NORTH MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — What’s billed as Muskegon County’s oldest operating restaurant is changing hands.
Thrasher’s Bear Lake Tavern is now owned and operated by Dr. Emily Leestma. Her husband Ryan Leestma owns the land it is on. The couple, which also founded the $250 million Adelaide Pointe development on Muskegon Lake, live near the restaurant on Bear Lake.
“It’s our spot. It’s where we always go. After our house burned down, we immediately went to the Bear Lake Tavern smelling like smoke and ashes because we didn’t have anywhere to go and the staff are like family,” Emily Leestma said.
The Leestmas closed on the property Tuesday. They expect to invest $1.2 million in buying and adding to the site at 360 Ruddiman Drive, located along the channel connecting Muskegon and Bear lakes.
Hoby Thrasher owned the restaurant for six years after buying it from restaurateur Jeff Lobdell.
“I came in and totally gutted it and put in all new infrastructures, but still kept the old walls and bar and charm,” Thrasher said.
Thrasher, 70, said he had planned to hold onto the restaurant until Ryan Leestma showed up at his door last year, asking about buying it.
“People had asked, ‘How long you going to do this? I was saying, ‘I’m going to ride this into the sunset.’ I never really had plans of selling,” Thrasher said. “It just kind of happened.”
Thrasher, who has worked in the industry for 58 years and owned 14 restaurants, said the pandemic’s impact had no role in his decision. He had considered building condos on the property but after a four-hour conversation with Ryan Leestma, he was ready to sell.
“I hope and feel that he’s spot-on with his plans,” Thrasher said. “He has reiterated to us and all the employees that he doesn’t want to change hardly anything with the operational part of Bear Lake Tavern… but he’s got some real cool plans for the outside.”
“It’s important that it stays open,” Ryan Leestma said. “The Bear Lake Tavern is a critical part of my family’s history and we wanted to make sure it was saved.”
The Bear Lake Tavern opened in 1929. It survived the Great Depression and Prohibition without closing.
“It’s so historic,” Emily Leestma said. “We’re excited about approaching the 100th anniversary… that will be an awesome party.”
Ryan Leestma first stepped into the tavern as a child, when his family came from the Chicago area in search of a home on an inland lake connected to Lake Michigan.
“That was the first place my family walked into in Muskegon… and that was the start of my entire family moving to Muskegon,” he said. “Frankly, Adelaide Pointe, if it weren’t for the Bear Lake Tavern, we wouldn’t be here and that wouldn’t happen.”
Thrasher says Bear Lake Tavern is a community cornerstone where high school reunions happen. About 85% of Bear Lake Tavern’s employees are from the area, Thrasher estimates.
The Leestmas say they plan to keep everything at the tavern the same.
“We want to make sure all the employees are taken care of,” Dr. Emily Leestma said.
The Leestmas want to “add to the experience” on the tavern’s beach patio by building “BLTiki,” which would consist of a small kitchen, covered bar and picnic table seating with a limited menu.
“If you’re on your boat and you want something easy … you can just get a smashburger and just sit outside,” Ryan Leestma said. “We’re kind of going for an outdoor grill type of vibe.”
The Leestmas also plan to install a floating dock that will double the number of boats that can visit Bear Lake Tavern from eight to 16. Ryan Leestma expects Bear Lake Tavern’s capacity to grow from about 100 people to 170 people with the addition of BLTiki.
“(It will) kind of serve a different type of client,” Ryan Leestma said. “Lots of people pass through the channel. It would be great if they could just pull over… (order food) and it’s ready in five minutes.”
Ryan Leestma said BLTiki wouldn’t use glass so people can step off their boats without worry.
“No shirt, no shoes, no problem. At the BLTiki, it’s a totally different deal,” he said.
Ryan Leestma still needs to get the project approved by the North Muskegon Planning Commission. If all goes well, construction would start this fall and BLTiki would open in May or June of next year.
Trasher said he’s retired from restaurant ownership but will continue to work as an industry consultant through his LLC, Thrasher Consulting. He said he will wake up each day and see where life takes him, which will include visits to Bear Lake Tavern.
“As a customer, they’ll get tired of seeing me, but I won’t be directing anyone. It’ll be nice for me to come in and relax as a customer because I’ve never really been able to be a customer in any of my establishments,” Thrasher said. “The great crew that we have and that Ryan and Emily plan to keep, they’re just one of the most solid groups of people I’ve had in my restaurant world. I just look forward to having them come and wait on me.”