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Subway Proposal Shattered Door County Myth

For years most visitors and residents assumed there was a law on the books somewhere that prevented fast food chains from opening in Door County north of Sturgeon Bay. In March, that myth was put to rest when Bruce Gajewski, a Green Bay area owner of seven Subway restaurants, submitted plans to build one in Sister Bay.

Those plans sparked a debate that reached the pages of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and beyond, becoming one of Door County’s biggest news stories of the year. It also led to many conversations about what exactly constitutes a chain business.

Sister Bay Village President Denise Bhirdo put it simply at the time, noting that there was nothing in the village zoning code that prevented a chain restaurant from moving into the village. “We just haven’t had anyone try before,” she said.

Gajewski wanted to locate the Subway franchise next to Wulf Brothers, across the street from Bay Ridge Golf Course on the far south end of the village.

The first meeting to discuss the plans drew a full house and elicited a stack of letters, almost all of them opposed to the project. Most of those arguing against the project echoed the sentiment of Todd Frisoni, owner of the Door County Ice Cream Factory in Sister Bay.

“It detracts from the uniqueness of the [Door County] experience,” he said. “The lack of chains is one of the big reasons I live here and why a lot of people live here. I feel like it cheapens Sister Bay as a whole.”

But others, including some area high school students, supported his proposal and argued that it would bring a boost of business energy to the ailing business climate in Northern Door.

Pat Hockers, Gajewski’s brother-in-law, vouched for the plan. “He is a very responsible person. He brings a lot of taste to the Subway name.”

Hockers pointed to all the existing retail stores that have ties to national chains like Ace Hardware, RadioShack, Pamida, and Bumper-to-Bumper.

“Those would not be here if not for the edge of the brand names,” he said. “I’d give the man a chance.”

In the end, Sister Bay Administrator Bob Kufrin told Gajewski he would have to get a conditional use permit for the project, which would give the village much more say over the shape of the project. Sensing an uphill fight, Gajewski withdrew his plan, and Sister Bay got to work on a formula restaurant ban, which it passed in August.

As 2010 drew to a close, several other peninsula communities made plans to discuss similar ordinances, putting into practice what so many thought was already in the rule books.