Locals raise money, offer support for a young chef fighting cancer


Traverse City Record-Eagle

AP Member Exchange

LAKE LEELANAU — Most know Bryon Figueroa for his signature breakfast burritos, grass-fed burgers and fresh-squeezed orange juice, all served out of the namesake Fig’s Breakfast & Lunch kitchen.

But more often than not these days, the locals-favorite eggs-and-bacon joint’s sign reads “closed.”

The chef and father of four’s days start early with restaurant prep and serving up plates for breakfast and lunch rushes. Then he hits the gym with oldest daughter Payge or rounds up the rest of the crew — Anna, 11, Lucee, 6, and 3-month-old Reed — for family time. Figueroa takes pride in having the energy to do it all, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported.

Until he couldn’t.

It was early January 2019 and the chef faltered while butchering a pig at the Lake Leelanau Fig’s. He struggled to finish, and started to wonder if a particularly intense gym session with Payge had caused a hernia.

“I said, ‘Man, something’s wrong with me,'” Figueroa said.

Concern took him the 20 miles to Munson Medical Center’s emergency room, and it turned to fear when doctors didn’t share his theory.

A CT scan revealed masses in both of Figueroa’s kidneys.

The diagnosis came several agonizing weeks later, near the end of February.

Bilateral kidney cancer.

The family considered keeping the news to themselves — spring break season offered an easy cover for limited hours in the wake of doctor-encouraged rest for Fig’s’ head, and only, chef.

“But I don’t have a rotating clientele — the same three guys have breakfast here every day,” Figueroa said. “They’re going to want to know where we’re at.”

The darkened restaurant took its toll on the family’s budget, and as much as the diagnosis loomed, Figueroa worried, too, that the illness would be the end of his dream restaurant.

Regulars couldn’t let that happen.

Leelanau locals banded together, filling Fig’s’ tables when the sign reads “open” — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and pooling every extra cent to keep the family afloat.

Help came from all corners. Corinn Kowalski, Lucee’s former kindergarten teacher at Leland Public School, started a GoFundMe for the family with fellow teacher Shannon Scott.

They raised more than $11,600 in two weeks and were more than halfway to their goal on the Fig’s Fight page.

“It’s the easiest way for many people to be able to reach out and help,” Kowalski said. “We’ll just keep sharing and spreading the word.”

Fig’s next-door neighbor, 9 Bean Rows, started selling mini loaves of fig sourdough touting the restaurant’s logo in flour. Proceeds from each sale went to the family.

“He’d do the same for anybody else,” said 9 Bean Rows Owner and Baker Jen Welty. “And it was a no-brainer, really, what kind of bread to make.”

Welty and baker Jack Cantlon spent days testing recipes and throwing around ideas for the perfect, fig-loaded loaf. The final product includes dried figs, walnuts and a bit of whole-wheat flour.

Batch No. 1 lasted a whole 15 minutes before selling out at a local farmers market, and locals scoop up more than 40 loaves a week from the 9 Bean Rows shop. Cantlon bakes up more whenever there’s time.

“We just make what we can,” Welty said. “And we’re going to keep making that until he’s cured.”

Little Traverse Inn hosts a fundraiser dinner for Figueroa in April with help from local chefs, and Fig’s’ staff have tried to lighten the family’s load.

“It’s amazing — you know, we moved out here and settled because we got the right feel,” Figueroa said. “What more could you dream of, if something like this had to happen?”

The longtime chef got his start at 13, slinging burgers at the likes of A&

W and Ruby Tuesday. He moved his craft to Gaylord after college and meeting Jaimee.

The pair dreamed of opening shop themselves — something Gaylord couldn’t offer them.

The west beckoned and off they drove, touring Holland and other vacation towns before a mesmerizing trek up Leelanau’s lakeshore.

“We drove up M-22 and said to each other, ‘Do you think we could actually live up here?” Figueroa said.

He toured several restaurants before the chance arose to realize that long-held dream with Fig’s. He and Jaimee built the menu around classic dishes and local ingredients, and sourcing much of their recipes from local farms came easily.

Figueroa found a home in Fig’s kitchen and his wife and children often joined him to cook.

For almost two years, life was perfect.

“I could die cooking and be a happy man, especially if I’m cooking alongside my family,” Figueroa said.

The first surgery will remove the mass from Figueroa’s left kidney, which formed near a major artery, in a partial nephrectomy in late April — about three weeks after Fig’s celebrated its second anniversary.

University of Michigan surgeons were to remove the second mass, if all goes well, from his right kidney in late June.

A success could leave Figueroa cancer-free — but it comes at the price of a six-week recovery period starting at the height of the summer rush.

“As a business owner who does 65 percent of my business in 10 weeks, missing six of those weeks — that’s my livelihood,” he said. “I honestly wasn’t sure what we were going to do.”

The money means less worry — and an offer from family to serve up Fig’s favorites in Figueroa’s stead means less financial strain.

Both are weights lifted.

“I don’t have to worry about the business, or losing our car or our house,” Figueroa said. “To lose (Fig’s) would be to lose our life. That’s what the community is doing for us.”