Sarah Landry Ryder: Keeping It Moving At The Redheads

Sarah Landry Ryder runs The Redheads, a cafe and specialty food operation in Lake Leelanau, Michigan.
Sarah Landry Ryder runs The Redheads, a cafe and specialty food operation in Lake Leelanau, Michigan.

We were touring up the Leelanau peninsula and looking for a place for lunch.  Mike Norton, my local guide, said he had heard about a place with good food and a good reputation. When we got to Lake Leelanau, we swung into The Redheads, a cafe and food emporium run by Sarah Landry Ryder. She’s a forty-year-old dynamo who began the business 18 years ago, despite looking far too young to have been at this game that long.

We stopped in and ordered salads with cherries and turkey and homemade pesto, and she told us about her life in this tiny town where things slow way down off season and are crazy nuts for the summer months.

She not only runs this business but also has a big wholesale business selling her organic granola, hummus and pesto sauces to 175 grocery stores and specialty food stores in Michigan and Indiana.

She has two small children and she’s the coach of the volleyball and basketball teams at the local high school.  We asked her how she can manage to run this place with its night shift, where until midnight a crew packages the food products and during the day when they serve breakfast and lunch to passing tourists and locals. “The coaching keeps me sane,” she said. “When it’s 3 o’clock and time for me to head over to the fields, it’s a relief!”

Fishtown in historic Leland, Michigan.
Fishtown in historic Leland, Michigan. Salmon swim up this river to spawn.

We talked about what it’s like to have a food operation in a village where the tourists show up in droves during the summer and early fall, and then there are far fewer customers during the rest of the year.

She explained how the wholesale business keeps things going, and that she needs to keep her staff on all year because she needs them when it gets very busy.  She’s opened a second cafe up the road in Leland, but closes that one after the summer is over.  What has changed here on the peninsula since when she was growing up?

“There are a lot more people living here,”  she said. “And there were no wineries back then, nor was there as much of a value placed on organic produce and producing things without chemicals.”

The more people move to the peninsula, the more tensions grow, there is a dichotomy between those already here and the younger people who are moving here. “Nobody wants to change, the have a hard time accepting that you can’t keep it all the way it once was.”

“Twenty years ago, this part of Michigan was like the Upper Peninsula,” she said, referring to that desolate and colder part of northern Michigan famous for its mosquitoes, lack of people and wildness.  Today’s wine tourism and extensive cherry farming is a much different from the olden days when fish were more plentiful and fewer people lived here.

But Sarah is happy with how her cafe and businesses have fared, and enjoys playing music with her husband, an elementary school teacher, and keeping busy juggling so many different things all day long.