Lattes and More on a Lake Superior Native American Reservation

Four bowls of chili are ladled out, signaling the end to Sunday soup at the Dancing Crane Coffeehouse, in the Bay Mills Indian Community. It’s late afternoon here on this Upper Peninsula reservation, and owner Cathy LeBlanc has time to chat between customers who wander in one group at a time, stepping through slushy snow on a relentlessly gray afternoon on the far-eastern shores of Lake Superior. The Weather Channel on the flat screen TV is on mute, with nothing to report other than a mild warm spell. The blues tunes on the satellite radio seem to sum up the mood.

Business slows way, way down at the Dancing Crane when the snow falls and the tourists disappear from this spot on Lake Superior’s southern shore. Stop in on Fourth of July and you’ll see Cathy, long braid down the back of her tee-shirt, moving as fast as the blades in her smoothie blender. Warm weather draws swarms of visitors from all over the world, travelers who have left nearly 7,000 signatures in guest books in the four summers since this Upper Peninsula shop opened.

Outsiders to the Bay Mills Indian Community have been courted, deliberately. Jim LeBlanc, Cathy’s husband and business partner, keeps adding new signs along West Lakeshore Drive, going for the Wall Drug effect, he jokes. The hand-painted signs provide a cue to tourists that it’s okay to stop on the reservation for something besides gambling and golf. Jim designed the logo on the signs specifically “to invite all people of the earth to come for a cup of coffee,” he says. The colors of the logo’s medicine wheel symbolize four races, and the crane represents both the Crane Clan, of which Jim is a member, and the bird itself, which is revered as an intelligent creature that looks out for all members of the flock while it migrates around the globe, he says.  

From the start, the Dancing Crane has been as much about providing a gathering place as it is about serving quality coffee. Ice cream and smoothies, brats and burgers, WiFi and live music, native crafts and local products, obsessively wiped tables and a blanket-covered sofa welcome everyone from locals visiting with neighbors to campers waiting out a rainstorm.

So far, the locals have proven the tougher part of the equation. Jim, a reformed Folgers drinker who now evangelizes for fresh-roast espresso, knew it would take time for folks on the reservation, in Bay Mills township, and in nearby Brimley to appreciate the concept of a coffeehouse—and understandably so. Before the Dancing Crane, the only special coffee available for these 3,000 full-time residents was the “brand of the week” on sale at the IGA, Jim says.

Visitors, though, are crazy for this stop on the route from Sault Sainte Marie to White Fish Point. They rave, they blog. “Sweet Nirvana” is how one motorcyclist describes his double shot of espresso over ice, a high point of his tour around Lake Superior. He posted a photo of his drink and another of Jim behind the counter. Another blogger reports that Starbucks has nothing on the Dancing Crane, and what a bargain! (Tourists, particularly those from Connecticut, scold them for their low prices, Jim says.) Most write about the friendly banter with Cathy and Jim.  

One blogger commented approvingly on the “quaint, kitschy” appearance of the exterior—the wrong words if they conjure images of Fiberglas bears or moose silhouettes. The low-slung, chinked-log building, built by Jim and son Josh with timber they logged and stripped themselves, couldn’t be more indigenous to the physical and cultural landscape, right down to the OPEN sign hand-painted on a piece of pressboard.

The Dancing Crane drive-thru, however, is quaint. The home-style sliding storm window and the dirt path arcing around the woodpile likely evoke chuckles from cosmopolitan first-timers. But ironic bemusement vanishes once coffee lovers get a taste of the LeBlancs’ superior brew. While you can eat well from the surrounding waters and forests—the fish, fresh or smoked, and the wild blueberries are true delicacies—a serious cup of joe is still a novelty. And for that, a certain segment of the year-round and cabin population was instantly smitten with the Dancing Crane. 

Aneen Stallman, who recently moved back to Bay Mills after a long absence, is just such a fan. She loves the cappuccino and pumpkin pie chai, while her husband prefers the shop’s smooth dark roast. Her kids can go there for hot cocoa while they wait for the morning school bus or smoothies when they get home from school. “I’ve been to a lot of Starbucks, and most of those places are crowded and overpriced,” says Stallman, who often walks over on lunch break from the medical center nearby. Of the Dancing Crane, she says, “I haven’t seen that quality for that price anywhere, any time.”

Yet as much as Stallman appreciates the coffee, she says the best thing about the Dancing Crane is that there’s finally a place in Bay Mills where everyone can go. Pat Egan, retired owner and publisher of the Soo Evening News, agrees. He lives farther down the road at Salt Point and stops in regularly on his way to meetings in Sault Sainte Marie. The coffee gets a thumbs-up and so do the happenings at the shop—music, poetry reading, and shopping for local crafts. “Before we’d go to the dump and watch the bears,” Egan says, more serious than you might think. “Now we have other things to do.”Egan, who’s lived in the area for decades but is not a member of the tribe, says the Bay Mills Indian Community has worked hard to reach out to the wider populace over the years. The Dancing Crane, while privately owned, advances those efforts. “It’s a great touchstone for those of us who aren’t part of the tribe,” Egan says. “And it’s a great crossroads. When you walk in, you never know who you’re going to see.”

Jim puts Egan and Stallman in the early adopter group of customers. When he and Cathy were planning the business, they sized up the locals like this: a third would come in right away, another third would wait and see, and the rest would be “no not never,” Jim says. Theirs was a well-informed assessment. Jim has lived on the reservation off and on since childhood, and Cathy grew up a hundred miles west in Shingleton. The LeBlancs knew from the start that the local market would be tough, but they have been determined to make the coffeehouse a gathering place for community, not just for tourists.

So Cathy has courted students and staff at the nearby Bay Mills Community College by carting coffee and snacks to campus on the first day of school. They offer special deals to the Boys and Girls Club across the road and welcome groups that need a place to meet. They have refused to install a card swipe machine that forgives sales tax for tribal members, a welcome mat of sorts for nontribal neighbors. They keep prices low. And to encourage those customers early in their latte learning curves, they are liberal with samples.

On this winter afternoon, in fact, most of the customers are local. The only tourists are a couple whose two kids hover around the vintage Pac-man machine. But the middle-aged fellows in shiny black casino jackets are locals, as is the woman who calls in an order to pick up at the drive-thru. Also from nearby, an elderly couple who linger in the cozy warmth of the coffeehouse to give an attentive Cathy a play-by-play of their medical tests.

Still, traffic is slow, and the LeBlancs could be forgiven if they decided to close up in winter rather than keep the drive-thru plowed. After all, the coffeehouse was supposed to be a no-stress retirement enterprise for the couple, married 30 years and grandparents to four. It was supposed to be Cathy’s project while Jim saw a few clients and recovered from heart surgery. It was a way to come back to Michigan, leaving Wisconsin where Jim had been a family counselor.

But the LeBlancs never considered being a seasonal operation—in part because they are committed to the community, but also because they seem constitutionally incapable of “part-time.” In a few short years, they’ve gone from Folgers fans to java jonesers, Cathy making scores of contacts in the industry and Jim mastering the intricacies of their on-site bean roaster. The coffeehouse gives Cathy, who toiled in back-office bookwork for years as an employee, the creative outlet of running her own business. And Jim, ever the therapist, pens training manuals for the baristas that are as much about self-actualization as operating the espresso machine. “Because we regard good thoughts as the main ingredient in all our products, joy is increased for baristas and for the customers,” he writes.

All those good thoughts are paying off. When Cathy runs the numbers, she sees a steady improvement in receipts, even in the winter. Local business is growing faster than expected, Jim says, and even some of the holdouts are finding their way to the coffeehouse. “I don’t think many have tried to start such a business in a location such as ours,” he says. “This is an experiment that is going well. The energy is on our side.”