When Garnet Lewis and her business partners decided to name their gourmet food shop in Douglas Isabel’s Market & Eatery, they had a clear choice in mind. Their namesake was an area school teacher and principal who had been very charitable to the West Michigan community some 70 years ago. But after a little additional research, they found LGBTQ+ ties.
Isabel Graham was a lesbian.
This was more than a bit of useless trivia to the four gay women owners of the market and eatery.
“She and her partner lived here in Douglas down on Union St.,” Lewis explained. “Basically, in the various Census report documents they listed each other as ‘partner,’ and the next time, like in the ’30s, they list each other as ‘spouse.’ Can you imagine? Back in the ’30s. Serious to God.”
Had they been alive in the present day, perhaps Graham and her partner would have had their wedding reception catered by Isabel’s, which at first had a slow start due to COVID-related restrictions. Now, Lewis, her partners and staff are gearing up for larger events they’ve yet been unable to accommodate since purchasing the building in 2019.
“If you build it, they will come” is a truism when it comes to Isabel’s: a retail survey revealed a strong desire of residents in the Saugatuck/Douglas area for an upscale grocery where they could purchase items like fresh fish, bread and deli. Residents also sought a location that could benefit visitors from places like Chicago, Indiana and St. Louis, Missouri. Enter Isabel’s that not only offers the above but catering, cooking classes, baked goods and space for sitting and enjoying a meal ordered from a sit-down menu.
With the exception of the fresh fish, bread and croissants, everything is made in-house. The deli salads are very popular, as are the cinnamon rolls, which Isabel’s has become known for. Another unique feature of the market is a desire to educate its patrons.
“The other thing that we’ve really had a mission to educate and provide folks with the opportunity to learn,” Lewis said. “Whether it’s the pairing of a wine with a cheese, a plant-based meal, sheet pan cooking, helping them kind of learn and grow as they go, which is really cool. It’s a comfortable environment for folks to go to come and learn, which I think many people appreciate. I know I always have.”
If Isabel’s sounds like an ideal wedding caterer, readers might wish to book their engagements soon, as Lewis said more than once that she expects the business to be “slammed” due to high demand for catering in the area. This need has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which left potential customers with few options. She talked about some of the smaller-scale events Isabel’s has done and what she envisions for the future.
“We were fully intending, of course, to open with a fully functioning catering and events function, and COVID quickly shut that down,” Lewis recalled. “We’ve done a few catering events; we did one the other day … a breakfast event off-site. But we have a full catering license with a liquor license that goes with it. So, now that the occupancy issues are easing up a bit, it’s allowed us to start doing some more catering events.”
In-house events are an option, too: Isabel’s has an atrium with a capacity of 79 people.
“Right before we really shut down again and all, we had a number of really neat events here in the atrium,” Lewis said. “We had a baby shower, which was phenomenal, we had a birthday party, but have not yet had the ability to do any wedding receptions just ‘cause of size. We had one booked for Labor Day, and, of course, that ended up being outside at their house, and we catered that event.”
However, a few weddings are already planned for late spring/early summer.
When asked about the most popular catering dishes on offer at Isabel’s, Lewis insisted that it’s entirely up to the customer: their chef will “cater” to their specific needs.
“Sometimes folks come with a set idea of what they want; other times folks really have no idea and they want to sit down with us and … and see what they can come up with,” she said. “We’ve got a general manager who has helped cater and done weddings for many, many years. She actually did Vicki [Cobb’s] and my wedding. She really runs a good show, and she’ll sit down with each customer individually and help them set up their event specific to their needs.”
However, one area of specialty Lewis mentioned was Isabel’s pasta, because Isabel’s main chef has a strong background in Italian cooking. Options abound for one’s wedding cake as well.
“I know it’s weird because folks are used to going in and being told, ‘OK, this is what we serve: one, two, three: that’s your options,” Lewis said. “What’s nice about having our own baker [is] she’s very, very talented; she makes all of our cakes. So we can give a customer the option. You can either contract with someone to do your cake, or we’ll have you do a taste-testing with our baker and we’ll see what we can put together for you. So that’s the neat part of being flexible and able to do this.”
Lewis added that if Isabel’s is fortunate enough to have as much catering business as anticipated, the staff may have to become more regimented when it comes to menu choices.
For now, Lewis can be found at Isabel’s in-person, sometimes in what has come to be known as “the dish pit” in the back of the house. That’s because she and her business partners feel it’s important to remain as hands-on in running the business as possible.
While technically in retirement, those who know Lewis’ history might not be surprised to learn that she’s currently a Saugatuck City Council member, started a business and had a stint as a candidate for the Michigan State Legislature.
She had a clear answer to the question, “Is Garnet Lewis failing at retirement?”
“Good gravy,” she replied. “I’ve so failed at retirement. It’s not even funny.”
Isabel’s is located at 310 Blue Star Highway in Douglas. Learn more at isabelsmarket.com.