U.S. 2, Route to (Retail) Heaven on Earth

Three family businesses share stories of retailing in the Upper Peninsula

By Shandra Martinez

Sandra Jacobs remembers driving down U.S. 2 in the Upper Peninsula, often described as the “Route to Heaven on Earth,” when something caught her eye – a for sale sign in front of the Hog Island Country Store and its adjacent six cottages just steps away from Lake Michigan.

“I told my husband to turn around,” said Sandra.

They quickly bought the property in Naubinway, at the northernmost point of Lake Michigan, 45 minutes west of the Mackinac Bridge, and left their Lower Michigan lives behind. Tom, then 49, retired from General Motors after 31 years, and Sandra, then 47, quit her 25-year nursing career. 

Twenty years later, they have no regrets about that impulsive decision. Their second chapter as retailers in the Upper Peninsula has been rewarding. That sentiment is shared by owners of two other MRA members, Bigari Ace Hardware and Top O’ Lake Sport Shop.

Ted Hentschell, Tammy Tomiko

Crash course in business

But retail in picturesque rural communities isn’t without challenges. The Jacobs spent the first years learning how to run a business and improving the one-room cottages, which were moved to the location in 1942. The store is known for its pasties and smoked fish along with vacation basics from ketchup to marshmallows.

“We’ve had so many wonderful customers,” Tom says. “For the most part, when people are up here, they’re in a great mood because they’re on vacation or they’re totally chilled out because they’ve been up here.”

After joining MRA in 2017, the business was set up to accept credit cards. Sandra credits MRA for keeping the process simple. 

“When we have had some minor glitches or any little problems, we call Michigan Retailers, and it’s handled quickly,” she said.

Sandra wouldn’t mind giving up the work that comes with running the business, but she isn’t ready to give up the property – or the view.

“We’ve talked about selling it, but we don’t want to leave. It’s paradise. I can’t think of any other places that I want to go,” said Sandra, who also lived in Florida for six years. “I love Michigan. I love the four seasons. And I don’t like the long winters, but you can’t have it all.”

Big move, big reward

For 20 years, Tim Novak and his brothers-in-law owned Bigari Ace Hardware, the store his father-in-law, Ernie Bigari, started in Iron River in 1975. In 2020, he became the sole owner.

The store sits on the outskirts of town on M-189 South, seven miles from the Wisconsin border. Novak’s right-hand man is store manager Kurtis Carnes, who grew up along California’s Central Coast near San Luis Obispo. He met his wife while she was studying at Cal Poly. 

“During COVID, we decided that we wanted our two little ones to be near a set of grandparents. It was either the U.P. or Arizona, where my parents live. We made the right choice,” Carnes said.

The move meant leaving his job overseeing a chain of nine Ace hardware stores. When Ace corporate heard he was moving to the Upper Peninsula, they introduced him to Novak, who was looking for help. He couldn’t have asked for a better match. The store was in Iron River, where he was moving. The two hit it off, and Carnes was hired nearly three years ago.

“Tim’s given me a lot of opportunities that I never thought I’d have,” said Carnes, 38.

At 43,000 square feet, Bigari Ace Hardware is twice as large as his previous employer’s flagship store. It has 25 employees, a mix of full- and part-timers, enough so employees can take the time to answer customers’ questions and help them solve their issues, whether a broken pipe or fixing a light. 

Tourists who visit the store tend to be looking for camping, hunting or fishing items or products for their vacation homes.

“While tourism’s a big thing, we never lose sight of our community,” said Carnes. “The people who matter the most are the ones that patronize us day in and day out. The contractors have my number and text me if they need to order something for a job coming up next week. It all circles back to serving our community. It’s not just selling somebody a bag of birdseed, it’s creating relationships, long-lasting relationships, and hopefully getting a customer for life.”

The store, an MRA member since 2016, uses the association’s group insurance and workers’ compensation programs. Carnes says he finds inspiration reading Michigan Retailer.

“When I read those articles, I’ll get a couple takeaways and maybe implement a thing or two, because if somebody’s doing something right, I want to do that. I’m always trying to get ahead of trends,” said Carnes.

Tim Novak and Kurtis Carnes 

Local expertise

Ted Hentschell opened Top O’ Lake Sport Shop in Manistique, on the north shore of Lake Michigan, in 1955. His son Ted Hentschell II took it over in 1993 and operates it with his older sister, Tammy Tomiko. It sells fishing and hunting gear and supplies. 

Ted Hentschell grew up working at the store with his mom and siblings. After graduating from high school, he joined his dad full time and eventually bought the store.

“I can remember my dad telling me that without tourists we wouldn’t be here. The tourist dollars keep us going,” said Hentschell.

An MRA member since 1977, he doesn’t advertise much, and the store isn’t on Facebook. Still, it’s a popular spot.

But customers expect more from him than just the wares he sells. They want his expertise about the area.

“You have to really guide them to places. You really have to know a lot about the area,” he said. “I get phone calls all the time asking ‘how’s the fishing or ice fishing up there.’”

He had one customer who drove five hours from lower Michigan to go ice fishing because there wasn’t enough ice where he lived.

“They got up at 4 a.m. and were here by 9 a.m. They find my store and come in to ask where to go ice fishing,” he said. 

His wife, Desiree, owns an ice cream parlor in town called the Dairy Kream. Often, they have to do the jobs of many because finding seasonal workers is so challenging.

“When people see me, I’m washing my windows, sweeping the floors or fixing something, and they’re like, ‘You’re the boss.’ Yes, I’m the boss and the salesman, the cleaning person and the repairman,” Hentschell said.

Still, despite the workload, he loves the pace of the area. When he goes to visit his daughter in Traverse City or his son in Warren, he quickly misses the U.P.

“I can’t wait to cross the Mackinac Bridge,” Hentschell said. 

At 60, he hopes to run the store for two more years. And he won’t have any difficulty finding a buyer. He’s watched other multi-generational family businesses in the area get bought up by locals or people from outside the region.

“People have already contacted me. I say, ‘I’ll put your name on a list. I’ll call you when I’m ready to retire.’”