There's a new cafe in Ellsworth, Mich., that's helping the town hang on, if only by a thread — The Front Porch cafe. It's a nonprofit business, staffed only by volunteers, but it has brought some light to the darkening downtown.
The intersection of Main and Center streets constitutes downtown Ellsworth. In the past year, the 500 or so residents have lost the diner, grocery and deli, and bait shop, and that's where folks used to count on a cup of coffee.
With unemployment in the county around 16 percent, there's not a lot of extra cash to spend, but Bob Felton of the local Christian Reformed Church recognized that neighbors needed a place to gather over coffee and a cheap meal.
"We have a joke at church — if you want to get people together, bring food," Felton recalls. "And early on as we presented the vision to the people, there were some who said, 'I would never start a restaurant anytime, let alone in this kind of an economic climate.' From our perspective that was the perfect time to do it."
It seems he was right. These days you can find half the town sitting down for a nonprofit, nondenominational meal. Some are there for the $5 breakfasts, and others for pie: coconut, peanut butter, chocolate cream and lemon meringue.
And it's not just The Front Porch that seems to benefit. Bob Vollmer volunteers at the cafe on Thursdays and owns the used car lot across the street. He says the cafe has attracted visitors from all over Michigan.
"Two people from Charlevoix came over and had breakfast here; none of them had intended to buy a car that day. Wasn't the reason to come to Ellsworth, but by the end of the day they had come back — each of them bought a car."
Slices of pie and two used car sales may not turn the economy of Ellsworth around, but they have brought hope and life to downtown.
As the undertaker John Hastings, who also volunteers at the cafe, points out, "When this place is closed, you could shoot a cannon down the street."
The church-sponsored cafe is open every day except Sundays.
Jennifer Guerra reports for Michigan Radio.