Leelanau institutions welcome summer

LEELANAU COUNTY – John VanRaalte, owner of Van's Garage in Leland, can tell you the exact moment that summer arrives in Leelanau County: It's when he takes Big Bertha out of storage. Big Bertha is the name of an antique Chevy station wagon belonging to a Leland summer family. She is of indiscriminate color and vintage-"greenish tan maybe, with more moss and mold than anything, probably from the '50's" – and VanRaalte makes sure she starts. That's just one of the responsibilities of carrying on the business his grandfather started in 1933.

"We're general mechanics, but we do specialty, vintage, and auto racing work, too," VanRaalte said. "What do we owe our longevity to? Stubbornness, probably. Persistence too, and a very good customer base."

In the tiny waiting room you can flip through copies of Auto Week or House and Garden, and on the counter is a bowl of candy and a jar of dog biscuits. Outside are a couple of gas pumps VanRaalte keeps going just as a convenience to the town; inside are eight repair bays.

With working wheels, a short drive north will take you past Fischer's Happy Hour Tavern. Whether you're taking the curves on M-22 like a Fudgie or like a Formula One driver, just when the ripples of green leaves and grass alongside the road seem like they're going to go on forever, there it is.

In the winter, this tavern just looks like a little white house tucked in the woods. In the summer though, it is a little white house tucked in the woods and circled by dozens of cars and trucks, with a line of people snaking its way out the door and into the parking lot.

They come for the house salad. They come for the chicken noodle soup. They come for the draft beer. And mostly, they come for a slice of owner Lori Fischer's heavenly raspberry pie.

"Oh yeah, that's what gets them," she said. "Try it once and you're going to want it again. I've had people tell me they drove all the way from the West Coast for a piece of that pie."

The Happy Hour, as locals call the place, has been in the Fischer family for 36 years. Lori and her husband, Paul, have been running it for 23 of those years, cooking, bartending, waiting tables and greeting customers. Their two daughters and assorted nieces and nephews have worked wherever they're needed, making it a truly family atmosphere. Lori excels at baking pies; Paul's special forte is shaking martinis. Sometimes, the braver customers even try them together.

"We've always left the menu the same, year after year, because consistency has worked well for us," said Lori. "People craving the same chicken noodle soup with the homemade noodles I make every Monday can come back a year or two later, and know they're going to get it."

No Food Channel fads here, just some of the best home-cooked meals of the summer. Don't let the line deter you-Lori says she and Paul are ready and anxious for the summer crowds.

South into Empire is another Tavern that has been a fixture for decades in Leelanau County: Joe's Friendly Tavern now owned by former manager, Frank Lerchen. Lerchen, too, has a simple theory about what has kept the Tavern part of the Leelanau County landscape for nearly seventy years. "The hamburgers!"

Try the Blue Cheese Burger with steak fries. Just make sure to ask waitress Jill Fitzhugh for extra napkins.

"There have only been four owners since the place opened in the 1940s," said Lerchen. "I think my secret is that you've got to keep the menu diverse. Great hamburgers of course, and the old standards for the kids, but more unique items, too," such as veggie patties, tasty salads and a wide variety of sandwiches.

Over in Suttons Bay, Bahle's department store has been providing classic fine clothing to farmers, summer residents, children and professionals since 1876. It is the oldest family department store in the county, according to Owen Bahle, and one of the oldest family businesses in the whole state.

"Bahle's was started in 1876 by my great grandfather, Lars Bahle. It has passed from Lars to my grandfather, Otto, and to my father, Owen, and now to myself and my four brothers," said Lois Bahle.

Like many enterprises it struggled during the 1930s, but the store has had continued success in its 130-year history. A family history video tells of an early marketing method of the founder, Lars; he would give empty wooden egg crates to the women shoppers of the area, and they in turn would bring them back filled with eggs to trade and shop for soap, sugar, coffee and other supplies.

"My parents worked lots of hours without complaint," said Chris Bahle, offering one explanation for the businesses' longevity.

Next door is The Bay Theatre, founded in 1946, which the Bahle family purchased in 1976, completed a renovation and added stage facilities by 1978. Today the theatre provides seating for 271 and specializes in first-run, independent and foreign films. The original hardwood floors and circ-1940s seats make the audience feel like they are back at the turn of the century. At least for a couple of hours.

If you're in Lake Leelanau and need supplies, stop in at NJs Grocery, founded in 1912. Named for the patriarch of the Plamondon family, who were longtime owners of the store, the cozy storefront located just past The Narrows carries produce, groceries, beer, wine, and liquor, as well as greeting cards. You can even drop your film off to be developed here, and there's a butcher shop in the back.

Need a place to stay? If it isn't booked up, try the little red cabins on the shore of Little Glen Lake. Sunset Glen Resort was built in 1954, and the place has been owned for the past 30 years by Pat Alonzi, who moved north from Warren with her husband to take over the place after vacationing there for more than a decade. Her husband died 12 years ago, but Pat runs the place on her own now.

"We always stayed in Cabin One," Alonzi laughs. "Each cabin has its own dock and its own boat. The people that come here come back all the time. I've watched their kids grow up, watched them go off to college, get married and now they're returning with their own kids. They're more like friends and family, honest to goodness."BN