Change is coming to 98 W. Clay Ave. in downtown Muskegon.
Where now there is empty space there will soon be a restaurant called Nipote’s Italian Kitchen: a land of family and friends and Italian food—lots and lots of Italian food—and wine and laughter and community.
It’s a space that, for Jeff and Shawn Church, the husband-and-wife duo opening Nipote’s, is a dream come true: a place of their own where they can do what they love, be in the city they love, and feed the people they love. A restaurant that will serve both authentic Italian and American-inspired dishes, Nipote’s menu will have a big focus on local: think cheese from The Cheese Lady, vegetables from the Muskegon Farmers’ Market, meat from local farms, goods from Morat’s Bakery, and more.
“We want to do a two-block menu,” Jeff Church told us this week while drinking a beer in Pigeon Hill—a business that’s also growing downtown and is a big supporter of Nipote’s; the two places are even going to team up to create a Nipote’s lager. “We’ll source everything we can within two blocks—the Farmer’s Market, The Cheese Lady and Morat’s. We want to be super local as much as possible.”
This idea of local is a deeply important one for the Churches, both of whom grew up in Muskegon: Jeff graduated from Reeths-Puffer and Shawn from Muskegon High School. They’ve seen their city ride waves of ups and downs, and it’s clear that the two take pride in Muskegon and the growth that’s happening downtown. For the owners, Nipote’s isn’t just a business; in many ways, it’s a love letter to the city, a way to invest in a community in which they’ve spent their lives and are raising their four children.
“When we were in our late teens and early 20s, downtown wasn’t somewhere where people really went,” Jeff said. “After the mall came down, there wasn’t really a reason to go downtown. Now, there’s so much going on. We’ve wanted to be down here since we started talking about opening a place.”
The inspiration to open up their own restaurant is one that’s been a long-time coming: the couple, who met while working at the Applebee’s in Muskegon, have been involved in the restaurant industry for the past two decades and know the food and restaurant world intimately well. Shawn now works in human resources for Panera, and Jeff has worked at the Muskegon Country Club and Hobo’s—plus, he ran his own hot dog cart, JCheezy Dogs.
“Together, we have over 40 years of experience,” Jeff said.
When deciding what kind of restaurant to open, the idea of an Italian spot came easily: the two are passionate about the cuisine (you can find Jeff, who will be Nipote’s head chef, hand-making pasta several days of the week at home), they spent a month in Italy for their honeymoon, and four years ago they befriended an Italian couple who were a big source of inspiration for opening the restaurant—and for the name, Nipote’s. Carlo Pozzobon and Sofia Occhialini left their home in Italy for Muskegon for Pozzobon’s work in the tile industry, and the two met the Churches through Run Muskegon, an athletic organization that meets twice a week for runs throughout the city. Pozzobon and Occhialini, who owns The Italian Spoon in Muskegon, have affectionately deemed Jeff as their “nipote,” the Italian word for nephew.
Thus, Nipote’s was born—and the space, which will seat 50 people, will take after the intimate eateries the Churches fell in love with while traveling in Italy, including during a trip they took to visit Pozzobon’s and Occhialini’s hometown, Udine—a city located in northeast Italy, about 80 miles north of Venice.
“Everything there is super local,” Jeff said. “Every day, you shop at the market for what you’re going to eat that day. We fell in love with that simple, good cooking.”
“Fresh vegetables are huge over there,” he continued. “I’m not going to have canned green beans; I’ll wait until there are fresh green beans. Our feature menus will be whatever is seasonal.”
As for Nipote’s building, it will be a unique space made from two shipping crates.
“It’s sustainable and upcyling; there’s 24 million unused shipping crates in the U.S.,” Jeff said.
The Churches are working with a shipping container company out of Detroit, Three Squared, and Nipote’s will be one of a growing number of eateries around the world built from refashioned shipping containers—including ones in Paris, London, Toronto, Miami, and Sacramento. Closer to home, the Detroit Shipping Co. is a restaurant collective and beer garden that features food truck-style eating, coffee, ice cream, bars, and artist galleries—all of which are housed in shipping containers.
Next week, the Churches expect the restaurant’s foundation will be poured, and the shipping crates are slated to arrive within the next month. The restaurant’s opening date has yet to be announced.
Once they open, Nipote’s will serve lunch and dinner, as well as a Saturday brunch, which will include a bloody mary and mimosa bar. They will be closed Sundays for family time. With the space’s focus on community and connection, there won’t be televisions—though there will be wifi and outlets for those who want to hunker down with an espresso and do some work during the day. Nipote’s is expected to be open from around 11am to 9pm Monday through Thursday and 11am to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
“You can come in and have your meetings there if you want; it’s going to be a meeting place for people, for friends and families,” Jeff said. “We want it to be a place where people connect with people.”