Todd Bucher developed his fascination with stainless steel diners when he was a kid, traveling across the country on a vacation odyssey with his family.
His proclivity for the railcar eating emporiums led him and wife Nina to create the Delta Diner in the woods of Bayfield County, a business that has attained iconic status for visitors and locals in its nearly 20 years of operation.
The two now are looking to step back from the business and are trying to sell it.
The Delta Diner story really begins on a Bucher family vacation when they stopped at several diners that dotted the landscape from through the 1960s. Bucher fell in love at the early age of 12 with the atmosphere he encountered in the polished steel and aluminum restaurants with their lunch counters and stools, short-order cooks and waitresses with their own language for egg orders.
“We were in Pennsylvania somewhere on that trip and we stopped in at the first stainless steel diner I had ever been to, and it just kind of blew me away — the vibe, the feel. Even at 12 years old I could sense it,” Bucher said. “It was just a totally different experience for me.”
Later, working in a corporate job, he would travel 40 miles out of the way to visit diners and sit at the counter.
“I was in a suit and tie at the time, but you’d be elbow-to-elbow with people hauling over the road, people on vacation, whatever it might be, and sitting that way you realize that although people are very different, there is a lot of commonality there. It seemed to be a gathering spot where people got connected,” Bucher said.
In 2003, he and Nina escaped the corporate world to the woods in Delta, where they opened their own sleek and shiny diner. It was an investment that few thought would ever pay off. People told them they were crazy.
“That is putting it nicely. There were other people who were a little more direct in regards to what they thought of our plan,” Bucher said.
But the Buchers proved them wrong. Not only has the diner made a go of it offering hearty breakfasts and sandwiches, it has thrived and expanded.
“At the time it may not have seemed like it, but Delta was the perfect location,” Bucher said. “It’s a beautiful drive from everywhere. We really wanted to build a destination experience.”
Bucher also wanted to recreate the feel of the diners he had visited as a young boy. They started by buying a fully restored Silk City diner from a firm in Ohio.
“Silk City was kind of the Chevrolet of diners back in the 40s,” Bucher said. “There were maybe a dozen different builders of diners back in the day.”
The diner arrived on a flatbed trailer towed though Michigan, over the Mackinac Bridge and into northern Wisconsin.
The novelty of a stainless steel diner in the Northwoods may have brought people in, but it was the quality of the food and the service and the word of mouth from satisfied customers that brought them back. That also was very deliberate part of their business plan.
“We’ve been very fortunate in having some really good opportunities to hire some great people, and a really good training program so that they understand what we are trying to accomplish,” he said.
Bucher said two decades have seen the diner expand with the adjacent, Caribbean-themed TapShack, and Taste Budz, a coffee and ice cream shop.
But now it is time to begin a new chapter by finding a worthy owner to continue the diner tradition. The search has just begun as the restaurant has closed for the season.
“Both Nina and I turn 60 this year. We are healthy and there are some other adventures and experiences that we would like to take advantage of while we still can,” Bucher said.
They aren’t in any hurry to sell, and it could take a couple of years to find the right person to take over.
“The perfect buyer will be someone who recognizes the assets the diner brings to the table in terms of what the last 19 years has built,” he said.
Business researcher Craig Schowalter, who has worked with the Buchers for years to develop Delta Diner, said it has been a success because of the Buchers’ creative approach.
“Sometimes you can create a product that is strong enough and different enough to stimulate interest and get people to go way out of their way to come to that business,” he said.
He said the diner has “almost a cult following.”
“The diner is a social happening, in part physical, but what is really incredible about the diner is the service and the people who manufacture the service at the table,” he said. “These are valuable pieces of our community and our culture.”
And while people may initially be drawn to the incongruity of an urban diner in the woods with no other businesses nearby, it is the experience that makes the place such a treasure, Schowalter said.
“It’s special, it’s different, it is unique, and the service — that personal touch really celebrates the human condition,” he said. “So much of what the diner does is not about the shiny building, it is about the people.”
Schowalter said the Buchers are determined to find someone who will carry on that tradition.
“Whether that happens this year or next year, Todd and Nina are very patient. It is not something they just want to walk away from. It’s got to be very carefully transferred to a like entity, a like mindset,” he said.
Rachel Carpenter has since 2014 been creating organically sourced skin-care products, first in an apartment in Minneapolis, then in an organic farm outside of Nashville, Tenn., and finally, since July, in Bayfield.
Carpenter and her husband Jon come from a background of teaching environmental and sustainability education at the high school level. She said she became interested in holistic living more than a decade ago, and has devoted much of her time to studying herbalism and nutrition. She came to realize that skin-care products made with natural ingredients were every bit as effective and more benign than similar mass-produced items formulated with a lot of man-made chemicals of questionable safety.
Out of this insight came a business, Good Flower Farm, originally known as Original Organics Herbals. She first sold her products online direct to consumers, and now has opened the Good Flower Farm store at 40 Second St. #101 in Bayfield, the same location where she formulates, compounds and packages her products for sale. She also markets her products to about 150 stores around the country, a number that continues to grow, she said.
“I call our new store a bonus spot. We needed a place to formulate the products, and we found this spot,” she said. “At first we were only looking at it as a production space. But then we thought we should look at a retail space.”
Adding a room divider allowed Carpenter to create a small boutique where her products and associated merchandise are offered to customers. She sells everything from lip balm made with blood orange and grapefruit to charcoal-citrus deodorant and — in a nod to the Northwoods — a bug repellent made of witch hazel, citronella, lemongrass, lavender and geranium oils.
“It’s actually been pretty good,” she said. “The retail space has been an extra bonus on top of our online business.”
Carpenter said the retail space allows her to meet with customers face-to-face.
“I used to do a lot of farmers markets. That is kind of how I started out. But as I started to grow I had to pick one direction, and I wanted to do more online — there was less lugging stuff around.”
When the pandemic struck, it ended person-to-person opportunities, so Carpenter was forced to rely on online sales.
“But I missed the personal contact,” she said.
With the new retail shop, that element has returned, Carpenter said.
Carpenter said coming to Bayfield was a leap of faith for her and Jon, but both were drawn to the area because of its lively business and artistic scene and the ready availability of winter sports. Jon works as a manager for Bayfield’s Howl Adventure Center. He spent a good portion of his life in Wisconsin, and while the couple lived in Tennessee, he longed to return to the north so he could enjoy skiing and other winter activities.
“It may have been a leap of faith, but it was something we had to do sooner rather than later,” he said. Moving was easier with their daughter Juniper still just 1 year old than it would be if she were in school, he said.
Rachel said making the move wasn’t that difficult for her business, as the online part of it simply required a change of address.
And in many respects, Bayfield opens up opportunities to grow some of the botanicals used in Good Flower Farm’s products.
“You can’t grow lavender in Tennessee. It’s just too hot and humid,” Jon said.
Rachel said she is seeking to make contact with growers in the region to obtain some of the herbs and other plants she uses to formulate her products.
“I want to pursue products that are cleaner for the environment and also for our bodies, stuff that doesn’t have all the junk in it we don’t need,” she said. “My goal is to make the cleanest, safest products.”
When serial entrepreneur J Erin Hutchinson settled in Herbster in 2017, she was amazed with the number of locals who produce food, artisanal products, books, artwork and other products.
But local farmers and arts and crafts producers along the South Shore of Lake Superior had no mechanism for bringing their wares to a larger audience than the occasional farmers market. Hutchinson’s background in launching new businesses and keeping them afloat seemed to be a perfect fit for the small-scale entrepreneurs in the area.
In 2019, she launched Bark Point Ventures, a for-profit property management and home services business. That was followed by Authentic Superior in 2000, a non-profit aimed at helping creative people turn their avocations into paying businesses. Now she has started a third business — a retail outlet to help artisans turn their work into cash.
“Ultimately my goal is to make it a lot easier to thrive as a creative producer in this region by helping them to sell more of their works,” Hutchinson said. “We started off with an online marketplace when the pandemic first hit as a way for people to get their work out there.”
One of the biggest problems local artisans have is marketing their work. The creative process is so time consuming that they have neither the expertise nor spare hours to do it themselves.
“They would tell me, ‘I create wonderful things, but I don’t know how to get them out there, I don’t know how to make people aware of them.’” she said.
Another problem is rural Bayfield County farmers and artists don’t have access to the technology needed sell products online. Storing and shipping it all is another barrier, Hutchinson said.
“These are things that we have helped with. Everything we do in our strategic planning is around creating more opportunities to bring more money directly to them,” she said.
More than 200 creative producers now use Authentic Superior to market their goods: Wild Grove Farmstead, which produces goat milk soap; Elsewhere Farm, which sells vegetables, eggs, pork and other farm products; writer and photographer Cathy Lange markets her work through Authentic Superior as do author-publishers Tom and Betsy Peacock; mosaic artist Rebecca Campbell sells her work, as does wooden-bowl maker Dale Paulson; Northwoods Botanicals, which grows certified organic hemp to make CBD products, does, too.
Hutchinson said that as the pandemic wanes, visitor traffic to northern Wisconsin has taken a big jump, and the new outlet allows customers to see what the area has to offer.
“Our plan is to integrate it with the online marketplace. If we have it here, you can buy it online. If they see an artist’s work that they like, they can see other pieces. The store is to promote what is available locally. We only sell things that are produced locally,” she said.
Lange, the Washburn author and photographer, said she already has benefitted from Authentic Superior.
“The biggest value, I think, is having the visibility. The fact that the online marketplace makes an online presence accessible is important. It helps drive people who are interested in my work there, and I have sold a fair number of books and photo cards from the site,” she said. “I think there is great potential for every one of us who have our work on Authentic Superior. I think Erin is really starting to light a fire under it.”
Tim Duis, who with wife Erin Sullivan operates Kiddlywink Farm near Herbster, sells vegetables and chicken and duck eggs, is sold on Hutchinson’s efforts.
“I really like Erin’s vision of bringing together farming, arts and crafts all of those things under the umbrella of creative production,” he said. “It’s a great chance to do more business locally.”
Hutchinson said anything that helps artisans on the South Shore helps the entire region.
“The reality is that there are not a gazillion jobs around here,” she said. “We have to have ways of making it easier for people to thrive and not just struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and that is something we can be a little part of.”