Three decades of “Roasting up here”

Photo: Steve and John Arens opened the Leland Breakfast Bistro in 2021.

John Arens, co-owner with his brother Steve of the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company, reflects on 30 years of running their iconic business in Glen Arbor during a time of rapid growth and visibility. The Coffee Roasters will host a celebration on Saturday, June 24, in the closed-off parking lot in front of the café. Stop by for live music, coffee drinks and specials.

The Glen Arbor that greeted me that cold (yet VERY sunny) mid-February day of 1993 was likely rather different than that which most people who visit today are familiar.

First of all: It was quiet. Almost deathly quiet. Virtually no one was in town. The air that settled in over Sleeping Bear Point must have been held down with lead weights, it was so quiet. And, of course, the shallow bay out in front of The Landing (now Le Bear Resort) was all frozen over, with ice mountains as far as the horizon, so the constant “woosh” of the waves was silent. And the sun was blindingly brilliant, all lemon yellow and cyan. Altogether a perfect northern Michigan winter day.

Steve wanted me to take a look at a small space he’d found to rent a block off the main street, just down from Art’s Tavern. Did it fit our criteria for opening a coffee roasting shop? Mostly, it was vacant, and “for rent,” so, yeah: It met our criteria. That, and there was indoor plumbing, heat, a 200-amp electrical service—and it was less than $400 a month. And, as it turned out, it was offered for tenancy by an old friend of Steve’s from earlier days, who had worked with him a few years prior: Bob Sutherland had been a waiter while Steve worked in the kitchen at The Red Pine, a little cafe in Glen Arbor that, in later years, became the Good Harbor Grill.

So, at Steve’s invitation, I traveled north that weekend from my advertising gig downstate, and snooped around the little shop. Bob was offering to sub-lease a part of the building he was renting from Steve Heller, who had recently vacated the space as his humble sign-shop. Like, 600 square feet or so, a concrete floor, perfect for some renovating. That shop—the first location of the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company—is now part of the Cherry Republic Public House brew-pub. But, back then: Bob hung out with Steve and me (and his dog Keats) while I checked out the fuse panel, stuck my head under the lone sink in the odd little elevated toilet-room, and declared it would “do just fine.”

And thus: Over the next several months, Steve and I went to work, installing countertops and class “A” chimney pipe, carpets and hot-water dispensers. And, by Memorial Weekend of 1993, the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co, 6026 S. Lake Street, Glen Arbor, MI 49636, was ready for our first customers. And we DID have first customers.

We made $56 our first day. We were astonished, primarily because we didn’t sell cups of coffee, only pounds of coffee beans to unsuspecting wanderers-by. And the beans we sold were WEIRD: Yrgacheffe. Monteverde Naturale. Sidamo. No one could pronounce them—but we sold them anyway. The second day, we sold $130, DOUBLING our haul from the first day.

The next day folded into the next. And the next. And here we are, 30 years later. We’ve met some terrific people along the way in our little piece of Valhalla: Kate, and Rose and The Dodge Boy. And Jacob and Julia. And Suzanne and Tump and Ben and Andy and Bob and Mike and Victoria. And on and on and on, the years tumbled by, at once almost imperceptibly, until the memories are so rich and thick and varied I can scarcely keep track anymore: Was that 1997? or 2007? 2017?

Thank you, Glen Arbor, and Leelanau County: Two numbskulls from downstate showed up when a cup of coffee was 45 cents at the gas station, and very few people north of Chicago even knew what a “cappuccino” was—but you welcomed us in, and we made a home. And the place has smelled like toast over-cooking ever since.