Small Town Power Couple

From a single corner store, Merrie and Chris Corbett have launched a small empire — retail, restaurant, golf, and lodging — that’s taken the tiny village of Central Lake, population 952, from map dot to destination.

Merrie Corbett says her lifelong love of Central Lake began when she was just nine or 10 years old, traveling Up North with her aunt and uncle to camp on her Grandfather Adams’ Central Lake property.

Six decades later, that lifelong love has since become her livelihood, as she and her husband, Chris, have since entrenched themselves in the region as full-time residents and owners of multiple familiar businesses: the retail shop Adams Madams and The Blue Pelican Inn & Restaurant in Central Lake, The Chief golf course and The Pelican’s Nest sports bar in Bellaire, and two vacation rental properties, including a custom-built, four-bedroom log cabin known as The Roost.

The Corbetts didn’t set out to become business owners several times over here; when they first bought a home in Central Lake, they were just looking to spend more time in the area, traveling up from their home in Virginia for a few months of the year to see family in their beloved northern Michigan.

But then an empty storefront in a historic brick building, which had sat vacant for years on the corner of Main and State streets in downtown Central Lake, caught Merrie’s eye. Since moving to town she’d felt a need for a shop where people could buy clothing, jewelry and art, and that stately old corner store, built in the late 1800s, was just the spot for it. At first the store’s owner didn’t want to sell, but then one night, out of the blue, Merrie got a call — the owner had changed his mind and was looking to sell in 30 days. An offer was made, the business was purchased, and Adams Madams opened in 2002, eventually expanding to include books, home decor and “just a little bit of everything,” she said.

As it turned out, Adams Madams didn’t just fill a retail need in the Central Lake community, it became the catalyst for the Corbetts’ other ventures. With Merrie spending increasingly more time at the store, Chris was “a little bit bored,” she said; so when an opportunity arose to purchase a restaurant along the east side of Torch Lake, the Corbetts jumped at the chance, opening the seafood-focused Blue Pelican restaurant.

A twist of fate came along in 2008, when a fire ripped through the restaurant, leaving it unsalvageable. Just as the Corbetts were wondering whether to rebuild, word got out around town that the owners of Murphy’s Lamplight Inn — a stalwart Central Lake establishment in a building dating to the early 1900s — were looking to sell. Instead of rebuilding after the fire, the Corbetts became the newest owners of that legacy property, which is now the seven-room Blue Pelican Inn & Restaurant.

Other businesses came and went for the Corbetts along the way: at one time they owned two other small restaurants on Main Street in Central Lake, which didn’t pan out. When Chris decided he wanted to own a golf course, he purchased The Chief in Bellaire, where the Corbetts established the Pelican’s Nest bar and grill. “My husband’s that way,” said Merrie. “He doesn’t like to sit down much.”

Merrie readily admits that finding success in a small, seasonal-economy town hasn’t been easy. But she attributes the success of Adams Madams, and the Corbetts’ other endeavors, to a few key factors.

First, she said, it’s been important for their businesses to be steady and follow through, so that customers — and the community — know they can count on them.

“We don’t just open up when we feel like it; we have hours. We can be reliable,” she said. “Those are important things for anyone in business.”

The second thing she mentions is paying attention to the little details: A friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable staff. The care that goes into, say, making a lovely window display. Stocking unique products that people can’t find at big-box stores. Even being animal friendly — at Adams Madams, customers are welcome to walk in with their leashed pups.

And finally, she attributes much of their success to their involvement in the community. When someone first moves to a tight-knit town, as Merrie and her husband did, “people don’t know you from anybody,” Merrie said. “They don’t know whether to trust you and whether you’re going to be here one day and gone the next.” The Corbetts became deeply involved in Central Lake, from the Chamber of Commerce to the schools to volunteer work with animal rescue, a food pantry and their church.

“It means a lot to people that you have allegiance to the community and you’re fighting for the town to survive,” she says. “You’re willing to go through good times and bad times together.”

When asked if there are any new businesses on the horizon for the Corbett, Merrie laughs a little. After all, busy as they are, she and Chris are technically retired. The only “new” endeavor she mentions is the desire to spend a little more time enjoying that retirement, possibly by doing some traveling. But, she says, they couldn’t stay away from Central Lake for long, not just because of all their business ties here, but because this is their home.

“This is where we’re grounded,” she said.