A place to gather in Felch

Nordic Trading Post offers food, coffee and conversation

FROM LEFT, LORI LIVERANCE watches 11-year-old Jessica Harwath serve Cheryl Peacock as Arlene Oman look on during Thursday’s Toast at the Post at the Nordic Trading Post in Felch Township. The group has long met on Thursday mornings at the restaurant on M-69. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

FELCH TOWNSHIP — They come before the sun is up, the logging and pickup trucks pulling in at 5 a.m. when the Nordic Trading Post gets the coffee brewing.

By 6 a.m., customers already are settled into the tables and booths or counter seats, perhaps quickly fuel up with a hot breakfast or have co-owner Karen Stephan slap together a sandwich to take along as they head off to the job or a logging site. Some will go sit in husband Jeff’s shop while he tends to equipment or machinery they brought to him.

The Nordic Trading Post, on M-69 just west of North Dickinson County Schools, is the unofficial gathering place in Felch Township, especially in the early morning before the work day begins.

It’s been that way since the restaurant reopened in 1984, Karen Stephan said.

“It seems like the customers that come in, they love it that early,” she explained.

KAREN STEPHAN, RIGHT, has run the Nordic Trading Post restaurant with her husband, Jeff, since 1984. At left is Jessica Harwath, the latest student from neighboring North Dickinson Schools to help out at the restaurant. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

Both Karen and Jeff grew up in the area, he graduating from Felch High School’s final class in 1971, she from the second class to leave North Dickinson High School in 1973.

After marrying, they lived in Anchorage, Alaska, for four and a half years before deciding in 1980 they wanted to return home and be closer to family, Karen said.

Wesley and Arlene Oman had operated Arlene’s Country Kitchen on M-69, but it had been closed down for several years. Learning the Omans wanted to sell the business, Jeff decided it would be a good site for selling and servicing chain saws, hydraulic equipment and other machinery used by the local loggers, along with small engines and lawnmowers.

They named the business Nordic Trading Post, because “in Alaska, everything was a trading post.” In another nod to that tradition, they also stocked a few groceries and other items to help area residents avoid the drive into town.

Karen admits she didn’t initially want the restaurant part. They didn’t have room for it, anyway, initially, with Jeff’s shop in the same space.

But when they added a new building better suited for Jeff’s business, they decided to bring back the restaurant in 1984

“It was going to be small, breakfast stuff,” like her Swedish pancakes made from scratch, Karen said. Omelettes proved popular, as did the “big” breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on her homemade bread.

They usually had a reliable lunch crowd as well, so the menu expanded to accommodate, with soup, chili, roast beef and porketta, all Karen’s recipes, plus sandwiches like grilled ham and cheese.

No need for late dinner hours, though — Solberg’s in Felch and the Randville Grill have that covered, she said.

Being next to the school didn’t hurt. Kids would stop before and after school; one coach would have morning practices that ended with him bringing the team over for breakfast. A paved trail with central light extends

from school to store so students don’t have to walk on the highway.

Several students worked at the Nordic Trading Post over the decades. The latest is 11-year-old Jessica Harwath, who has been fascinated with the restaurant since very young, Karen said. She’s been learning how to bake bread for the business.

Teachers gave rise about 20 years ago to the tradition of Toast at the Post on Thursdays, a morning gathering of women — some then still teaching, almost all now retired — who share news and experiences over toast made with Karen’s white, wheat and, most popular, cinnamon bread.

Kay Mattson, who formerly taught in Marquette before retiring to the area, said it started in the late 1990s when she met a North Dickinson teacher at the restaurant who wanted to talk about a new class she’d been assigned.

“And we decided, ‘Why not do this every week?'” Mattson said.

The crowd can swell to almost 20 when they’re celebrating a birthday or someone is back visiting in the area. Even when it’s perhaps only five or six, it still makes for a good group for conversation, Mattson said.

“A lot of these ladies we wouldn’t see otherwise, but we’ve become very good friends,” Mattson said, adding, “it’s just fun to be with them.”

Ernie Anderson, who lives nearby, takes breakfast at the post almost every morning. “I’m single,” the 90-year-old said, adding he lost his wife to cancer years ago. “This way, I don’t have to make breakfast myself. Got a good waitress, too; good service here,” he said with a nod toward Karen.

“People need a place that they can all gather together without having to go to someone’s house … just to enjoy each other’s company,” Karen said.

Breakfast remains the busiest time on most days. Business picks up in fall, when the hunting seasons begin, Karen said, plus people start taking drives to see the fall colors.

M-69 also is a bike route, Karen said, “so we’ve met a lot of cool people over the years,” some from abroad.

They used to remain open until after school as well, often feeding North Dickinson students before they’d head off to games. But after longtime restaurant employee Darlene Davidson was killed in 2014 in a car accident in Arizona, Karen decided to stop serving at 1 p.m., with the grocery side closing at 2 p.m. They’ve cut back, too, on what they stock for groceries.

They’ll also close up for long weekends or weeks if needed to travel. Son Cameron in downstate Michigan has a 3-year-old boy and 5-month-old girl who are the Stephans’ first grandchildren. Their daughter, Carmen, another North Dickinson grad, now lives in Portland, Ore.

But Cameron plans to move back soon, as his job will allow him to work from anywhere, Karen said. Having family close to home means the Nordic Trading Post likely will be available for that early breakfast rush for some time to come.

“As of right now, we still love doing what we’re doing. We just love the people,” Karen said. “We’ve never made big money, but we’ve always enjoyed the people here … we’ve had some really awesome people patronize the store.”

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