Written by Kate Vilter for the Boardman Review Issue 04
Leland is a part of the fabric of my family. My paternal grandparents and great aunts first bought property on Lake Leelanau in the 1930’s. They built two cottages next to each other during the war. Our family has been spending our summers here since that time. My maternal grandparents started renting summer cottages in the 1950’s, and purchased their cottage in the 1960’s. My parents are both from Cincinnati, but never met in their hometown. My father was picking up my Aunt Sherrie for a date when they first met on the dock my grandparent’s lake cottage. They were married in Leland at the Methodist church, with the reception at the Leland Lodge. Years later, my two sisters and I would also marry in that church. All three of us would also have some part of their wedding weekend at The Riverside Inn.
As a child, we left Cincinnati every June after the spring semester ended at the University of Cincinnati where my father was a professor and the head of the English department. We usually arrived by June 20 and left as late as we could, sometimes as late as August 30th. As children we fished with our paternal grandfather everyday (sometimes twice in a day), gardened with our father, sailed with our maternal grandfather, and canoed along the shoreline with our friends. We went to sailing school, tennis clinics and golf clinics. We dropped everything for calm water – hitting the lake to practice our slalom skiing. Summers were idyllic in Lake Leelanau.
My sisters and I were expected to work when we became teenagers. There were gas bills for the boat and typical teenage things that we were expected to pay for. I was 12 when I chose my first job as breakfast waitress at the Riverside Inn. Kevin and Sue Burns were the owners at that time. My older sister had worked for Bobbie and Ed Collins, the previous owners. I wanted the breakfast shift so I would have the rest of the afternoon to be on the beach or boats. Several mornings a week, I would canoe out to our Lyman and boat across the lake to work. The Lyman was my father’s boat as a teenager, and now it was ours. Our boat did not have a lift on the dock (only the ski boat), so we used a canoe to paddle out to the buoy. Opening servers had to be at The Inn at 6am, and amazingly, I was never late.
A kitchen can be a tough place for a young person. Rules are strict, and for good reason. It can be very chaotic place and rules maintain a semblance of order. Chefs can be brutal (and were especially in the ‘80’s and 90’s ) – even in Leland. Butter had to be spread on the toast perfectly. Oranges had to be juiced. Homemade jams were presented in special dishes. It was a lot to learn for a 12-year-old. And that was just the back of the house!
For a server, breakfast is often the most difficult to master. Diners want coffee, a juice, water, eggs done to their liking, different toast choices, sausage or bacon. It is a lot to manage for anyone, much less a 12 year old. I have plenty of dinner servers currently who refuse to work brunch shifts as it is such a different style of service. As my first foray into the restaurant world, working the breakfast shift was an eye opener, and likely influenced my management style.
I worked as a waitress or bartender throughout my high school and college years. In the summers, I arrived as early in the season as I could to get the best jobs in town. I worked at the Leland Lodge and the Cove, and often had second jobs at shops in Fishtown. While Cincinnati was home, Leland was almost more important than that. Summers were filled with hard work, but as teenagers, we really knew how to enjoy our free time on the lake or beaches. The friendships created during those years have been the most important in my life.
My mother and I started The Riverside Inn as a 3-6 year project. I was running away from the Washington DC and the law school, realizing that I just couldn’t see myself behind a desk for the rest of my life. My mother had always dreamed of owning a B&B, and we talked about it over wine regularly. Post college, I lived in Key West and ran small hotel properties until I landed back in DC preparing for the LSAT and managing a downtown restaurant. Something clicked in me, and I decided that law was not my future. A friend casually mentioned that the Riverside Inn was for sale. When I brought the idea to my mother, she was thrilled.
The purchase was not easy. Clayton Weeks, formerly of Woody’s in Northport, was difficult at best. The purchase agreement was changed many times. Just weeks before the closing, he tried to get out of the deal, and take another offer. But, by mid-March, 1997, my mother and I were in Leland signing the documents. At first, we didn’t know where we would be able to find a chef, but eventually, I landed on the idea of hiring an ex-boyfriend of mine. For weeks he had been giving me advice about the inn. I finally asked if he wanted to come north and run it for one season, until we could find someone local. He agreed, and he arrived in early April.
We wanted to be open by Mother’s Day, which gave us 6 weeks. The to-do list was massive. The bar and foyer had been wallpapered in a Laura Ashley green floral design, and the side dining room was a bright peach. We didn’t have the money to hire these things out. If we could do it ourselves, we did it. So our crew of friends and family stripped wallpaper and painted for weeks. The kitchen was interesting, to say the least. When Clayton left it in the fall, he knew he was selling, so he just walked away. They did not have a cleaning day after their last night, so it was truly horrible. Refrigerators still had months-old food in them. Trying to be open by Mother’s Day proved to be a nearly impossible task, but our team pulled it off. It has been that way ever since. Somehow, we make things happen when most would give up.
When we started off, we were anything but knowledgeable about the food industry. We really were a group of young adults who loved good food, and of course adult beverages. We all had some experience, but not really enough for what we were embarking on. We were lifelong friends with fisherman, farmers, and foragers. So we naturally worked with our friends for menu inspiration. The farm to table movement today is something of a newer trend, but when you live in an agricultural region, it’s a logical practice. It’s actually rather offensive to not use your neighbors produce, fish, cheese, or morels. And sometimes there is a bit of a dance you have to do to make sure everyone is represented on your menu or wine list, and no one feels slighted.
Our first years were a blur of insane work weeks, lots of mistakes, and great friends. At the same time, we had very fun times at the Bluebird after work and spent our days off on the lake whenever we could. Our lack of experience or knowledge just made us work harder. After a few years, things began to click a bit more. The food elevated almost every year, but the only way to sustain it was a kitchen renovation. It was a major undertaking, as it was a complete overhaul of the kitchen layout, structural issues, all new equipment, excavating for basement (wine cellar!), and making the public bathrooms handicap accessible. It was an extremely difficult renovation between structural problems and timing, but it was well worth it. This was the winter of 2001, and it immensely improved the kitchen ability. We doubled the size of the kitchen, increasing refrigeration space, adding a freezer, increasing prep space and general cooking areas. It was amazing. This allowed us to seat more people every night as we had more space to keep perishable food and more space for people in the kitchen preparing the dinners. This was when The Riverside Inn began being what it is today. From this point forward, it seemed that we improved not just the food, but also the service and the beverage programs.
The second renovation to the inn was just in 2017. This was very personal to me. The inn had long lost its luster and I was beginning to lose my passion for the place as well. It was quaint, and charming, but it was not me. It didn’t fit my personality. Additionally, there were so many things that needed replacing. We had talked about it for years, and even came close one year to pulling the trigger, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the designs or the ability to get the job done in time. This time we found the two pieces that I didn’t have before – a fabulous designer, who truly specialized in restaurants, and a great builder. The bar was the biggest part of the equation. We long wanted a larger bar, draft systems, and more refrigeration. The overhead liquor storage was the part that scared all of us – if it didn’t work, it would be an albatross. But, it all came together perfectly. The space is modern, yet still works with the historical nature of the inn. Our seating capacity has increased, and our bar space has increased. The new style suits my personality, and I am once again passionate and very proud of it.
Even with the both renovations increasing our kitchen and seating capacities, and thus our
staff size, we are still small group. And we have always grown close quickly. There really has not been a season in 21 years that I have not absolutely adored our staff. Of course there have been bad hires, but by in large, our staff is family to me. Those in the restaurant industry are, in general, something of a different breed. Our tribe is often an assortment of misfits. Many have tried an office-type job, and it just isn’t for them. Others just love good food, and most of us thrive on the intensity of the work. A few are just a part of the industry because the hours are flexible, and the server pay is good. Usually once in the industry for a while, it’s hard to leave. The band of misfits becomes family, burns and cuts become a badge of honor, commiserating over end-of-shift cocktails is the best therapy, and you realize you are here to stay.
Many of our staff return year after year, and almost everyone stays in touch with us after they move on. Work family has also become real family in many ways. Truly – Jen Kareck and Libby Stanton are sisters who have worked for me for at least 13 years. Libby’s two sons both work in our kitchen now. Claire, another manager, and I are now sisters-in-law. And her son is bussing tables. All of my nieces and nephews have worked for me, and now my son is beginning to wash dishes – standard labor laws don’t apply to family operations!
Before I was a year-round resident, Leland was a vital part of my life. Now, it is everything. My son attends Leland Public school, and I am an active part of the amazing teacher and parent community that makes LPS so special. I have been president of the chamber twice now, and I have run the Leland Wine & Food Festival for the last 10 years. The Leland Harbor dredge fundraiser was my fast and furious $250,000 project for the winter of 2017 (along with a renovation at the inn).
Like Leland has been for my family for generations, the Riverside Inn has become a part of the fabric of this town and of my life. I cut my teeth on the restaurant industry within its walls and shed blood, sweat and tears behind it’s doors. It’s a place of everyday celebration - family dinners, date nights, drinks with friends. It is a place of life changing celebration as well - marriages, births, deaths. All facets of life converge over a strong drink, a good meal and the welcome arms of the people who work here. I am forever grateful for the 6am boat rides that delivered me home all those years ago.