A Letter From The ORIGINATOR of The Sugar Bear
April 20, 2011
I have been thinking since last fall about searching my files for any artifacts that I may have from The Sugar Bear. Of course, I never remembered to get around to it, so I will try to give you some information now off-the-cuff. You already have some of this in your online history. I will try to remember to check the archives later. You have our names correct: Gary and Cindy Verdries. I have lived in the Kalamazoo area all of my life. Cindy is part Ojibwa and Finnish from the Upper Peninsula. We married on May 22, 1976, and we opened the Sugar Bear on May 24, 1976.
I had been hired in 1974 as the first (paid) director of the Paw Paw Grape and Wine Festival Association. This group of business people and heads of organizations put together the PPGWFA to take over from the Paw Paw Jaycees to continuing the growing event. My education and background was in industrial management, but Michigan was in one of our frequent recessions where few people were buying new cars, refrigerators, or other major purchases. So there were few jobs available in my field. I noticed, however, that families were still spending a few bucks on entertainment and restaurants and movies, etc.
During my experiences in Paw Paw planning the festival, I noticed that there were primarily small family eating establishments that catered mostly to their regular local patrons (except for LaCantina and a couple others that no longer exist). As a matter of fact, as a newcomer to Paw Paw, I actually felt somewhat ignored when I visited these establishments. Few businesses were trying to take advantage of the growing number of visitors to the wineries, the summer resorts and campground, or to the huge number or summer lake residents. So I felt there was a need for something a little different that would be popular with visitors as well as locals.
I hit upon the idea of an ice cream parlour, candy shoppe, and sandwich restaurant with a fun family atmosphere. I was inspired by the old Chocolate Shop in Kalamazoo (later Heilmann’s Chocolate Shop) that served handmade ice cream and premium dipped chocolates. I also got some advice from the owner of the Dairy Queen stores in Kalamazoo. He advised that I must also serve food. He said that he could never afford to stay open all year long until he began serving food. I researched handmade dipped chocolates and quality candies and found the Plyley Candy Company in LaGrange, Indiana as my candy supplier.
The Sugar Bear name came from the town nickname that many old timers used, “Two Paws, Michigan”. It seemed that a bear with two raised paws seated behind a giant ice cream sundae conveyed the idea of a fun place to eat. I asked a friend, Bonnie Breedveld, that used to be staff artist at the Kalamazoo Gazette to design the logo. There used to be a large plywood version on the outside of the building. Did you happen to find it?
I searched Paw Paw for many months to find a good location. The building was originally an auto dealer, repair shop, and gas station. It had been closed for a period of time, and I bought the building from Earl Lawson (of Lawson Oil in Lawton). The building sits on the site of Peter Gremp’s store, the first grocery store and Post Office in Van Buren County. It was built in 1835 on the old Territorial Road between Chicago and Detroit. Peter Gremps was the founder of Paw Paw. (Thus Gremps Street). I had a plaque explaining this put by the front door, but it was removed when the vinyl siding went up.
The Paw Paw business association was encouraging businesses to remodel in a Mediterranean Style to reflect the Italian heritage of Paw Paw. The Sugar Bear was the first, and I believe the only building that followed their recommendation. I clad the old white brick building in stucco panels, with dark brown wooden beam trim, decorative brackets, and a red painted tile roof.
The interior of the store was designed to honor the history of the location. It was reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century Olde Tyme Ice Cream Parlour. At one time the wainscoting was all a dark oak color, and the heavy wood trim was also dark oak stained, contrasted with lemon yellow countertops and white display cases. The plastered walls above the wainscoting were a cream color where we displayed country art by local artists. The light fixtures are about 100 years old now. They came from the old Masonic Temple on Rose Street in Kalamazoo, which is now the Rose Street Market. The extra doorway at the front west end was entrance to the Grape and Wine Festival Office for a couple of years.
We originally ran the store to midnight seven days a week. During the warm months we stayed very busy. We were the only thing open late (other than bars). There were no stores or restaurants near I-94 at the time, either, so we had little competition. To draw in business from a wide area, I took our menu/placemats and printed information on the back about the wineries, area resorts, camping, local events, etc. I then supplied them to the Michigan Tourist Bureau to distribute them at all of the highway rest areas in Michigan. We had many customers that made a point to get off the Indiana turnpike where they would pass by Paw Paw and the Sugar Bear.
Unfortunately, the strong business did not continue into the cold weather months. Halloween seemed to be the date that everyone’s thoughts turned from ice cream to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Business dropped like a rock, but we still tried to say open offering baked goods and coffee in the morning. However, the coffee shop craze had not really started back then. Then we were hit with the blizzard in January, 1977. I was snowed in my driveway on Bankson Lake for six days. One of my managers, skied across town, and winterized the building. The following winter we experienced another business closing blizzard. We then decided to make the Sugar Bear a seasonal business, open from March through October.
Being recently married, Cindy and I wanted to start a family, but the store demanded all of our time. To make time to have kids, we decided to put the store up for sale. I knew that several chain restaurants were buying up the property near the I-94 exits, and that strong competition would be right around the corner. I felt that it would be best to sell while business was still good. The Neale family bought the Sugar Bear after selling their tavern on Douglas Avenue north of Kalamazoo.
Courtney, I hope this little tale of American enterprise is helpful to you. It will probably bring back my recurring nightmares of the long midnight hours and my ice cream coated arms sticking to my clothes. Cindy remembers trying to take quick naps on the office floor, and then customers rushing into the front door exclaiming that they saw a dead body through the window.