2018-11-08 / Life in Leelanau

Businesses gearing up for the holiday season

By Eric Carlson
of the Enterprise staff


KATHY COLE of Cherry Republic dusts shelves at the company’s retail store in Glen Arbor.A She started out at the company’s warehouse and shipping facility in Empire as a seasonal employee before landing her year-round job. KATHY COLE of Cherry Republic dusts shelves at the company’s retail store in Glen Arbor.A She started out at the company’s warehouse and shipping facility in Empire as a seasonal employee before landing her year-round job. With the busy summer visitor season long gone and the fall “shoulder season” winding down, some local employers are now looking to staff up for winter holiday shopping.

Finding good employees is always hard in Leelanau County with a large population of relatively affluent retirees and a seasonal economy heavily weighted toward agriculture and summer fun in the sun.

Older employees who don’t go back to school in the fall often stick around long enough to cater to visitors enjoying wine, cider and craft beer as the leaves change color. Many of them are gone by the time the trees are bare, however.

Currently, one the county’s largest single employers, Cherry Republic, is looking for help mostly to work as “packers, pickers and fillers” at its warehouse and shipping facility in Empire. In fact, Cherry Republic was holding a “Holiday Hiring Event” there today from 2 to 6 p.m.


JUDY ROBERTS packs a holiday gift box at the Cherry Republic warehouse and shipping facility in Empire. The company was holding a “holiday job fair” today. JUDY ROBERTS packs a holiday gift box at the Cherry Republic warehouse and shipping facility in Empire. The company was holding a “holiday job fair” today. Business picks up for Cherry Republic and many other local businesses that rely on “mail-order” or Internet and phone order sales of locally-made Leelanau County goodies for the holidays. Cherry Republic’s extensive line of cherry products make popular holiday gifts for anyone who loves Leelanau.

“We were pretty successful in filling our need for employees leading up to the holidays last year around this time,” said Cherry Republic human resources manager Kelli Stepka. “We’re confident we’ll get the help we need this year. People like working here, and our jobs fill a need some people have for temporary employment this time of year.”

Not all employers in Leelanau County are as successful at meeting their labor needs, however. John and Anne Hoyt, proprietors of Leelanau Cheese, have been forced to cut back production of their award-winning cheese at least in part because of a lack of help.

“We are cutting production this year because of a lack of milk being produced in Leelanau County – and that’s forced us to go up to East Jordan for milk, which takes more time and labor,” said Anne Hoyt.

Finding and keeping qualified help is “a nightmare every year,” Hoyt said. A lack of affordable “workforce housing” is just part of the problem, she added. It doesn’t make sense to hire someone who commutes everyday from Kalkaska where the rent is cheap.

“The biggest problem we have is that the economy in general here in Leelanau County is just so seasonal,” Hoyt said. “We’re over-busy in the summer, everybody gets burned out working so hard, and then it’s dead for a while.”

Unlike packing gift boxes at a place like Cherry Republic, learning how to make some of the best cheese on the planet has a much steeper learning curve: takes time to train someone who is motivated to gain those skills.

“Then, there’s suddenly nothing for them to do – and you can’t pay them a wage for doing nothing,” Hoyt said.

Business does pick up for Leelanau Cheese a little in the fall and spring she said, but the winter holiday season is “the shortest season of all” for them.

Finding employees for seasonal work is just part of the problem, however. Attracting and retaining employees year-round seems to be getting harder each year, especially for entry-level service jobs.

In the spring of 2016, The Homestead of Glen Arbor, which operates several food service establishments in addition to lodging facilities, held a well-publicized job fair which resulted in exactly zero new hires – nobody came. Like many Leelanau County businesses, The Homestead continues to struggle.

“Help wanted” ads in the Leelanau Enterprise consistently include an appeal from the Northport Highlands for nurses, nursing assistants and food service personnel.

“We’re lucky that we have the fine, qualified staff in place right now that’s meeting our needs,” said Brenda Redman an executive assistant at Northport Highlands. “But it’s true that we’re always on the lookout for more help.”

The Maple Valley Nursing Home in Maple City had also placed an ad seeking caregivers. Both Maple Valley Nursing Home and Northport Highlands were offering “sign-on” bonuses plus fringe benefits to any qualified applicants.

Kathy Cole of Glen Arbor started out working in Cherry Republic’s packing and shipping facility in Empire on a seasonal basis, but now works year-round at the main retail store in downtown Glen Arbor.

“There’s opportunity here if you take advantage of it,” Cole said. “It’s a fun, cool place to work.”

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