News Story

No Customers, No Revenue, So This Eatery Feeds First Responders For Free

‘Hard times bring people together’

The COVID-19 epidemic and government lockdowns of businesses have caused restaurant owners and their workers to wonder whether their business and their jobs will survive the crisis. But one establishment in Fremont is turning the emergency into an opportunity to serve its Newago County community.

Diane Schindlbeck and her husband Eric bought Lakes 23 Restaurant and Pub in August 2019. The couple had no restaurant experience but had been regular patrons of the establishment for several years. The restaurant, which is located on a golf course, is only open from April through October each year.

“We were so looking forward to April 1st when we were going to open up for spring,” Schindlbeck said.

But then the coronavirus hit.

“When Michigan’s COVID-19 ‘Stay at Home’ order was first given, we immediately knew it would be a big hit to our community and to our new business,” Schindlbeck said. “As of Friday, March 13, we had large events planned for 10 straight days. All of the sudden, we had phone call after phone call of events cancelling.”

During that first week, she and her husband sat down with their 20 employees — many of whom depend on their jobs at Lakes 23 for their livelihoods — to determine the next steps.

“We didn’t want to lose our staff when we knew we’d all be back together and open our doors,” Schindlbeck recalled. “We’d finally gotten a great team together and we were going to have to tell them they didn’t have a job.”

Instead of despairing, the Schindlbecks got creative. It was Eric who suggested they use the crisis as an opportunity to serve first responders. Thanks to a donation from a family friend, they had the funding to distribute the first batch of meals. Lakes 23 began donating lunches and dinners to the Newaygo County Sheriff’s Department. Soon, the restaurant expanded its deliveries to Newaygo Central Dispatch, the local EMS squad, courthouse, and another police department across the county. For Easter, it offered heat-and-serve ham dinners. The restaurant has delivered hundreds of free meals, all funded by donations.

“It ranges from a local customer picking up dinner for their family and dropping a $10 or $20 tip, all the way to someone calling and saying they want to pay for all of the meals for a day,” Diane said.

While COVID-19 has caused incredible disruption and loss, she noted that in Fremont, it’s also brought out a remarkable spirit of generosity and desire to help others.

“When you see the whole community come together and be strong, that’s a great thing,” she said. “Hard times bring people together and I really believe that’s what’s happening here.”

So far, Lakes 23 is the only restaurant in the county to have implemented a meal donation program like this, but it’s gaining traction. In one case, the Schindlbecks bought pizzas from their friends in a neighboring county and delivered them to first responders. The owner of the pizza shop was so inspired by the idea that he donated half the bill toward delivering more food to first responders.

“This, not coronavirus, is what we want to be contagious — paying it forward!” Schindlbeck said.

As for how long they’ll be donating meals, Schindlbeck said they’ve made a commitment to keep it up until they can reopen their doors to the public.

“God has blessed us,” she said. “Our community has supported us so well and I have faith we’ll continue through the end.”

The couple look forward to welcoming patrons back to their restaurant and the golf course. Until then, they’re encouraging other restaurant owners to give back to their communities.

“We would love to help other restaurants get this started in their area,” she said. “This is such a feel-good moment and it gives you such a sense of purpose to serve those who serve us. Call us and we’ll tell you how to do it.”