Lanesboro business owners look back before looking forward
Wednesday, May 01, 2013 3:50 AM
"The Avenue" - Parkway, Lanesboro's main drag - is coming alive again. Though a bit later this year, sure signs of spring and a new tourist season are popping up all over, not just on the main street but also at the other businesses and B&Bs scattered around the town.
Robbie Brokken is ready to welcome visitors into the Lanesboro Art Center this summer as the tourist season begins to pick up.
The windows are getting a spring wash, there's some painting and fixing, and in general, sprucing up after a long winter. And the "help wanted" signs are a sure predictor of what is coming.
While some owners do stay open all year, many do not. Even though they may be officially closed, they are still working: like the old saying that "a woman's work is never done," neither is a small business owner's.
Debriefing, and laughing about, the last season
A wise person once said something like "if you don't look back to the past, you will never know how far you have come."
That's certainly true for small businesses. Since there are no higher bosses to give a promotion for good work, people who run their own businesses have to find ways to give themselves that much-needed pat on the back. A good way to do that is to look back.
One of the largely-unexpected results of looking back is experiencing a lot of laughs. Many of those come, granted, at the expense of visitors to the area, due to unfamiliarity with either the area or the experience.
John Hungerholt, owner and operator of the Highway 250 Campground near Lanesboro, said he often wonders how to respond to some of the questions he gets. "What do you say to the man who is standing on the edge of the river, looking down at it and up at the bluffs right overhead, and says 'Exactly where is this Root River Valley?'"
Hungerholt said the best response he could think of at the moment was, "Well, not too far away."
Hungerholt has had a lot of practice answering questions at his campground. He said there were two women visitors, about 20 years old or so and obviously from the city. They asked about cow tipping, which is people going out at night when the cows are sleeping standing upright, and tipping them over.
Hungerholt responded that no, we don't do that around here, but couldn't resist adding, "But snipe hunting at night works."
The people at the next campsite were listening in on the conversation, and said they'd never heard of snipe hunting. So, later that night, Hungerholt took five of them out on the trail, outfitted with bags and flashlights, and got them all lined up down on their knees. He told them to keep their flashlights shining on their bags, and shake the bags once in a while. The snipe will hear the noise and jump in.
He moved a little ways away, and soon he jumped up, and shaking his closed bag, exclaimed, "I got mine right away," and he left.
He said that after about a half hour or so they came back to the campground with their lights off and empty bags, realizing they had been duped. They all got a big laugh, and became repeat customers.
Robbie Brokken of the Lanesboro Arts Center told about the funniest thing that happened in the retail gallery this last summer.
"A couple came in and I recognized the husband and said, 'Welcome back.'" She said his wife got visibly upset. It continued, because all of the storekeepers were giving him a big "Welcome back" greeting.
As it turned out, he was a real look-alike of someone who frequently visits Lanesboro, but he and his wife had never been to this town or the gallery before. "His wife was sure he came to Lanesboro with another woman. Pretty funny!" Brokken added.
After awhile, customer contact people become pretty accustomed to seeing the unusual. Then that becomes the usual and it doesn't even phase them.
At the Old Barn Resort, co-owner Shirley Endres told about a very busy Saturday, mid-fall, when "you'd think you'd seen it all by then, but...." She and Katie Harstad, another long-time "seasoned" employee, were waiting tables; Mary Tufte was at the front desk, and Jenna Trende was just arriving for the shift change. A woman walked in "just like normal" and said that there were about 10 or 12 coming in for lunch: "I'll be outside waiting for them."
Harstad didn't blink an eye, and efficiently went about finding enough space for them to sit together. When she got back to the bar area, Trende asked her, "What was that lady wearing on her head?"
Harstad started laughing, because she realized it hadn't even phased her a bit. "I think it's a duct tape engineer's cap!?"
It was indeed a homemade duct tape engineer's cap, and the whole dozen of the group had the same kind on when they arrived.
Endres added, "Just goes to show that after a number of years of seeing characters, some things appear normal to us!"
Humor is a great tension reliever, as long as it is positive humor. For Hungerholt and his campers, he sets the tone by having quick and witty comebacks, but never a put-down.
When people ask what his rules are, he answers, "I only have one. Don't p--- me off!" Laughing together, people feel more welcome and are more likely to come back.
At the Old Barn, the group wearing the duct-tape engineer hats were already laughing when they came in, and the Old Barn crew only needed to join in to make their customers' experience even better. Employees who laugh - together and with their customers - suffer less burn-out by the end of the season, and customers who laugh come back.
Every season brings challenges
Given the pace of the high season, having to be present all the time makes burn-out a constant challenge. That burn-out can lead to many other "people" challenges, notably the frustration that accompanies having to respond, over and over, to visitors' lack of experience and/or knowledge.
Hungerholt's style of using humor has set the tone and expectation for his campground's mini-culture. Two young women campers, with a new car and all new camping equipment, were going into town for the evening to sample the local night life.
In the morning, he was out walking the property, and they stopped him. "That was sure mean, what you did last night," they said.
He responded, "I didn't do anything. What happened?"
"You don't know what happened?" they queried. "No."
"It was so rough that we couldn't sleep!"
So Hungerholt looked, and found chunks of wood under their sleeping bags. "I knew their campsite neighbors," he reported, "and had seen them talking to the women the night before. So I told them they may want to ask their neighbors about the wood."
The women responded, "They wouldn't do that! They're really fun people, laughing all the time."
Hungerholt said, "Yeah, that is understandable."
The neighbors "fessed up" to the deed, and everyone laughed.
Hungerholt summed it up: "Every weekend I think 'I've seen it all now.' Then another weekend comes. I just don't know what to expect!"
The people are the rewards
As challenging as the high season is, or could be, most of the business people talked about how lucky they are.
Brokken pointed out that people come here "happy and excited." Personally, she takes great satisfaction from "sharing the rewards of art in one's life, sharing stories about the artists, helping them pick out something that they love, and hearing our customers' enthusiasm."
She personally sees working at the non-profit Lanesboro Art Center as "a marriage of passion and good business practices." It's a "lifestyle choice...we're all broke, but edified."
Margaret Molyneaux, owner and innkeeper at the 1898 Inn, said she is "very, very grateful to have had no, absolutely no, 'problem guests,' just a few entertaining ones!"
She added, "B&B guests are so appreciative, they are grateful for the unexpected little treats, the attention to details, and the feeling that they are being cared for by innkeepers who anticipate their needs."
Endres at the Old Barn said the most rewarding thing is "All of the interesting people you meet and talk to! It's an ever-changing exchange of stories!"
Hungerholt is also rewarded through the people who come: "happy, relaxed people who just want to have fun" and repeat business. He added another rewarding thing is that "campers are the best cooks in the world!" He is often invited to eat with the campers, and so he never has to cook for himself on the weekends.
Like others, Roger Baker, owner and operator of the Chat 'N Chew Restaurant, sees the people as the most rewarding aspect of being a business owner in Lanesboro. He too enjoys repeat business, which means he gets to know them well. He said there is "no need to start a conversation, because it starts as soon as people come in the door. People enjoy themselves."
Melinda Coscarelli Lutes, owner of the Coffee Street Fitness and Dance, has a mission that is a little different, but the rewards are similar. She finds great satisfaction in being able to help people get healthy and fit, and achieve their potential. Because it is rewarding to her clients, it is also rewarding to her.
Marv Eggert, co-owner and innkeeper at the Hillcrest Hideaway B&B, used a contrast example to describe what is most rewarding for him and spouse Carol: when they lived in Chicago, and listened to the 10 p.m. news about the crime and drug problems all around, they "got a jaded view of our fellow humans. Coming here, meeting so many genuinely nice, honest, friendly people" rejuvenated their faith in humanity.
Winter is time to rejuvenate
Speaking of rejuvenation, the pace and tempo of the high tourist season in Lanesboro means there must be time for re-charging, and that is true even for those businesses who stay open right through the winter. The Eggerts take a full week off shortly after the high season and just get away. They also take time for themselves during the summer, when they use an occasional day off to stay overnight at their recreational vehicle, which is permanently parked in Houston.
Hungerholt rejuvenates by spending two weeks in Jamaica. There, he walks the beach, his favorite thing to do, covering seven to 10 miles every day.
When asked if he thinks about the business during that two weeks, he admitted, "I don't really go away: I take my laptop along." One thing he uses the laptop for during that two weeks is to check the weather back up north in Minnesota, which by itself is another way to get rejuvenated.
Baker at the Chat 'N Chew is open all winter, seven days a week, and only closes on the major holidays. In the summers, he gets away - just up the hill - for an occasional golf game. But when the business peaks change to valleys, he enjoys cleaning!
He said "I like a clean kitchen. I like it when the health inspector walks in and is impressed."
Julie Charlebois at the Riverside on the Root Restaurant spends the first month of their off-season "in pajamas: I have to 'come down.'" In February, she and spouse, Michael, spend a couple of weeks somewhere in a warm climate. By the second week in March they "come back in the building, off and on," easing into the "ramp up" to opening for the spring.
Planning for the new season
Like Hungerholt taking his laptop to Jamaica, no small business owner can ever get totally away. The challenges and plans are always waiting in the wings. And winter is a great time to be thinking about, planning and making changes.
Staffing for the busy times is an important part of planning. Nor surprising, the help wanted signs are out along the avenue. It's safe to say that all of the businesses will sport some results of a winter spent in reviewing the last year and planning for this one. The best way to see those is to check it out! Many doors are already open and welcoming spring visitors. The rest will follow soon.
And so it starts all over again, a fresh new season being greeted by refreshed business owners and their employees