Let’s Meet at The Little Fleet
Before we got serious about moving to Traverse City, I spent an inordinate amount of unproductive time scrolling through the Zillow app checking out homes for sale in the area. It was as if finding the perfect house would make all of the other pieces of the puzzle of our life fall into place. The biggest challenge in moving, however, was not finding a house but making a living. This was before we figured out that we could move our business, as well as ourselves, and so our business mindset at the time was that a move to a new town necessarily involved starting over or starting something new.
One day a commercial property popped up on the list of available properties. It was a building in downtown Traverse City, on Front Street, that housed a market. I had never been in it but had driven past it while on vacation. It seemed like a nice building, with plenty of parking out front. I remember thinking to myself: Maybe we can move up there and open a market!
This was not an altogether new idea. When we were living in Chicago and I was toiling away as a law firm associate, during late nights at the office a colleague and I brainstormed ideas for businesses that would allow us to leave our jobs. We called our project “Operation OutLaw” and we came up with a whole host of (mostly) bad ideas. One of our favorites was opening a liquor store – a high-end one focused on good wine, cheese and beer – somewhere in Michigan. For those of you familiar with Chicago, we planned to model it after Binny’s, which offered a similar experience. The idea never got further than a legal pad.
And so, when I saw the market for sale in Traverse City, the most promising idea from Operation OutLaw came back to me, fleetingly.
Fast forward twelve months or so. Heather and I were back up in Traverse City on vacation and while walking down Front Street came upon a lot full of food trucks and an open air courtyard and bar that was buzzing with activity. It was called The Little Fleet.
We had never seen this place before, but there was something vaguely familiar about it. And then it hit me: This was the market from Zillow. And it had been transformed into something that I would have never imagined. When I saw the market for sale, my linear-thinking mind immediately processed the idea of opening another market.
The entrepreneurs who actually took the plunge and bought the place, however, applied decidedly non-linear thinking in dreaming up a big idea that transformed a downtown and gave birth to a cottage industry.
Craft Cocktails and Street Tacos
The Little Fleet is the brainchild of Gary and Allison Jonas, whose non-linear journey led them from Michigan – they met as students at the University of Michigan – to New York City and now back to Michigan. Heather and I had a chance to sit down with Gary and Allison on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon at The Little Fleet and talk about the experiences that led them from the “Big City” to Traverse City.
After college they moved to New York City and began traditional careers – she in marketing and he in the mortgage business. It wasn’t long before they had the urge for something different. The grind of the corporate rat race was getting to them. Gary recalls riding on the subway with Allison during the morning commute from their home in Brooklyn and thinking that something had to change. “Every morning, as we approached Allison’s stop, I remember the announcer coming over the loudspeaker in a monotone voice saying ‘42nd Street, Times Square’ and as the doors opened, herds of men and women in suits shuffled off the subway car.” At some point, as this scene repeated itself in a daily Groundhog Day-esque manner, Gary says, “We both knew we wanted something different.”
So, with no business plan and next-to-no experience, they decided to open a restaurant in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park. They dove right in and found a building, signed a lease, and found a chef who was dabbling in a new concept of creating dishes from farm fresh food – now known ubiquitously, of course, as “Farm to Table.” They called their new establishment The Farm on Adderley. The combination of farm-to-table cooking in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood turned out to be a hit. A few years later they opened a whiskey bar down the street called Sycamore. Things were humming along.
This is where the storyline changes a little bit. And it’s a story that Heather and I – who also work together as entrepreneurs – know well and empathize with greatly. Kids came into the picture for Gary and Allison.
Kids are great. A real blessing. The best thing that’s ever happened to all of us parents. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s add that they make everything in life harder, too, right? There’s a great bit by a stand-up comedian who compares and contrasts what it’s like for people who don’t have kids, and those who do, to simply leave the house. Check it out for a few chuckles.
We lived in Chicago for a number of years, and relied on public transportation to get around. It was tough. And New York City is even worse. I can’t imagine what it would have been like toting small kids around.
Gary recalls the moment when they realized they were ready for their next big change in life. “We were trying to drive out of the city and take the family for a hike, and take in some nature, and we got stuck in a 2.5 hour traffic jam. That’s when we knew.”
They picked up and moved to Traverse City in 2011. “We wanted to be closer to family,” Allison says. And Traverse City had all of the elements – nature, farms, culture and an urban center – that they were looking for.
Creative Events and an Always Awesome Vibe
If you’re a frequent reader of Life and Whim, it should come as no surprise that we are huge fans of The Little Fleet. We’re there quite often, be it to kick off a Friday date night with a beer or Sunday afternoon lunch with the kids. It’s always fun to explore the fresh ingredients and new dishes from the food trucks outside, and the rotating beers on tap and craft cocktails inside. But what we like most are all of the creative and interesting events held by The Little Fleet, often in collaboration with other people and organizations within the community.
Case-in-point: Interactive art event “Hot Art Live” that took place this past Saturday. We arrived around noon and a number of talented artists were already setting up their stations and starting to create art. Rarely do you have the opportunity to watch artists live in action, so that was a treat, especially for our girls. As with many of Gary and Allison’s events, there was as much thought put into events and activities for the kids as there was for adult entertainment. There was face painting, water balloon painting (kids threw water balloons filled with a watercolor paint mixture against a white canvas), and feather weaving.
The activity level is set to pick up even more this week. The Traverse City Film Festival kicks off today (Tuesday) and a full slate of fun, free Filmfest events are planned for The Little Fleet. We can’t wait to stop by for at least a couple of them.
Tuesday: Sparkling Wine Cocktails
Wednesday: Live Music – Tall Heights with Nathan Hannan – and Local Beer Drink Deals
Thursday: Traverse City Film Fest on Tap with DJ Tom Spinning Vinyl
Friday: Gidget Movies with Surf Cocktails
Saturday: Dance Party with Silent Disco
Sunday: “That’s a Wrap” Brunch from 11 am to 3 pm
Bold. Creative. Collaborative.
It has been a pleasure to get to know Gary and Allison a bit over the last few months. We first met them when they graciously participated in our Spring Fairy Fling event to celebrate the opening of the Fairy Trails. Despite their busy schedules, they agreed without hesitation to join in and helped to create a great vibe at the event. At a time when Heather and I were just getting acclimated – with this blog and in this town – that meant a lot.
We’ve written before about what it means to us to “Live North,” and how Traverse City is a place that empowers people to live purposeful, meaningful and active lives. This empowerment, however, is not the result of some mystical, magical nutrient in the soil or molecule in the air. It’s both the place, and the people, that inspire others to live boldly, be creative, and collaborate freely.
There’s no doubt that Gary and Allison embody that spirit and have provided that inspiration for others. They achieved tremendous success in New York City, but weren’t afraid to step away and pursue something different, while at the same time running their Brooklyn ventures from afar.
Rather than lamenting what they left behind, they built something new, somewhere new, which in a few short years has become one of the social and cultural epicenters of Traverse City. And in the process they’ve inspired and enabled a whole new fleet of entrepreneurs – an ever increasing number of food truck operators – to get their businesses off the ground.
We can’t wait to see what Gary and Allison have in store next. Right now they are focused on growing The Little Fleet by creating fun events and providing a great customer experience at Traverse City’s favorite neighborhood hangout. They are also in the process of building their Shrub Soda (vinegar soda) brand and expanding its presence downstate.
In whatever they decide to pursue, you can safely bet that Gary and Allison will focus on three main ingredients that have helped them succeed in the past: Their ideas will be bold, their execution will be creative, and their approach will be collaborative. That sounds like a perfect recipe for success in Traverse City.