Commentary: What Change Has Wrought Is In Eye of Beholder

by Jim Jordan

In 2016, the Village of Ephraim voted to allow the sale of beer and wine, giving up its status as the final dry municipality in the state. During the months preceding that decision, discussions about the merits of the sale of alcohol were as much a question as upholding the village’s tradition and character.

Since the passage of the new ordinance in Ephraim, Door County has seen the addition of several new or expanded high-profile tasting rooms selling locally brewed beer and craft batch liquor. These businesses join a field of local purveyors of wine and spirits, all fighting for recognition and tourist dollars.

Given a generally conservative culture that closely guards the image of Door County, has the area strayed from its roots and lost its way in the process? Or, have local entrepreneurs simply taken advantage of available resources and made smart business decisions, recognizing the area is actively competing for tourist dollars with other state and regional destinations?

According to Door County Visitor Bureau Membership Director Phil Berndt, the number of drinking establishments isn’t rising fast. “We haven’t seen any increase in the number of bars or taverns for decades,” he said.

Further, the bureau’s website highlights a total of 14 member businesses devoted to the sale of wines, beer, spirits and hard cider. For 2018, the category added only one business: the recently opened Hatch Distilling Company. Thus, the category’s numbers are at a steady state, representing less than 2 percent of the total membership, with the majority of the alcohol-related businesses having been in place for years.

Jim Schuessler, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC), echoes that data, noting that “even though it feels like a proliferation, it’s an emerging category. When compared to itself, there has been modest expansion.”

Schuessler credited the peninsula’s businesses with adjusting to market demand. “Tourists are coming to Door County and looking for this type of customer experience,” he said.

Another potential answer to the question has been the marketing skills and investments made by the operators of these businesses. Since a fire destroyed Shipwrecked Brewery in August of 2017, the rebuilding of this establishment has received occasional coverage from news outlets in the area. In Baileys Harbor, the impressive structure of the Door County Brewing Company Taproom and Music Hall, which earned the DCEDC Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2017, has also captured local attention. In 2018, Hatch Distilling Company opened a new, 7,800-square-foot building, adding to the architecture of Egg Harbor.

Hatch owner Chris Roedl crafts spirits with organic grains and honey. He views his business as “an extension of what Door County does best relative to tourism and agriculture.” He said his business has done well in its first year of operation. Roedl said he supports Ephraim’s change in policy, especially for the owners of restaurants located in the village who are now better able to compete with those in other municipalities.

It is hard to gauge the subjective feelings about the new ordinance in Ephraim. Reverend Dawn Volpe of the Ephraim Moravian Church indicated that two years after the fact, the impact of the change in the law, in her opinion, has “not been that big of a deal. The people who objected previously probably still object.”

Diane Kirkland, a longtime clerk for the village and a resident for 35 years, voted against introducing alcohol sales in Ephraim. However, she said her motivation was simply to “uphold the tradition of being the last dry village (in the state).” While she continues to object to festivals that focus on alcohol, Kirkland also said she can appreciate when such a business is “done tastefully.”

Even though Volpe sees no specific problems associated with the change in Ephraim, she expressed concern about “the year-round culture where people wink at alcoholism” or “get behind the wheel after being overserved,” characterizing it as a problem in general. Roedl mirrored that sentiment, saying that his business is trying to celebrate people and that its product “is not meant to be overindulged.”

In many respects, the expansion of tasting rooms seems to parallel the recent investments in local fine and casual dining establishments. Many of these businesses have invested in architecture or upgrades designed to provide a unique customer experience.

The answer to the original provocative question about whether Door County has strayed from its roots is likely in the eye of the beholder. However, like it or not, the area operates in a larger, dynamic environment, competing for tourists with other vacation destinations. And as tourists continue to seek unique experiences, they vote with their dollars, driving further change. To remain a viable tourist destination, the area will continue to see changes as entrepreneurs tap into national trends that influence Door County.

Jim Jordan is a semi-retired insurance executive who relocated to Door County on a full-time basis with his wife, Nancy. After 37 years, Jordan is now an aspiring mystery writer learning a new craft. He is also an active volunteer at Gibraltar High School working with business students.