Bear Lake Tavern changes hands

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A Muskegon-area businesswoman acquired a nearly century-old tavern on the water in North Muskegon.

Emily Leestma on Tuesday, June 14, finalized the purchase of Bear Lake Tavern, at 360 Ruddiman Drive in North Muskegon, from former owner Hoby Thrasher.

The tavern built in 1929 is known for its sea-to-table pub fare and drive-up docks on a channel that’s part of Muskegon Lake.

Emily Leestma, a Muskegon resident of six years and wife of developer and multi-entrepreneur Ryan Leestma, said she and her husband and his family are longtime patrons of Bear Lake Tavern — which is affectionately referred to as “BLT” — and they wanted to ensure “the oldest restaurant in Muskegon” would remain a community staple for years to come. Emily Leestma is the owner of the BLT, and Ryan Leestma owns the property.

“It’s got a lot of historical value, but also just the community of North Muskegon is a very small community, and the BLT has had generations of families of workers there. I get approached all the time by people that are like, ‘Oh, I worked there in the ’70s when I was in high school, and then my kids worked there, and now my grandkids are working there,’ and it’s just cool to have a restaurant like that in a small community like North Muskegon,” Emily Leestma said.

“The previous owner wasn’t sure what the future of the BLT was going to look like. We approached Hoby about it because we wanted it to stay the BLT forever. … The staff that works at the BLT has become like our second family, and they mean a lot to us. So that’s really the reason why we bought it.”

Emily Leestma said she plans to keep the restaurant open while implementing gradual menu changes that likely will start in the fall, after peak season is over.

The biggest improvement she has in mind, which hopefully will be completed by summer 2023, is the addition of the “BLTiki,” a patio area for outdoor dining and to-go orders that will have a grill for burgers and fries and will offer canned alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks to-go.

She also plans to replace all the docks at the restaurant to make it easier for boats to drive up to the patio and grab their to-go orders.

“We’re right on the water, and a lot of people come to the restaurant by boat because it’s one of the few places in Muskegon that you can get to by boat,” she said. “We’re putting in new docks and expanding the capacity of boats that we can have in our docks. The addition of the BLTiki will be great for boaters that want to grab food and go.”

Emily Leestma said the restaurant hopes to be able to minimize the disruption to business by doing construction on Mondays, the day when the restaurant is closed.

“We’re really excited about the future,” she said. “We closed (on the purchase) last Tuesday, and this past weekend, the first weekend that we were owners, we had one of our busiest weekends ever.”

More information about Bear Lake Tavern is online and on Facebook.

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