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Restaurateur fills needs in community

KATHY WARDYNSKI

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette
Kathy Wardynski took over Syl’s Cafe from her grandmother, Sylvia Laitala, in 1994.

ONTONAGON — Life moves pretty fast for Kathy Wardynski.

As the longstanding holder of Michigan’s high school 100-meter dash record, this Ontonagon resident and business owner doesn’t let anything slow her down.

When Kathy took over operation of Syl’s Country Kitchen from her grandmother in 1994, she was a recent Michigan State graduate and a young wife and mother of a toddler and an infant, and she knew the size and imprint of the shoes she was about to fill.

Sylvia Laitala, who was 57 with an eighth-grade education when she opened the restaurant in 1972, was successful by sheer “force of will,” according to Kathy. Her grandfather Sulo also played an integral part of the business behind the scenes, with maintaining and fixing kitchen equipment as his No. 1 priority.

Her grandmother’s recipes for soups and pasties aren’t the only things that have stood the test of time at Syl’s Café. Kathy’s embracing of Syl’s culture is “not an accident.” Her commitment to a good team extends beyond training and flexible hours.

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette
Kathy Wardynski is a quarter owner of Anytime Fitness in Ontonagon.

Kathy, who holds degrees in animal science and food systems economics and management, vets each potential employee for an ability to learn the restaurant’s processes, including knowledge of its menu and ingredients, and a propensity for going the extra mile. Each member of the wait staff is tasked with treating each customer like their favorite celebrity or the person they most admire or respect – an actual scenario presented in the job interview.

“Treat everyone like that,” Kathy says, referring to the excitement, desire to avoid mistakes and memorable experience each customer at Syl’s should evoke for her staff. Kathy is committed to making it “easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.”

She believes “attitude and love rub off” on people and credits planning and executing her time-tested systems – that she honed during her time working in dining services for Michigan Tech – for alleviating the guesswork for employees.

Gifted with a proclivity and memory for numbers, Kathy lives by an equation in her business: the right employee plus guidance equals success. The more success a person has, the more confident they become in whatever task they are assigned. The culture at Syl’s Cafe, where some employees are third- and fourth-generation, depends on this philosophy.

Fueled by a desire to “do stuff for people,” Kathy is attuned to the needs of the community. A social media post saying “Ontonagon needs a 24-hour gym” was the catalyst for a new endeavor. After a well-timed trip out-of-state and some franchise investigation, Kathy was able to explore her “true passion for making someone’s life better and healthier” as a partial owner of Anytime Fitness on River Street in Ontonagon.

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette
The Squeeze on Main offers quick, healthy options such as salads and smoothies.

As an accomplished athlete, coach and trainer, Kathy translated her personal love and skill into a much-needed service in the Lake Superior village of about 1,300 residents. This push toward a healthier lifestyle also inspired The Squeeze on Main, a specialty quick-serve restaurant featuring salads, smoothies, juices and local produce, just across the street.

Between Syl’s, The Squeeze and Anytime Fitness, Kathy seems to have a full plate, but this expert multitasker still has time to devote to being a wife to Frank for 33 years, a mother of four adult children (Julie, RJ, Lori and Holly) and a grandmother of 3-year-old Jackson. She is also committed to her family farm, from where the meats for her restaurants are sourced, and to supplying 300 meals a week for Mass City and Ontonagon Meals on Wheels.

Being a “strong, stubborn and straightforward” woman has served Kathy well and presented her with plenty of opportunities to succeed. She was sure to show her daughters an example of the convictions her grandmother taught her: stand on your own two feet and be your own person.

Attesting that she even reads quickly, Kathy does sit still long enough to consume hundreds of books a year. This busy woman and business owner seems quite content with her fast-paced life. Refer to her as “Little Syl,” and she may pause a moment as she revels in that greatest of compliments.

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette The bakery case at Syl's entices customers with its freshly baked donuts, cookies, cakes, pies and cheesecakes.

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette Photographs of the area's natural beauty line the walls at Syl's.

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