ONE OF THE most beloved and respected restaurants in town will soon be changing hands.
Ursula Stock and her husband Sean Murray are selling the Sweet Water Cafe after 24 years. They’re selling it to two local women, Leslie Seratti and Libby Nelson. Leslie’s a longtime bartender at the Landmark Inn, Libby’s a schoolteacher with a background in food service, as well.
The deal won’t be finalized until after the first of the year but things appear set. The purchase agreement was signed a couple of weeks ago, and the financing–from a bank and private investors–is solid.
“It’s really hard for me,” Ursula says of the impending sale. “It’s my life’s work. I raised my children here.”
She’s selling it because Sean has been director of dining services at a university in California the last two years which has kept them apart more than they would like, and after nearly a quarter century, maybe it’s just time to move on to a new challenge.
What they started back in 1993 was unique in Marquette. Natural food. Nothing pre-prepared. Food from scratch. Wholesome, healthy meals. With as many farm-to-table ingredients as they could find in the U.P. long before “farm-to-table” became trendy.
They were food pioneers who managed to make their dream become reality. What more can you ask for in life?
And now after hiring an estimated 1500 employees over the last quarter century and serving tens of thousands of devoted customers, they’re handing their gem of a restaurant over to Leslie and Libby with the expectation that they’ll treasure it as much as Ursula and Sean did.
“I have complete confidence in Leslie and Libby,” Ursula tells you. “I’ve gotten to know them well over the last three years. They’re willing to do the work and they’ve surrounded themselves with good people.”
So how did the deal happen?
Well, back in 2012, Leslie (on the right) was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was a dark time for her and Libby but by March of 2013, prospects were brightening. Leslie was just about done with her treatment, and her prognosis looked good.
On Leslie’s birthday, Libby took her to the Sweet Water for a birthday breakfast, a tradition for them.
And as they ate, looked around, and started talking, the wheels started turning.
“I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant,” Leslie says. And they adored the Sweet Water. “I love walking into this place. The natural light. The vaulted ceilings. And the food, and the staff. There’s light, there’s warmth here. I just love it.”
Libby listened to her intently as they lingered over breakfast. “I wanted to make her dream happen,” she says. “She deserved it.”
So at the end of the meal, they left a note for Ursula that essentially said, “If you ever want to sell this place, we would love to buy it and we would honor what you have created here.”
Over the years, Ursula had heard from a number of suitors but they all came and went. She wasn’t ready to sell.
But Libby and Leslie were different. They were persistent. They let her know several times over the next few years that they were serious. They really, really wanted the Sweet Water.
Aside from Ursula’s reluctance, they had another huge problem. They weren’t wealthy. Just regular gals who worked hard.
They had to find investors and an institution who believed in them. Not surprisingly, they found them.
And then Ursula finally made her fateful decision to let go of the Sweet Water.
The dream for Leslie and Libby would now, against all odds, become reality. Leslie would run the restaurant and Libby would continue teaching–“I love it!” she says–while lending support and working full time at the restaurant in the summer.
They’ll be taking over, they expect, within the next several weeks but they’re already making plans. They’re constructing a bar to make the Sweet Water more of a nighttime venue. They’ll extend the hours gradually. They’ll add some staff gradually. And Leslie will add to the menu–some of her family’s Mexican dishes. “Enchiladas like you never tasted before…from scratch,” she says with a gleam in her eye.
But what they won’t do is change the essence of the Sweet Water. It’ll remain a place where you can find real food. Healthy meals, made from scratch.
And a place where you can enjoy your meals served by warm, friendly people, in glorious natural light that pours in under the vaulted ceilings.
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