I have not always been great at finding time to relax and unwind. Since we started FIG, work has been our primary focus and takes up much of my time, but I do realize that getting time off is necessary and Justin and I have always managed at least one vacation per year and a couple of days off here and there. I grew up in Michigan and even though I moved away I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for the state. When I started looking at our busy summer calendar (back in the early spring) I noticed that we had very few weekends off that would give us an opportunity to travel up to Michigan for a respite. However there was one lonely weekend in August where both Saturday and Sunday were free and clear. I immediately signed into our Google Calendar and labeled those dates "FIG Vacation." Instead of just getting away alone, I figured that by the middle of August the whole staff would need a break and I started
The FIG staff retreat would be at my parent's lake house just north of Muskegon. It would be time for our full time office and kitchen staff (and their significant others) to get to know each other a little better and relax. No hokey team-building games, no agenda, no schedule. Then I started to think about the possibility of making Saturday a day for our service staff to join us on a mini farm tour on the way to the lake house. So of course I had to add a bit of an agenda into the mix.
So, on Saturday August 16th we climbed into our vehicles and a rented motor coach (aka party bus) to make our way caravan-style to Michigan. Our first stop was a goat cheese farm in Fennville called Evergreen Lane. We have been using cheese from Evergreen for a couple years at FIG and I was excited to hear their story. Cathy, the head cheesemaker and owner, was gracious from the beginning and happily invited our group (more than 20!) for a tour and tasting. The farm was magical - small but diverse with goats, pigs, horse, and ducks. They have a dairy that milks goats for them, but they produce all of their cheeses on-site including some mixed and cow's milk cheeses. They also raise heritage breed pigs (feeding them the whey by-product from their cheese production). It was inspiring to see the small scale production and know we were supporting this small farm.
After a brief stop for lunch, we were on our way to pick blueberries. If anybody has been to southwest Michigan in August you know that this is a top activity. I wanted to visit Ellis Family Farm in Benton Harbor because we use Ellis for ingredients all season long from asparagus, to mint, to apples, to blueberries, but unfortunately Rene, the proprietress at Ellis, was making deliveries in Chicago and we couldn't sync up our schedules. There are many, many you-pick spots along the highway, but after a little investigation I decided that Pleasant Hill Farm was the right fit. Mostly due to the fact that they are a certified organic farm. We were greeted by a down-to-earth farmer you gave us each a white bucket and sent us into the fields. Many in our group had not previously been blueberry picking and we were all pretty blown-away by the beauty and abundance. Needless to say blueberries were our primary snack for the rest of the trip.
With hard cider becoming more popular (and less sweet) the last few years, Michigan definitely has an advantage with so many great apples grown right there! We stopped at two cideries during our trip - Virtue and Vandermill. Many in Chicago are familiar with Virtue because the head cider maker their is Goose Island veteran, Greg Hall. They just finished building a great barn and with about 8 ciders on tap you couldn't hear any of us complaining. Virtue is using heirloom varieties to create a European style ciders (not sweet, complex with notes of cheese, wood, and spice). Vandermill offers a slightly different take with slightly sweeter, more apply ciders that generally use the same juice as a base to create different flavors with additions like ginger, peach, pine, and pecans. Vandermill has a really great restaurant on-site and is definitely worth the extra drive if you have time.
We parted with the service staff who rode the party bus back to Chicago while we continued on to our final destination which involved a few days of eating blueberries (and a lot more great, local food), floating down the creek in tubes, and letting that work stress slide right off our backs. We came back to Chicago ready to focus on finishing wedding season off with a bang and planning for FIG's future. And since I've hinted at all of our great new staff I'll make sure they introduce themselves soon.