Venture North, a nonprofit based in Traverse City, invests in local businesses in a 10-county region, having provided more than $6 million in funding to entrepreneurs in Northwest Michigan, such as Becky Tranchell, owner of Rose & Fern. Venture North also manages the Regional Resiliency Program, which converts philanthropic donations into grants for small businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“… When care is pressing you down a bit, rest if you must, but don’t you quit,” said Grace Munger, my age-94 great grandmother, at a late ’70s reunion. Wheelchair-bound and failing. She rose from her chair when no one thought she could. Then recited John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem with a punch line she meant; a lesson for family. She had 13 kids; buried two. She trapped and canned muskrat in winter and caught bluegills in summer to feed her family. She had fresh rolls with buttered tops and a pie or two whenever you stopped. When she became blind, she still tied colorful quilts under the baleful stare of a cat or two. When I visited early in the evenings, she always had a half-glass of warm beer tucked away at her bedside. When she was 70, a doctor told our family to prepare for the worst because her heart was big as a barn.
Becky Tranchell, age 32, reminds me of her. Steely yet compassionate. Beating odds, setting examples and making the most of a challenge. Independent since 18, she has a rare mix of street-savvy business sense, academic and practical experience and a genuine appreciation of the value of neighborhoods and the mix of people that live in them. She owns and runs Rose & Fern, a cafe located on 8th Street, between Rose and Fern streets, in Traverse City. She and her six-person team serve breakfast and lunch, all freshly prepared with local ingredients.
And, like Grace, she’s overcome sorrow and trauma that would paralyze most.
Losing parents at a very young age.
Living with the inexplicable and unforgiving BRCA gene that runs in her family.
Getting an anonymous death threat, motivated by the fact that her business was essential and open during COVID-19 and others were not.
Having two close calls with COVID-19 that proved negative.
Through it all, Becky keeps moving. She has emerged stronger as the worst pandemic in more than a century threatens her business and her way of life.
When COVID-19 cast its long, deadly shadow, she adapted her restaurant by stopping use of the 24 seats and shifting to 100 percent online and phone orders. She lowered overhead and kept on cutting costs. She’s avoided the temptations that can bury others: Why buy new when used will do? And being ever watchful of what winds up as waste. She downsized the menu to 10 items that delight the palates of more than 100 patrons on weekends; a few less during the week.
What remained unchanged at Rose & Fern is drop-dead beautiful customer service. Her staff of six includes Great Lakes Culinary grads (like her). The team rocks their way with passion through the day with the inspiration of a ballet—a dance of taking orders, making crave-worthy food and presenting each breakfast and lunch with grace, dignity and joy.
There are rules for work that go unbroken and goals focused on always becoming better: great food, on time, perfectly packaged and presented, no wasted motion; four orders every 15 minutes with a goal of having them to the customers in 10, every day, every time. “There’s also a rule I feel very strongly about,” Becky says. “I never want to hear anything negative about our fellow restaurateurs. I have no tolerance for that.”
She buys locally-made everything. Produce, meat, bread. Coffee is roasted in-house. Most customers are also local, the majority are neighbors of the cafe.
I interviewed Becky by phone on November 10 to write about a business that was adapting to COVID-19. I had been working with rain-maker Executive Director of Venture North Funding & Development Laura Galbraith, on a program to provide grants to small businesses hit by the pandemic. We were also searching for tools and experiences to share that have been learned by others who have been resilient and persevered.
Becky was dreading the discussion and the time it would take that she would never reclaim. I was, too. I was in the Florida Keys cleaning up from a hurricane, undergoing dental surgery and working too much when I should be spending time with family or chasing snook and redfish. At the beginning of the phone call, she spoke directly, crisp and clear with well-chosen words. There was neither sadness nor joy in her tone. As we talked, we relaxed and talked easily, a relief from the frayed-end talk and hyperbole that seems bent on making us less civil at every turn. Her tone reflected the genuine passion she holds for what she is doing along with a becomingly modest sense of pride.
I came to feel that Becky, like Grace, is one of a kind.
“It’s weird,” she says. “Almost like I covet beating the odds. I think I’d like to help others do that.”
She plans to be debt-free in 2021, paying off the balance remaining on a loan with Venture North Funding & Development.
“Why did we make the loan to a restaurant when others wouldn’t?” asks Laura Galbraith rhetorically.
“Because of Becky’s experience, her standards and approach for running her business. Her ability to create food, buy all local and turn it into something special day after day is stunning. The facts that she is frugal and thrifty and her loan request was lean are things we, unfortunately, don’t see often enough. This was an easy decision for the Venture North loan committee and leadership to make.”
Simple elegance. Seemingly effortless movement.
Poetry in motion to “rest if you must, but never quit.”
Tim Ervin is a father/angler splitting time in the Florida Keys and Northern Michigan who enjoys writing. He currently is working with Venture North Funding & Development, a tax-exempt nonprofit, on the Regional Resiliency Program, aimed at raising funds through philanthropy to make grants to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in a 10-county region. He serves on a number of boards, including those with the Manistee County Community Foundation and the nonprofit Wild Oceans.