It’s a familiar scenario in Door County: Visitors are so smitten with the peninsula’s scenic beauty and postcard-quaint villages that they impulsively move here to open the bed-and-breakfast, restaurant or gift shop they’ve always dreamed of owning.
But those who’ve been there and done that will tell you that life does not magically morph into a cinematic montage of panoramic sunsets and friendly neighborhood fish boils. Instead, Door County entrepreneurs find themselves chained to a life of hard work that can test their relationships, fry their nest eggs and entail bouts of isolation.
Still, those who’ve succeeded say it’s well worth the effort.
Many of the Door’s successful entrepreneurs are gay men who faced the additional uncertainty of social acceptance when they left the shelter of urban enclaves to live in rural, Republican Wisconsin. The area owes much of its magic to their hard work and talent. God provided the scenery, but gay entrepreneurs have made significant contributions to the amenities that make this area a cherished destination.
Lifelong partners Darrin Day and Bryon Groeschl are literally Door County’s gay poster boys. Last year, the Door County Visitors Bureau asked the handsome owners of Sturgeon Bay’s popular Chanticleer Guest House to serve as models for a print advertising campaign targeting LGBT tourists through Midwest publications, including the Wisconsin Gazette. Recognizing the historic symbolism of the ads, the two agreed to do it.
After 20 years together, portraying a gay couple in an ad wasn’t much of a stretch for them. But when they first moved to the area in 1993, they say, it would have been unthinkable for the visitor’s bureau to invest in a campaign targeting gay tourists, and certainly not a campaign using the image of a same-sex couple lounging in their hotel room.
The couple says they were proud to be a part of the historic effort because they recognized the validating impact it could have, especially for young people struggling with their sexual identities.
In many ways, Day and Groeschl were uniquely prepared for lives as B&B owners.
Although they met at UW-Madison, both came from Wisconsin farming backgrounds and prefer the rural lifestyle. They’re able to survive the pressure of working together because they have the unusual good fortune of agreeing about nearly everything, they say.
“When Bryon and I go to pick out wallpaper for a room, we go our separate ways and each select three options,” Day says. “Then, when we get together to compare them, they’re always the same three.”
Thinking in synch comes in handy for a couple that’s together literally all the time. “We live and work and go to the gym together,” Day says.
They also share a strong work ethic and have the gay decorating gene operating in their favor. Their 70-acre property is immaculately landscaped and groomed. Their eight suites, divided between two buildings, are each distinctively outfitted with lovely period touches. (They also have four cabins for rent.) And their sumptuously simple breakfasts, often made with eggs and fruit from their property, are the very essence of the best sort of B&B experience.
Chanticleer Guest House was a success from the start, when the entire enterprise consisted of only four suites and one building, they say. Day, who was working as a dairy nutritionist for Land O’Lakes when they opened the inn, was able to quit his job the following year.
“I never think anything is going to fail,” Groeschl says. “I always think everything is going to work out, and it always has.”
Despite their success and positive attitude, the two do sometimes get a case of, well, cabin fever. They spend a lot of time with another gay male couple who own a nearby riding stable, but otherwise their social contact is largely limited to visitors. They’ve learned to cope by getting out of town once a month, often visiting cities with larger gay communities. In the winter, they fly to southern destinations, such as Miami – “places with palm trees,” Day says.
“Most of our friends from the big city shake their heads and say, ‘How do you do it?’” Day says. “Sometimes we feel like we’ve missed out on a whole gay life that other folks live. When we go to Chicago or Miami, it’s fun. But to live there day after day … I don’t know.”
Even though Day and Groeschl feel comfortable enough to have a giant rainbow flag hoisted at the entrance to their property, they say living as an openly gay couple in Door County is not as comfortable as in a place like Madison.
“I’m sure some people talk,” Groeschl says. “The neighbors we know love us, and the ones we don’t know leave us alone. We occasionally get (anti-gay) letters, but they’re always from church groups from another state.”
“We fit in,” Groeschl says. “We don’t wear dresses and we have a neat front yard. We’re not making out at the table in a restaurant. If we didn’t fit in, they wouldn’t accept us.”
Further up the peninsula in Ephraim, Geoff Yeomans and Bruce McKeefry began a life and a landscaping business together 30 years ago. Eventually, they opened a gardening store as a complement to the landscaping business, and that store evolved over the years into a bustling, cleverly merchandised home décor shop called, appropriately, McKeefry and Yeomans.
“I felt at some point in time we might not be wanting to work so hard in our landscaping business, so we opened the store,” McKeefry says. But, he adds, they quickly learned retailing isn’t any easier or less seasonal than landscaping.
Unlike Groeschl and Day, this couple says they occasionally “lock horns” over business matters.
“We’re in each other’s face 24 hours a day,” Yeomans says. “Sometimes the staff will call us ‘The Bickersons.’ But we make it work. We know when to back down and how to choose our battles.”
Their portion of Door County has changed over the past three decades, becoming less conservative and gay-friendlier, they say. “In the beginning, we just stuck to ourselves,” McKeefry says. But now, he adds, they enjoy a more expansive social life. New friendships include a number of gays from Milwaukee and other cities who have bought condos in the area.
The duo also is involved in local civic life. McKeefry, for example, sits on the board of the nationally acclaimed Peninsula Music Festival.
Although they operate a year-round business and work seemingly every waking minute during the summer, they say, the couple also enjoys a pastoral lifestyle that even Hallmark might envy. They live with a virtual petting zoo of welcoming pooches in a comfortable, country-style home on 40 acres of former farmland. Some of that acreage is devoted to a complex array of gardens that produce everything from garlic to zinnias. Aided by a staff of 10, the couple produces 30,000 to 40,000 annuals every year that wind up in the flowerbeds that encircle the area’s homes and businesses.
“Anywhere you drive around the community where you see a huge splash of color and a huge gay touch, we might have been involved in it,” McKeefry says.
At Chanticleer Guest House, autumn bustles with tourists in search of fall color at off-peak rates. At McKeefry and Yeomans, it’s Door County’s condo and second-home owners who keep the cash register ringing into late October. In late August, the store already is spilling over with Halloween table settings, Thanksgiving centerpieces and Christmas decorations. At McKeefry and Yeomans, these chronologically disparate items of merchandise are displayed so artfully that they seem to belong together.
Gay, as they say, is in the details.
It’s not until the dead of winter that business slows to a crawl, McKeefry says. To avoid the winter blues, he and Yeomans do a lot of skiing and snowshoeing. They also travel a good deal.
One of the couple’s favorite traveling companions is Nathan Nichols, an openly gay man who has accomplished the seemingly impossible: He’s created a furniture and home accessory business in tiny Bailey’s Harbor that has an international client base that includes famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. The industry publication Home Accents Today named Nathan Nichols & Company one of the world’s Top 50 “retail stars” for 2011.
How did a small business in Door County make such a splash on the international radar? “I have a thing for display,” Nichols says sheepishly, with a twinkle in his eye.
With the kind of merchandising talent Nichols possesses, he could have made his home anywhere – and he did travel around for a while before settling in Door County in 2000. At one point in time, he worked for Milwaukee’s Peabody’s Interiors. He has warehouses in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.
But Nichols decided to settle in Bailey’s Harbor because the natural beauty of the area reminded him of his native New England but the people of Door County are much friendlier, he says.
“The people here are the biggest reason I stay. They’re wonderful,” he says. “The people in Wisconsin actually say hi to you – in the grocery store, on the street.”
Like Day and Groeschl and McKeefry and Yeomans, Nichols let his business grow organically, starting with one building and then acquiring adjacent properties as demand grew. The small building he began with was constructed in 1887 as a barbershop. The circular imprint of the barber’s chair is still visible on the floor.
Nichols lives in a cozy flat above the former barbershop. Ingeniously designed, it looks like a Soho flat featured in Architectural Digest, except for the partial Lake Michigan view.
Downstairs, however, is the main attraction. “This is my life,” Nichols says, gesturing. The 6,000-square-foot showroom is filled with a combination of high-end furniture brands such as Baker and unique, one-of-a-kind items he finds during travels around the globe.
“When I started here, people said, ‘You’re never going to be able to sell a $5,000 sofa in Door County,’” Nichols remembers. In the last two years alone, however, he’s sold 29 Barbara Barry sofas, each for double that amount.
One of the ingredients in Nichols’ success formula, he says, is keeping his showroom dynamic. He wants to wow customers with a new experience every time they visit. To that end, he sells off one-third of his inventory every year during a blow-out sale and then re-arranges his entire showroom.
Nichols’ only complaint about Door County is that it gets lonely. In a place where the number of tourist brochures probably exceeds the permanent population, there aren’t a lot of dating opportunities for a middle-aged gay man. In winter, when his store is only open on weekends, Nichols spends most of his time reading and having dinner with friends. He does a considerable amount of traveling in the winter as well, often with McKeefry and Yeomans.
Partners Ron Perley and Jerry Spitz might have found the ultimate winter solution for gay life in Door County. They divide their year evenly between Chicago, where they maintain a home, and Egg Harbor, where they own the popular Mediterranean restaurant Trio.
Two decades ago, Perley was working for a bank in Chicago and Spitz was employed in the design industry when they made their fateful visit to the Door.
“We came up for a long weekend and decided there’s too much to do here for a weekend,” Perley says. So they went back. And back.
Eventually they became hooked on Egg Harbor as the perfect place to realize their dream of owning a restaurant. That was 19 years ago.
“We’re in the 19th year of our five-year plan,” Spitz jokes.
At the time they started Trio, most of the restaurants in Door County were supper clubs. “We asked local people if they thought a French/Italian restaurant would work in this environment,” Spitz says. Perhaps starved for something new, people overwhelming replied, “Please, please do it,” he remembers.
“Still, we were ready to start doing fish boils and pot roasts, if that’s what it took,” Spitz says.
Fortunately, they never had to implement their back-up plan, although the menu does feature such decidedly un-Mediterranean favorites as Door County cherry cobbler and Lake Michigan whitefish. With Perley as chef and Spitz as the manager of front-end operations, Trio was an instant hit with locals and tourists alike. It still gets rave reviews for its excellent and affordable fare, attractive decor and relaxed bistro ambience.
Trio is rated 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.com, making it Egg Harbor’s second highest-rated eatery.
Perley and Spitz open the restaurant every April and close for the winter in late October. They say the period between Labor Day and late October is their favorite time of the year. Then, they say, the visitors are more sophisticated and the crowds are smaller. The crisper nights make things feel cozy, and people seem to mellow with the softening light.
Tracking the colors
Want to know where to find the best fall colors in Wisconsin? Just check your smartphone.
The Wisconsin Department of Tourism has launched a mobile version of its Fall Color Report, making it accessible by smartphone.
The report tracks the progress as autumn comes to Wisconsin’s 16 million acres of forests. It provides updates from all 72 counties. Travelers can also submit their own reports of current conditions from their mobile devices.
You can also sign up for weekly e-mailed reports at www.travelwisconsin.com/fallcolor_report.aspx#/Report.