Seasoned store owners reclaim their market share

TORCH LAKE – After 20 successful years of running Ed’s Market in Elk Rapids and raising two daughters, Chris and Sonny Szejbach were ready to move on to greener pastures, as in the ones you putt on.

“We were tired of doing it,” Sonny said of managing Ed’s, a local favorite.

So the couple put the business up for sale in 1993 with plans on retiring South. To their surprise, the market sold straight away and they were officially “retired.”

“It happened way before we thought it would,” said Chris, which is probably why their retirement didn’t last as long as they thought it would either.

After only a winter away, the Szejbachs returned North. Sonny found a job with Northland Foods in Kalkaska, then took a position with Prevo’s in Traverse City. Chris went to work for TBA, working with disabled students.

A couple years passed before Prevo’s was bought out by Spartan Stores. New management began downsizing and offered Sonny the opportunity to manage its store.

“We just figured, if we’re going to manage a store, it might as well be our own,” Chris said.

About the same time, Twala’s Torch Crest Party Store in Torch Lake Village went up for sale. So, in January 2001, the Szejbachs took over ownership of the party store and were back in business for themselves. They renamed the store Sonny’s Torch Lake Market.

“It was the right timing for everyone involved,” said Chris.

Plans to keep the store small and focus on selling meat lasted a couple months until summer rolled around and its residents returned.

“We were so overwhelmed,” Chris said. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

They called in back-up, hiring their daughters Amy and Lisa, and son-in-law Matt. Chris said the girls grew up in a market and feel right at home helping out, cooking and making pizzas.

Local and summer residents were extremely receptive to a market located between Elk Rapids and Charlevoix, where they could pick up a bottle of wine to go with their tenderloin steak or whitefish pate.

“We thought we would have a couple years to establish our customer base, but it came a lot sooner than we thought,” Chris added.

It wasn’t long before Sonny’s added take-out pizza, ready-made sandwiches and a full deli. Gourmet chocolates came to Sonny’s in the spring of 2002 by the way of Becky Wheeler, who wanted to downsize her downtown Elk Rapids sweet shop.

“It’s been a good move,” she said. “This clientele supports gourmet chocolate.”

Plans are also in the works to add a full line of produce, stock 100 varieties of microbrews and offer ready-made sushi. According to Sonny, a local chef who hails from Japan will offer fresh sushi rolls.

“It’s just another option for people who want something different,” he said.

Adding to the market’s menu hasn’t been easy given the store’s location. Food service representatives have refused to trek as far north as Torch Lake for a start-up with small orders.

“We had a lot of headaches that first year,” Chris said. “We were at the tail end of everybody’s route.”

Determined to give their customers what they want, Chris would drive to Traverse City each day for fresh bread. But that got old, quick. And slowly, over time, Sonny’s has proven itself and proven that its worth the food rep’s time to deliver goods to the out-of-the-way place.

As more and more food products were added, less and less storage space was available to store them.

“We were cramped for space,” Chris said.

The Szejbachs decided to expand the market, nearly doubling its size and adding more seating for the restaurant. They went before Torch Lake Township with their plans and nine months later the board gave them the go-ahead.

Chris said they hope to have construction completed by June?just in time for their summer customers.

Besides running the market and cooking in the kitchen, Chris has also been busy getting the School House Antique and Gift store ready for the summer season.

She and Sonny acquired the antique shop last year from a dear friend who could no longer make the long drive north. Besides antiques, Chris has added greeting cards, candles, puzzles and sweatshirts to sell.

It’s been a place of discovery for her. Not only has Chris been researching information on the antiques, but many people have shared their stories of the school house that house them.

“Every day is like a new discovery,” she said. “They’re not all monetary treasures, but they have historic value that’s priceless.”

Besides the good food, customers frequent Sonny’s because they feel comfortable there and are treated like family.

“I like Sonny’s because they’re so friendly and they really seem to care about their customers,” said one local customer.

It’s hard to find a family-run market or grocery store these days. Most range in size from several football fields to a small country and include everything from artichokes to welding rods. It’s difficult for little guys, like the Szejbachs, to compete.

But Sonny’s has found its niche along Torch Lake, serving up whatever customers want.

“We took about 10 years off, but we all missed it,” Chris admitted. BN