Ludington businesses celebrate big anniversaries

Ludington is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, a true milestone for any Michigan community.

A host of businesses in this Lake Michigan city also are marking milestone anniversaries --  decades, in fact. Longevity must run through the sidewalks of this community, popular for its beaches, parks, downtown shopping and museums.

"I think it's a combination of factors," says Mitch Foster, Ludington city manager. "These companies have always been committed to the community and the community has always supported these businesses with their patronage. The businesses are willing to support one another too."

He notes that during anniversaries, businesses often celebrate at local restaurants and other venues and provide employees with gift cards for local businesses. During the first weeks of the pandemic, for example, the community purchased $40,000 in gift cards from local businesses. 

Here's a look at three companies of several businesses celebrating decades of business in Ludington.

Ludington Beverage Company

This fourth-generation, 100 percent veteran-owned and operated business distributes beer, wine, ready-to-drink spirits in cans, water, teas, and “beverages across the spectrum” to retailers, restaurants, bars and special events in parts of seven counties in northwestern Michigan. This year marks the company’s 90th anniversary.

The Ludington Beverage Company began business right after Prohibtion.

Tad Reed, a fourth-generation owner, is the company president. He began working in the warehouse as a boy and through high school and into college. Reed returned to the family company in 2016 after a career in education and in the U.S. Army. Lieutenant  Colonel Reed continues his military service in the Michigan Army National Guard. 

Established: 1933

Number of employees: Thirty full-time workers, many of whom have been with the company for decades.

How did the company come to be: Andrew and Grace Hengstler, founded the company directly after Prohibition in 1933. When Andrew passed away in 1937, his friends, Leo and Vera Reed purchased the business. Tad’s great-grandfather had a passion for beer and had experience running a pool hall and bar.  Vera had experience managing other businesses.

Challenges: The changing landscape of the beverage distribution industry has been a challenge. The explosion of craft breweries, wineries and distilleries has created a wealth of products. “The United States went from 200 breweries to several thousand almost overnight,” Reed says. The vast selection of choices adds complexity in terms of logistics and sales. Like other businesses, the company is dealing with rising costs of products and operations. 

How has the company managed to stay in business for so many years: Despite widespread consolidation in the industry, Ludington Beverage Company has managed to thrive. “We’ve always had a mission to make sure our families stay right here,” Reed says, noting he reworked the company’s mission statement when he arrived. That statement reiterates commitment to their “family of employees,” the communities in which they live and service, their customers, and working as a “TEAM of teams.”

House of Flavors 

The third-generation ice cream shop and restaurant has been a staple in downtown Ludington for 75 years. The ice cream manufacturing operations became part of Protein Holdings Inc., in the 1990s, and today is Michigan’s largest producer of ice cream. 

Popular with tourists and locals alike, the House of Flavors began as dairy operation decades ago.

Barry Neal has been a fixture in the family operations since he was a toddler. As an adult, he left briefly to work as an advertising director for the Holland Sentinel. Today, he is the owner and head of operations of the restaurant and ice cream shop.

Established: 1948

How the company came to be: Bob Neal Sr. had been working at a dairy, Miller Dairy, in Grand Haven. In 1948, he purchased a 50 percent interest in the business and relocated to Ludington, naming his company Park Dairy. The company initially produced milk, buttermilk, cottage cheese and ice cream. In the 1950s, the company switched to producing solely ice cream and became the House of Flavors in 1964. Over the years, the company has upgraded and expanded production facilities.

Challenges: The rising costs of food products for the ice cream store and restaurant are a big concern. “Finding that balance in pricing is tough,” Neal says. “We serve a huge population of seniors. They don’t have a lot of extra income. We have really walked a fine line between rising costs and raising prices, but we’ve tried to maintain a balance,” he says. Despite higher costs, the restaurant continues to give local customers free ice cream with their meals during the off-season, to thank them for enduring the busy summer tourist season. 

How has the company managed to stay in business for so many years: Neal credits his employee, customer and visitor bases. “We try to build relationships at the front of the house – in the ice cream store,” he says. “We have built good, long-time relationships with customers that have lasted generations. We know their children and their grandchildren. We’re very service-oriented.

“Ludington is like living in a park,” he adds. “There is so much access to woods and water. West Michigan has a good, hard-working population base, people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Generally speaking, we’re a happy society here.”

S.S. Badger
Lake Michigan Carferry

The S.S. Badger was initially launched into service in 1953, hauling loaded railroad cars across Lake Michigan, considered a shortcut. Four decades later, the ship was refurbished to haul cars and passengers across Lake Michigan to Wisconsin.

The S.S. Badger was built to haul railroad cars across Lake Michigan.

 Today, the S.S. Badger is the last coal-fired passenger steamship in operation in the country. Sailing from mid-May to early October, the 410-foot-long ship hauls thousands of passengers and cars across the lake each year. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016.

Established: 1953

Number of employees: The company has 200 workers – in peak season – in Ludington and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. About 10 employees work in the company’s corporate office. 

How the company came to be: Originally built for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, the S.S. Badger hauled loaded railroad cars across Lake Michigan. During the heyday of that era, seven ships sailed in and out of Ludington year-round, transporting rail freight and passengers. That service ended in the late 1980s. Refurbished in 1992, the ship became a car and passenger ferry. The company has changed hands over the years and remained family-owned until the end of 2020. It was purchased by another family-based company in Cleveland, Interlake Maritime Services.

Challenges: “We like to say the S.S. Badger has stood the test of time,” says Shelby Soberalski, director of marketing and sales. The ship has been able to navigate changes in transportation over the years, now relying on car and ferry services. “We think she has a very bright future ahead of her. We look forward to keeping the service going.”

How has the company managed to stay in business for so many years: “We can’t do what we do without our amazing passengers,” Soberalski says. “We welcome returning and new faces every year. We owe a lot of credit to our dedicated crew. It’s not every day you can find an engineer that understands steam technology.”

She also credits the ports – Ludington and Manitowoc. “It’s very easy to tell visitors to visit both cities. They’re amazing port cities. We do have a devoted community here ready to support the Badger and why we need to sail. People welcome us to port when we return. You’ll see them lining the break wall and waving when we return. Some take out trumpets and do a salute.”
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