Tiffany's Ice Cream & Little Finger Sandwiches Café
Landmark eateries in Empire going strong
By Ross Boissoneau | June 19, 2021
Tina and Mark Dunphey know better than to mess with a good thing.
“This has been Tiffany’s for over 40 years,” says Tina.
True. But while the ice cream shop in Empire has long been a tradition for beachgoers and locals alike, the Dunpheys have only owned it since September 2020. So if it ain’t broke, well, Mark and Tina aren’t looking to fix anything.
They will continue to serve ice cream and sandwiches to those stopping in town to visit the beach or the Friendly, Grocer’s Daughter, or any other Empire staples. (Or really, anyone else who wants to stop in and get a cone.)
The location has been an ice cream shop of one sort or another since the ’40s. In the ’70s, as Witt’s End, owners Bill and Helen Witt used the west half of the cozy shop as a souvenir and knick-knack shop. In 1985, Dick and Betty Owens changed that part of the building to a coffee shop, which it has been ever since. When Peiter and Peggy Schous bought it in 2014, they broadened the concept to include sandwiches, adding the Little Finger Café to the on-site mix.
Mark Dunphey has long had the itch to buy both places. “Seven years ago when it was for sale I wanted to do it. We’d just had a child, and Tina said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ She was right — it was the wrong time.”
That was then, and when it came up for sale last year, Mark brought up the idea again. This time around Tina was more receptive, and the couple made it their own.
Tiffany’s offers 16 flavors of Hudsonville and Ashby’s ice cream, plus soft serve. It’s also a complete coffee shop, with cappuccino, espresso, chai latté, and has a small menu of artisan sandwiches courtesy of the Little Finger Café, also known as the western half of the building. “This side is what I like and am comfortable with,” says Tina, gesturing to the ice cream and coffee shop portion of the building. “He’s the food side.”
FALL LOVIN’ HAPPENED SO FAST
While the couple initially envisioned Tiffany’s as a summer-only kind of place, they decided to stay open for a while last fall after purchasing it, and they were pleasantly surprised by the business they did.
“September, then October were amazing,” said Tina. The continuing influence of the pandemic provided a larger customer base as people were working from home and kids were similarly attending school remotely. The chance to get out and grab a cool creamy treat was enticing to those longing for an end to being relatively home-bound.
Mark’s full-time job is as a teacher at St. Mary’s in Lake Leelanau, while Tina is the youth minister at St. Philip Neri in Empire. That gives the couple a summer break to run the ice cream shop. It also helped them find a crew, a challenge in a time when nearly every shop has a “Help Wanted” sign in the window.
“Because I’m a teacher and she’s a youth minister, kids know us,” said Mark. A recent example: After one of his students heard from her sister how much she enjoyed working there, the student approached Mark to see if he would hire her, too.
Perhaps the best part for the couple is that, even with the addition of a new business to their working lives, the Dunpheys have been able to keep their family close. Not only do 18-year-old Sage and her six- and eight-year-old brothers do their share of work at the shop (the boys are apparently invaluable potato chip shelf stockers), the Dunpheys moved into the apartment in the back of Tiffany’s. Going from a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home to a much smaller two-bedroom, one-bath home attached to a shop was an adjustment, but Tina called it freeing, noting it allowed them to pare their belongings.
The work-living situation is not without its pitfalls. For one thing, there’s the siren call of ice cream late at night. For another, it’s harder to get away from work. Mark recalled making homemade waffle cones late one night when a sheriff’s car drove by on patrol. The officer peered in, no doubt curious why someone was in the store at 1 a.m.; Mark, burning the midnight oil, gave the officer a thumbs up and went back to his waffle cones.
Besides providing customers with a multitude of options for food and beverages, Tiffany’s has a unique draw that underscores the quaint town’s classic vibe.
“It’s nostalgic,” says Tina, noting the shop has changed little inside or out over the past several decades. Everyone remarks on the spinning stools at the bar, she said, while the old-fashioned tables and ice cream chairs also help set the mood.
“They’re the original tables and chairs,” says Mark. One set had been in storage in Leland; another was rescued from another friend. Also nostalgic: The shop doesn’t accept credit cards, Apple pay, or the like. It’s all cash — and luckily for out-of-town customers who aren’t already in the know, there’s an ATM across the street.
The menu includes summer staples such as cherry chicken salad wraps, a turkey-avocado-cheddar Panini sandwich, and kids’ choices like grilled cheese and PB&J. Mark holds sway in the kitchen, at least until their chef starts. A new addition is chicken Shawarma, which Mark said has been the most popular item on the menu.
“We’re beach food,” says Tina. “This is a family place. People vacation here.” And if those people are lucky enough to stay on through fall — or better yet, live there year-round — the Dunphey family will be there, too.
Hours for ice cream are 11am–9pm Monday through Saturday, 12pm–9pm Sunday. Little Finger sandwich shop keeps the same opening hours as Tiffany’s but closes at 6.