soup or salad.
Bernardi’s daughter, Kathy Morley, who runs the upscale-casual restaurant with sister Carol Carson (Morley’s son-in-law Chris Hutchinson is also a silent partner) said the outpouring of support they received from customers after the blaze was “unimaginable.”
“They were coming down in droves and they were hugging us, they were crying, we were crying, it was such an emotional experience,” she said.
The search for a temporary location began immediately. Morley said it was just before the holidays and they didn’t want to leave their employees — some of which had been with Pepino’s for 20 years — without jobs for too long.
It was one of their loyal customers that hipped them to an available space about 10 miles away in Sylvan Lake. The location made sense because, in spite of being in Walled Lake, the majority of Pepino’s regular customers lived in Birmingham and West Bloomfield.
They got a temporary liquor license so they could open for New Year’s Eve, and by late February of 2016, their license had fully transferred from the Walled Lake location and they were able to open.
Up until recently, the plan was to rebuild in Walled Lake. Morley said about two months ago, though, they decided to stay where they are, instead of rebuilding.
“We didn’t realize we were in everyone’s backyard,” she said of the new location, which is part of a shopping center on Orchard Lake just west of Middle Belt. “Everyone was so thrilled that we were so close to them.”
Morley said that many of their Walled Lake-area customers, like the Bloomfield/Birmingham customers before them, are willing to make the trek.
One visit to Pepino’s and it’s easy to see why guests are so loyal. Besides the location, not much has changed over the past few decades. The chefs are still using Bernardi’s recipes, including his white bean relish, which is automatically served to each customer with the bread basket. Morley says they go through “gallons” of it and customers like the relish so much they sometimes buy a container to take home.
“My dad thought it was important to start out with something nice like that,” she said of the bean relish. “When you come into a restaurant it’s important to have a good first impression, hot homemade bread, a nice drink — we make a really nice drink.”
“We constantly try to be consistent in what works for us,” said Morley. “We learned a long time ago that people come to us because they like who we are.”
Pepino’s Food & Spirits, 2440 Orchard Lake Road, is open 4-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs. and 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Walk-ins and reservations are accepted, call (248) 624-1033.