On the winding Dunn’s Farm road, east of Big Glen Lake, sits The Foothills Café and Motel — a reassuring “blast from the past” in this ever-changing region. Locals and seasonal residents, alike, have come to depend on The Foothill’s consistency for more than 50 years. Although the business has changed hands several times, neither the café nor the motel has lost any of its charm.
Last July a trio from downstate and Ohio — Paul Staber, Shari Bernstein, and Shirley Cheney — acquired The Foothills from previous owner Don Sielaff after they happened upon the café in whimsical fashion. The three were on vacation in Leelanau County and stopped to enjoy a hearty breakfast. Cheney ordered the pancakes, which, as fate would have it, tasted exactly like the pancakes her father used to make her. Sitting in the baby blue booths, among the Vanagon statues, Manitou Music Festival posters, and retro-red chairs, Cheney looked around, and said, “This feels like home.”
Needless to say, the three were charmed enough to stay. They were already thinking about buying a bed and breakfast, but they had planned to wait until this year so that Bernstein’s son could graduate high school. Instead, when Cheney’s husband passed away, and they saw the Foothills, everything fell into place. She already felt a special connection to the area — not to mention the pancakes. “Don made them like my dad,” she says, then points her thumb at Staber in the kitchen. “Now he does them just like my dad.”
When I arrived at the Foothills one recent afternoon, the lunch crowd was just finishing up. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the café advertizing Higher Grounds coffee, underneath hanging flowers. I immediately felt relieved to escape the mid-afternoon heat that this summer had dealt us, though I felt a little silly toting my laptop into this old-fashioned, historic setting, which sported a 1968 photograph of the café and motel above my booth.
Bernstein brought me tea and a French dip sandwich to eat while she looked for Staber. Suddenly the wireless Internet signal appeared, and Staber showed up wearing a humble smile and checkered chef’s pants. “Sorry,” he said, “I was just enabling the wireless.”
Soon the lunch rush departed, and I was the only person in the Café. After chatting with the Foothills’ new owners, I focused my attention on the French dip sandwich. I’d eaten breakfast here before, so I was excited about trying lunch. The breakfasts, by the way, are quite good. The Foothills’ most famous items are the Eggs Benedict (from Don Sielaff’s days, in particular), the cherry pancakes, and the new additions to the old menu: chocolate chip pancakes and cinnamon rolls. But back to lunch: I hadn’t eaten a French dip in years. And this was the best one I’ve ever had. Served with potato chips and Au Jus, the Foothills’ roast beef sandwich on a toasted roll is certainly worth a journal entry.
While devouring the sandwich, sipping tea, taking notes and studying the Foothills’ new website, www.foothillsofglenlake.com, I couldn’t help but enjoy the background chatter of Staber and Bernstein. After lunch, Cheney walked over from the motel to join me.
Cheney manages the motel, while Staber is the cook, and Bernstein facilitating the wait staff. A small and energetic woman, Cheney explained that they all help each other with specific tasks. “We come from very different walks of life,” said Cheney. Before this venture, Bernstein was a chemical dependency councilor, and Staber ran a lock-down treatment facility in Toledo, Ohio.
“Yes, and we’re all well educated at some level,” added Bernstein. “But we’re all at the stage of life where we just want to have fun,” laughed Cheney in response. “We’re all a little bit off, but we’re here to enjoy life!”
Cheney and Bernstein teamed up to tell me a bit about the history of the Foothills, dispelling some myths along the way. The place was constructed by one Mr. Foot in the late fifties: first the motel, then the café. A swimming pool was constructed so that Foot’s children could play in the water without him having to take them to the beach. The next owner added the café because she would cook breakfast for the guests in her own kitchen.
At some point a Chicago mobster owned it. It was rumored that there were bodies buried in the concrete where the pool used to be. But when the pool was removed, no bodies were found. Rumor also had it that this mobster would get drunk on occasion and throw all of his bottles against the side of the apartment. The three new owners found broken glass in a pile inches deep.
Aside from scraping that glass away and clearing up some truths, Staber, Bernstein and Cheney have other plans for the Foothills. They hope to integrate more local foods and add an espresso machine, which they hope will create an environment for locals to enjoy during the down season.
“I couldn’t come to a better part of the world to live, and that’s part of the reason we came here,” explains Bernstein, exchanging a happy glance with Staber. “With everything that’s going on with the world we just wanted to create a little bit of peace, good coffee, and a little bit of charm … when I’m not in a bad mood.”
With that she laughs and goes back to organizing and cleaning up for the next lucky customer.