When you arrive in the sleepy little village of Egg Harbor by way of Highway 42, the clean, glistening white storefront in the heart of town, across the street from Main Street Market, might surprise you a bit. Not by the fact that it’s there – the complex itself has been there for about 10 years – but by the fact that its sparkling building renovations, brightly colored flags and flowers, and full parking lot of cars makes the village more vibrant and bustling than it has looked in years. This gateway storefront is now home to Liberty Square, one of Door County’s newest destinations for shopping, entertainment, and dining. And what had once been a diner and a milkshake parlor is now The Bistro, a comfortable and stylish restaurant with delicious food, a wide selection, and, best of all, an affordable price tag.
Like many great ideas, the concept of Liberty Square was born out of sheer boredom. Richard and Pamela Wegner had lived in Madison for all of their working lives (Richard’s jobs ranged from business owner to government official to Special Assistant to the President of the University of Wisconsin; Pamela is a retired Executive Vice-President of Alliant Energy), but they had also been Door County property owners since the mid-1970s, owning a home in Jacksonport. They were excited to come up to the peninsula and begin life as retirees – at first. “When Pamela and I retired and moved up to Door County full time, we were happily retired,” Richard says. “Then, it slowly became ‘unhappily.’ We ran out of things to do! Our retirement became a restless struggle – too much leisure time. We had never had leisure time before, and we realized that we didn’t really want it.”
Looking for a potential business venture, the Wegners contacted Baylake Bank regarding distressed properties, and the Village Shops of Egg Harbor property was the first one they looked at. “We saw a huge potential with the property,” Pamela says. “The interior and exterior were both very run down, but we wanted to create a unique shopping and dining experience – and we knew the location and space the property offered could not be beat.”
Once the Wegners found the property, the next logical step was to look for a business partner. “Pamela and I are both of sound mind and body,” Richard laughs, “but we knew we needed a younger professional that would be the lifeblood of our business – someone vibrant and creative who was willing to throw his entire being into the business. And we found that someone in Chris.”
Chris Anderson, the Wegners’ business partner since the purchase of the property in November 2006, was born close to Door County in the town of Oconto. He attended UW-Stout where he received a degree in Industrial Technological Management with a minor in Product Development. After graduating from college, he moved to Orlando, Florida, and went on to become a professional water-skier for 10 years. Anderson’s last year of water-skiing was spent in China, and he went on to live there for three years, getting a job in quality control for a stainless steel cookware company. “My mom was very pleased that I finally had a job in which I was able to use my college degree!” he smiles.
Before long, though, he started to miss home, and Door County in particular, where he had spent many family vacations as a child. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Door County was the place he wanted to plant his roots. After moving back, he began working for Nathan Nichols & Company, and it was not long after that he met Richard and Pamela Wegner.
All of these background details about Liberty Square and this working partnership need to be addressed because this very effective, complementary partnership is what drives the success of Liberty Square and The Bistro. Interviewing these three people, I could not remember a time when I had talked with a group more in tune with each other as well as the needs and priorities of their business. Chris is quick to credit this partnership with a lot of Liberty Square’s – and The Bistro’s – success. “The partnership couldn’t be more right,” Chris says. “We complement each other’s personalities so well. Pamela and Richard have taken me under their wing, and it’s been wonderful to learn from them.” Richard agrees, saying, “This arrangement has worked beyond our wildest expectations. Chris’s energy and spirit is why so many of our Bistro customers keep coming back. Actually, they are more than just customers – Chris has made them into friends.”
From the purchase of the property in November 2006, it was a quick turn-around to get the building ready for the next Door County season. The Bistro was the first of Liberty Square’s ventures, opening in April 2007. The restaurant itself is a simultaneous study in class and comfort, with spacious tables, comfortable chairs, and bay windows that look out onto the hustle and bustle of downtown Egg Harbor. The aesthetics of the restaurant were very important to the Wegners and Anderson at the outset, as evidenced by the rich color palette of the space and the hand-painted murals of Door County artist Tim Nyberg.
The Bistro’s food and its preparation are also held to the same classic and comfortable standards. According to Richard and Pamela, the overarching theme and goal of The Bistro can be broken down into six distinct qualities – creating a pleasant, relaxed ambience; giving a range of food options; supplying an interesting array of beverages, from beers to wines to a great cup of coffee; having a modest price point for meals that everyone can afford; giving the options of healthy food and vegetarian dishes whenever possible; and, of course, simply having great food. “We wanted to create a place where there wasn’t a lot of pretense,” Richard says. “I wanted the prime rib person and the sandwich person to be able to eat at the same table together.”
Being able to offer healthy eating options and vegetarian dishes is what is most important to Pamela. “Obviously we aren’t food dictators – we aren’t going to tell you what to eat,” she laughs, “but as a restaurant, we have a responsibility to offer healthy food. We try to eliminate excess salts and trans fats whenever we can, and we have a large variety of vegetarian entrées.” The Bistro also takes advantage of buying organic and local ingredients whenever possible.
The other item that The Bistro has eliminated from its menu is the cost of worldwide food inflation. “We pride ourselves on being able to offer our meal at a moderate price point,” Richard says. “The economic climate is tough out there right now. We know that most of our customers already paid plenty at the gas pump to get here, so we deliberately do not add the cost of food inflation. We wanted to give something back, both to the people that live here year round and the people that are vacationing up here. We want people to be able to enjoy themselves – even when the economy isn’t exactly helping!” Not only is the food reasonable at The Bistro, but the drinks are as well, with most glasses of house wine being only $4.75 a glass.
All three owners of Liberty Square and The Bistro say that the new and revived shopping and dining complex has been enthusiastically received by the public. And even if someone from the public isn’t enthusiastic, the owners want to hear about it either way. “We want to hear what our customers think – positive or negative,” Richard says. “I know it seems cliché, but it really is true – we strive to create the best experience possible, whether it is at The Bistro or at our stores.” In fact, many new offerings at The Bistro, such as their new breakfast specials, were influenced directly by customers.
“It’s not just a tough world out there economically, it’s sometimes a tough world out there in general,” Pamela adds. “We knew this going into the business, so from the very beginning we said, ‘if we’re going to do this, we need to do it right. We need to be able to offer not just good food and good products, but a good experience as well.’ I’d like to think that with our food, our choices, and our prices, we give people a bit of a respite from their challenging lives – in more ways than one.”
The Bistro at Liberty Square is located at 7755 Highway 42 in Egg Harbor. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm and is open year round. Besides the offerings at The Bistro, Liberty Square also offers specialty and themed dinners as well as musical entertainment in The Board Room. For The Bistro’s full menu or a detailed schedule of dinners and events, please contact The Bistro at Liberty Square at (920) 868-4848 or visit www.libertysquareshops.com.