Cheboygan’s Libby’s Café in Overdrive
Reborn Café Thriving — Inside Auto Dealership
By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 15, 2018
If the food and service are good, restaurants can thrive in most any location. But in an auto dealership? Well, yes. At Fernelius Toyota and Chrysler in Cheboygan, that’s exactly where you’ll find Libby’s Café.
Owner Dave Fernelius came up with the novel idea, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to do. When he decided to update his dealership several years ago, he and his wife, Alice, traveled to across the state and nation, looking for innovations that would help set the Cheboygan operation apart from the competition. Among the ideas was opening a small restaurant for customers and staff. “We serve a large region,” said Fernelius. If customers needed to have their car serviced and would be on-site for a couple hours, he thought a restaurant would give them someplace to grab a bite while they waited.
Fernelius had just the person in mind: Libby Davis, the proprietor of Libby’s Café. But when he approached her about opening a restaurant there, he was rebuffed. Davis had tired of running her own restaurant and being in charge of all the myriad details that go along with owning a business. She enjoyed the creativity of baking and cooking and the relationships with her staff and customers, but she wanted out. So she shut down her restaurant and went to work at Pier M33 on the Cheboygan, a restaurant with docking on the Cheboygan River, where she could leave at the end of her shift without any worries. “I needed to find a job where I could punch in and punch out,” said Davis.
So Fernelius went ahead with his plan, but without Davis. “We built a café in the middle [of the dealership], but we didn’t have the right fit.”
While Davis enjoyed working at her new job, she remembered Fernelius’s idea. And Fernelius remembered her. “When they heard I left the Pier, they said, ‘We waited. Now make it happen.’”
Thus, Libby’s Café at Fernelius. “It turned out to be the craziest, best idea,” said Davis. How crazy? The restaurant is even open when the dealership is not, for Sunday brunch. How best? “It’s packed every day,” said Davis.
The restaurant isn’t the only innovation at Fernelius. The dealership also boasts a large, two-sided gas fireplace, a large flat-screen TV, and even a workout room, complete with locker rooms. But the restaurant really sets it apart.
The menu includes a complete selection of breakfast items, from oatmeal to eggs, pancakes, French toast and waffles. A crowd favorite: Libby’s salmon avocado toast, with dill, capers, cream cheese, and huge chunk of salmon and avocado. A variety of quiches, omelettes and acai bowls. Lunch means a host of sandwiches, paninis, even Libby’s street tacos (taco-seasoned chicken breast, lettuce, tomato, cheddar and avocado on a warm softshell, served with black bean salsa, sour cream, and corn chips). Ever-changing but always hearty soups — from a mug-full to a soup-sampler flight and a selection of salads rounds things out.
But wait, as the commercials say, there’s more. Libby’s is renowned for its pies, which typically fly out the door.
The success is due to several factors, from the food to the captive audience, its reputation, even the novelty. But Davis said the key is the quality of her staff. “It’s my help. You can teach people to make soup, but you can’t teach how to be kind and polite.”
While it might seem an opportune place for the sales staff to do business, Fernelius declared customers off-limits. “Mr. Fernelius made it clear to he salespeople that no deals [are done] there. If you do a deal in the café, you get written up,” said Davis.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a useful tool for getting people in the door. Or as a perk for someone getting service or buying a car.
Of course, you don’t have to be getting a car serviced to take advantage of the café’s comestibles. Davis said there are several regulars who stop in daily, for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, or for lunch. In fact, Davis said there’s often a line for lunch. Not bad for a place with a capacity of 70. In an auto dealership.