Could one of the next big franchise concepts come from Traverse City?
That's what two local attorneys – and busy mothers of young children – are hoping. Melissa Whitman and Ellen Fred, who first met in 2008 while working for legal firm Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, are launching Elf Cafe in spring 2014.
The local food eatery and children's play place is designed to be “an oasis for parents looking for an engaging place to bring their children,” according to Fred. An alternative to the plastic jungle-gym and junk food-dominated play areas of many national restaurants and fast food chains, it will focus on local, organic food, fresh juices and smoothies, eco-friendly toys and a sophisticated, Scandinavian-inspired environment.
Elf – which stands for “eat, learn, frolic” – will offer indoor and outdoor wooden play structures, a play area for infants, party rental space, soundproof “soothing silos” in which to nurse or calm babies, a boutique line of infant supplies available for a la carte purchase, and a full-service cafe and coffee shop with WiFi. Though Whitman and Fred are still finalizing the company's location, they're eyeing several spots near downtown Traverse City, including the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
“We should be announcing the location in the next few weeks,” says Whitman, who says the business has a target open date of May 2014.
Whitman and Fred conceived of the Elf concept after experiencing “isolation and frustration” over the lack of play places that “parents would want to be at as much as their children,” says Whitman. At the zero-waste cafe, kids will be able to order “Elf meals” – a localized take on a Happy Meal – containing healthy food options and eco-friendly toys, while adults will have a range of coffee and tea choices from Higher Grounds Trading Company and Light of Day Organic Tea, as well as a cafe menu designed by Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson of Traverse City's The Cooks' House. Morsels will provide custom treats for the business.
A membership program will be a key cornerstone of the venture. For $50 a month – or $500 a year – members will receive discounts, exclusive access to an online community, product demos, and a members-only CSA (community-supported agriculture) program designed by Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows.
“Anyone will be able to come in and enjoy the space, but members will have access to a number of additional benefits,” explains Whitman, who says the company will donate a portion of its proceeds to local non-profits chosen by members.
For the “learning” component of Elf, Whitman and Fred are collaborating with local professionals to offer a variety of classes for children at the facility. The duo has enlisted Jason Hill of Leelanau Backyard Harvest to offer gardening classes, singer-songwriter Joshua Davis to offer music classes, and Blackbird Arts to offer art classes, among others. Elf is also in talks with the National Writers Series to offer creative writing instruction.
Fred and Whitman have already raised $225,000 of the needed $250,000 launch fund from a half dozen private investors, and plan to use crowd-funding website Indiegogo to raise the remaining $25,000 in the coming weeks. On October 13, the company will host a free launch party at Left Foot Charley from 3-6 p.m. to answer questions about the venture and kick off the online fundraising campaign.
The partners are so confident the company will be a success, they are already exploring its franchising potential. Fred says they've been contacted by interested franchise partners in Denver, Madison, northern California and Grand Rapids, and expects – if “all goes well” – the company will develop a second store within one to two years of its Traverse City opening.