Last week local politicians gathered at Mac’s Acadian Seafood Shack in downtown Saline to honor owners Wally and Cindy MacNeil for 20 years in business. State Rep. Gretchen Driskell and County Commissioner Alicia Ping presented the MacNeils with proclamations. So did Mayor Brian Marl, who also presented the MacNeils with a key to the city.
(Mac’s Acadian Seafood Shack is located at 104 E. Michigan Ave. Call 944-6227 or visit www.macsinsaline.com for more information)
In some ways, the peculiarly-named restaurant the MacNeils opened 20 years ago was the key to making downtown Saline a destination for diners.
In the early 1980s, Wally MacNeil was studying at Acadia University, not far from where he grew up, near Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Though the maritime province is known for its fishing, the Annapolis Valley area was known for its orchards and agriculture. Wally’s dad was a grocer and often brought home seafood. In 1981, Wally’s pals were headed to Toronto for a Blue Jay’s game. Wally couldn’t afford the trip but his mother, who had remarried and lived in Farmington Hills, Michigan, offered to pay his way to Michigan. Wally instantly fell in love with the Detroit area.
“That first year here, I must have went to 15 Detroit Tiger games and gone to several concerts. I loved it. Living near the big city was exciting,” Wally remembered.
He found work as a bartender and quickly rose through the ranks of at Main Street Ventures, an up-and-coming restaurant company that owned signature restaurants in several Southeast Michigan communities. Wally was talked into becoming a dining room manager at Maude’s in Ann Arbor. It was there he met Cindy. A native of Whiteall, Mich., Cindy came to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan. She went from dining room manager to kitchen manager when Wally was hired at Maude’s.
“Everything was happening fast. I started bartending. Next thing I knew I was managing a restaurant. Next thing I knew I was married,” Wally recalled.
Wally became general manager of Real Seafood Company and Cindy decided to stay home to care for their children, both of whom have cerebral palsy.
“When we found our boys had special needs, we started looking at schools. We became interested in Saline, which was becoming known for inclusive special education that integrated children with special needs into the regular classrooms,” Wally said.
The MacNeils built a home in the Warner Creek subdivision.
Over time, the MacNeils began thinking about opening their own restaurant.
“At first I had no intention of opening my own restaurant. But as my children got older it became apparent that it would be worth the risk of opening my own place so I could provide more for them,” Wally said.
The MacNeils drove through town to get to St. Andrew’s church. At the time, Leutheuser’s Restaurant was winding down. Kelly’s was also a popular spot in town.
The MacNeils began thinking about concepts for a restaurant.
Wally and a friend visited Toronto and stopped at a place called Alice Fazooli’s Italian Crab Shack and Saloon.
“It was the longest name I’d ever seen. It was in this old brick building with high ceilings. The menu was eclectic but it still had a bar and a casual dining feel,” Wally remembered. “I thought, ‘We can do this.”
Wally returned and shared the idea with Cindy.
“I couldn’t picture it at first, so I went and visited with Wally,” Cindy said. “I got there and thought, ‘This is cool. We can do this.’”
Because of Wally’s experience with fresh fish and seafood, the MacNeils knew they were going to open a Seafood restaurant.
“But Mac’s Seafood didn’t feel like it was enough to stand out,” Cindy said.
So they brainstormed and developed the concept.
“We wanted the project to be personal so we tied it with his heritage in Nova Scotia,” Cindy said.
From 1755 to 1764, the British expelled the Acadians, descendants of French colonists, from Nova Scotia. Many migrated to Louisiana and Mississippi, where they developed “Cajun” culture.
The settled on seafood with a Cajun flair.
“It’s really just country cooking. My grandma’s jambalaya might be different than your grandma’s jambalaya. If I grow green tomatoes, it’s green tomatoes. If I grow red tomatoes, it’s red tomatoes. It’s not always spicy,” Wally said.
The MacNeils also needed a home.
Wally remembers seeing his future home on Michigan Avenue.
“There was a red wagon and toy shop on the corner. I saw a sign that said Phoenix in the window and decided to call and see if there was any way to buy it,” Wally said. “I reached Bill Kinley and he’d just bought the building and he was looking for someone to run a restaurant.”
Cindy remembers the buildings were in disrepair when they first scouted.
“The buildings were in crumbling condition and really unusable in some ways. Bill and Mary (Kinley) had such a terrific vision for these buildings. Without them, I this wouldn’t have happened,” Cindy said.
After hearing no from several banks, Wally finally got financing he needed.
Mac’s Acadian Seafood Shack opened in downtown Saline in 1996. It was an instant hit.
“This city was looking for something. Common Grill had just opened in Chelsea. The market was ready. We were bringing Ann Arbor dining to Saline,” Wally said.
Many of the diners on day one still dine at the restaurant today.
“I still smile when remember opening night and Tom Foley walking into the restaurant singing Hello Dolly at the top of his lungs,” Wally said.
Mac’s was bustling. Kinley had hope to save the corner of his building for a retail business, but after a few months in business, the MacNeils moved in and assumed the footprint they still have today.
An introductory article in the Saline Reporter cited stats about how most restaurants close within the first three years. Mac’s thrived.
“Right place, right time,” Wally said.
At the time, the Ann Arbor restaurant market was smaller. And there weren’t so many restaurants between Ann Arbor and Saline. The late Don Canham, former Michigan Athletic Director, helped make Mac’s a hot spot. Canham lived in Travis Pointe. When broadcaster Keith Jackson would come into town, Canham and his wife always took Jackson and his wife to Mac’s.
In the 2000s, Mac’s struggled through the great recession. Bob Rash joined Mac’s as a partner and helped keep the business alive. Wally bought Rash out a few years ago when Rash needed to leave the business.
Wally notes that Mac’s business has been fairly consistent over the years.
“The amount of business we do hasn’t changed much since our first couple years,” Wally said.
He attributes the restaurant’s staying power to Mac’s dedication to quality food, friendly service and consistent menu.
“I’ve always tried to buy the best seafood products available and charge a fair price,” Wally said. “If you look at our menu, we’re do change somethings seasonally, but we’re basically offering the same things we’ve always offered.”
Stapes like pecan whitefish and fettuccini lobster shrimp have been on the menu since the beginning. And Mac’s doesn’t mess with success.
“We stay try to be consistent. I think if we changed the gumbo there would be a riot,” Wally said.
And as much as Mac’s is about seafood, it’s often the sides and appetizers people rave about.
“When people talk to me, they talk about how much they love the bread and the salad,” Wally said.
Cindy said they are driven to perform at the top of their game.
“We always check out the new places in town, but we always come back to the ones we love. So we have to be that place that people come back to,” Cindy said. “You have to stay focused on guest satisfaction and quality. If you let those things slip out of site, I feel like that would be the downward turn. Customers want the genuine feeling that they are important to the business. That they are more than a number. That they are appreciated.”
Year 20 is proving to be a difficult year for Mac’s and other Saline restaurants impacted by the Michigan Avenue construction project. Because so much of Mac’s customer base lives outside Saline, they weren’t aware of the construction. So for the first two months, business down slightly. But those would-be return customers didn’t come back in July and August, and business is down.
Still, he’s looking forward to the end of the construction project and many more years in downtown Saline.