Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 13, 2013

Cafe will cater to families

By JANICE BENSON Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Eat. Learn. Frolic. That’s the idea behind a new family friendly business that’s coming to town.

Elf Café is garnering local and national attention, even before it opens its doors. Even before its owners announce its location.

Local attorneys Melissa Whitman and Ellen Fred have long thought there was a need for a place in the community where parents can connect with other parents and children can play in a positive environment and eat healthy food.

“We both had the same experience when we had new babies,” Fred said. “We felt a sense of isolation, because there was nowhere to go to connect with other parents. There’s a lack of places to get a good quality meal, where kids can have fun and where parents can take a break.”

“I remembering thinking there was no place to go. It was really limiting,” said Whitman. “I missed the freedom to go places and do things. When you have a really young child with you, you want a place with a bathroom with nice changing facilities and where it’s okay if there’s a meltdown.”

Whitman had a vision of Elf, literally dreaming up the idea in vivid detail.

“It came to me that we needed to start a child-friendly café, a place for parents to go with their children, one that’s a great experience for the parents, too,” said Whitman.

She shared the idea with Fred, who immediately started brainstorming about possibilities and the concept of Elf began to take shape. Fred brought a love of local agriculture to the project, which combined nicely with Whitman’s passion for design.

The two decided to become partners, and eight months later they are close to securing money needed to make Elf a reality. All the start-up cash came from local, private investors.

“We started talking to people and it’s been an amazing experience. People are really supportive”, said Whitman.

To raise the last $25,000 needed, they are hosting a child-friendly launch party today at Left Foot Charley at the Grand Traverse Commons from 3-6 p.m., when they will kick off their crowd-funding campaign and answer questions.

Meanwhile, they have planned and collaborated with several local businesses.

Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson, Morsels Bakery, Higher Grounds Trading Company, and Light of Day Organics are helping them create a deli-style “grab and sit” menu for the café, including a fresh juice bar. They also teamed with several local professionals who will offer children’s classes, including music, art, gardening, yoga, songwriting and videography.

Whitman said they are designing an environmentally friendly, Scandinavian-inspired space with comfortable seating, wooden play structures, an infant area, classroom space, and a section where they will sell single diapers, baby food and other handy necessities a la carte. They also plan to hire six at least employees to run the operation.

Parents and grandparents are invited to become Elf members to help make the operation sustainable. Membership costs $50 per month and members receive access to Elf’s online community, unlimited access to play areas, discounted party rental rates, opportunity to participate in a community-supported agriculture program, and more.

“Membership is optional,” said Fred. “We want everyone to feel welcome.”

She said the owners plan to announce Elf’s location in the next few weeks, with a tentative grand opening date of May 1.

The concept resonates with the community, and already there’s talk of franchising opportunities.

“Our goal is to fulfill a need and to expand it to other areas. The idea is starting here, but assuming it’s successful, we’ll begin expanding both inside and outside of Michigan,” said Whitman.

They’ve already heard from interested parties in Wisconsin, Colorado and California.

“We’ve said to ourselves, ‘why doesn’t this exist already?’ said Whitman. “Elf Café is long overdue.”