April 17, 2024

From Field to Fork (with a side of Sea Salt Fennel Sourdough)

Jen and Nic Welty celebrate 15 years of 9 Bean Rows
By Kierstin Gunsberg | Feb. 17, 2024

In "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," poet William Butler Yeats writes that the lake’s lapping waves are calling him to a simpler, nature-focused life where he’ll sow “nine bean-rows.” So, it’s fitting that Jen and Nic Welty’s own 9 Bean Rows—this one a working farm, café, and bakery in Suttons Bay—came to be when a college-weary Jen left her master’s program to work at Black Star Farms, a place where she’d previously found intrinsic joy as an intern.

She and Nic joined as farm managers, among other responsibilities, but when the economy eroded in 2008, Black Star Farms couldn’t afford to keep the Weltys on in a traditional sense. Instead, co-owners Don and Mary Lou Coe offered the pair use of their gardens and kitchen. Now, the Weltys could garden and grow their own products in exchange for a nominal rent.

Those were the first seeds of 9 Bean Rows.

Taking Root

A year after taking the offer, Jen and Nic had turned 9 Bean Rows into a CSA (community supported agriculture) and farmer’s market staple, rising early to set up their tables with punnets of veggies galore. And, thanks to Jen’s experience working for a Belgian family who taught her the craft of artisan baking, the Weltys soon added baked goods to their repertoire.

“Immediately, people fell in love with our Sea Salt Fennel Sourdough bread,” says Jen.

At the end of October 2012, the Weltys were approached by The Cooks' House chefs Jen Blakeslee and Eric Patterson. They were moving out of 439 E Front Street, aka Traverse City’s unofficial restaurant incubator, and wondered if the Weltys wanted to take over their lease.

“It was so exciting … we were moved in and open for business the first week of November,” recalls Jen of opening their first storefront, a breakfast, and lunch café focused on meals made with locally sourced ingredients.

By 2013, feeling spread thin juggling the tiny—and hopping—café plus their farmland and kitchen over at Black Star Farms, the Weltys moved 9 Bean Rows out of TC and into downtown Suttons Bay’s historic firehouse, a bigger space where they remained for the next five years.

During that time they secured a land contract to purchase property that had long operated as a farm market just off East Duck Lake Road. As Jen puts it, the property was a game-changer.

“It offered us land to grow vegetables and a kitchen and a retail space all on the same property.” Gone were the days of hustling back and forth to separate gardens and kitchens to keep 9 Bean Rows functioning—now they could do it all: grow, bake, and sell in one location. “It was exactly what we had been waiting for,” says Jen.

Growing Strong

It’s now been 15 years of 9 Bean Rows’ stacked sammies, homegrown greens dressed in Fustini’s oils and vinegar, and brioche buns baked with farm-fresh eggs from local vendors like Missaukee County’s Pristine Acres. Their vendor list isn’t the only thing that’s grown. After starting off solo, Jen and Nic now employ more than 20 full-timers (including Maureen “Mo” Earl who has been with 9 Bean Rows since it opened), plus seasonal workers.

While working the land for a decade and a half has certainly afforded the Weltys moments of oneness with nature, life and business have not been as simple as a Yeats poem. Balancing overhead (including paying their employees a fair wage and matching 401k) and product pricing has been “tightrope walking,” admits Jen.

Affordable employee housing has also been a hurdle for the business, and the Weltys are currently working on obtaining a grant through the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) in hopes of building farm worker housing on their property.

Meanwhile, they continue to work on a business and farm expansion that kicked off in 2020. In addition to their completed 2,000 feet of retail and production space and upgrades to their kitchen, the Weltys’ upcoming projects for 9 Bean Rows include a fermentation room and added walk-in cooler storage, plus vineyard and orchard acreage.

And, after years of being an early-bird meal hub, they’ll be expanding their hours this summer, staying open until 7pm to sling out woodfired pizzas to the post-beach crowd. They’ll also be collaborating with Aurora Cellars to serve wine alongside their fresh-weekly menu.

“We hope all this brings people out to the farm so that they can experience a great meal in a laid-back atmosphere,” says Jen. “We want people to be able to walk the farm paths, let the kids run, smell some flowers, meet some folks, and eat and imbibe Leelanau.”

Menu Must-Haves

Anyone who’s ever carefully torn a 9 Bean Rows chocolate croissant in half to experience the perfect ratio of bittersweet filling to buttery flakiness knows that each bite of the pastry menu is decadent. But it’s not just the pastries that offer a resounding sigh of happiness. Here are the bakery and cafe’s all-time bestsellers, foodie must-haves, and Jen Welty’s personal favorites.

The Fine and Dandy (Ham and Butter on Baguette): Stacked with rosemary ham on a housemade baguette and topped with a generous portion of Plugra brand butter, this sandwich is Leelanau’s version of Jambon Beurre, a savory French classic. If a sandwich could be chic, it’d be this one. “To me, it’s about the simplicity,” says Jen.

Carrot Cake: Get your sweet fix early! Each morning the dessert cases sell out quickly, stocked full of ever-changing options like apricot pinwheels, chocolate espresso cookies, and even honey lavender cheesecake with lemon curd for a taste of sunshine in the dead of winter. But Jen says a mainstay is their carrot cake. “It may not always look the same because sometimes we use our purple carrots and other times we use our white carrots. But what doesn’t change is its awesomeness.”

Wood Fired Raclette Pizza: This melty cheese pie is covered in Leelanau Cheese’s creamy raclette then layered with caramelized onions, roasted potato, and rosemary ham, finished off with a sprinkle of herbs. For a vegetarian option, the Artichoke is slathered with fresh basil pesto then topped with a four-cheese blend, sundried tomatoes, and of course, artichoke. (All of the restaurant’s pizzas start with a naturally leavened dough.)

The Sourdough Boule and Sea Salt Fennel Loaves: These hearty, crusty rounds are 9 Bean Rows’ most popular bread loaves. Pair it with one of the store’s seasonally inspired soups (like a rich tomato or the springtime Vichyssoise—a creamy onion, leek, and potato soup) for a complete meal.

Farm Fresh Lettuce Mixes: The No. 1 produce seller is their lettuce mix, selected so that each one offers a variety of colors, flavors, and textures for the perfect healthy lunch on the go or dinnertime side salad. Other grab-and-go options include homemade tapenades and hummus plus a rich, smoked whitefish pâté from Carlson’s Fishery.

Find 9 Bean Rows at 9000 E Duck Lake Rd. in Suttons Bay. (231) 271-6658; 9beanrows.com

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