FRENCH TOAST WON
WHITE GULL WINS BEST BREAKFAST IN AMERICA
“The most exciting thing that ever happened is the ‘Good Morning America’ thing,” said Andy Coulson, owner of the White Gull Inn, referring to ABC’s GMA Breakfast Challenge.
It was spring, 2010. Coulson was bussing tables at the Inn’s restaurant one morning when he was called to the front desk. “They said somebody from ABC is on the phone,” Coulson remembered.
He initially thought it was a sales representative from a local affiliate. Instead, he was told the Inn had been nominated for Best Breakfast in America.
The White Gull’s Cherry Stuffed French Toast was one of four finalists in the nation. The voice on the phone told Coulson the network received a letter from a customer, recommending them for the honor.
Soon, ABC sent a film crew, including feature reporter Marysol Castro. “They visited all four finalists and did a feature on them. That was taped and ran two weeks later.”
“Our breakfast chef, Julie Zak, tutored Marysol in the finer points of Cherry Stuffed French Toast,” said Coulson.
On May 15, 2010, all four restaurants were featured, and viewers were encouraged to vote on line. On Monday, the winner would be featured on the morning show.
“We had TVs in the Inn’s dining room. Saturday morning, everybody in town was here,” said Coulson.
Newscaster Bill Weir, a Wisconsin native, said he could not be an impartial voter with the contest because he had visited the White Gull, and loved it, said Coulson, remembering the compliment.
Coulson watched the voting online. “The other three nominees were in big markets...here we were in little Fish Creek,” he said. The big markets had a bigger potential voter base. But the Inn was holding its own during the voting day, getting votes from all over the world.
“In the middle of the afternoon, the guy from the Houston restaurant started posting on social media, ‘Come on! Are you going to let this little place in Wisconsin beat us?’ He even offered free breakfasts,” Coulson said. And the Houston establishment’s voting closed in on the White Gull’s.
“I was watching the screen. Houston was getting votes...and then the screen just went...dead. And the phone rings, and it’s ABC telling us we won,” said Coulson, still remembering that exhilarating moment.
“But we had to be quiet about this. We had dinner with friends, that night, but we couldn’t tell them,” he said. “But we did come in with a bottle of Champagne.”
The next morning, they were set to do an interview via Skype in the dining room. The show was running live in Milwaukee, but it was delayed an hour in Green Bay. By the time it was announced in the Milwaukee market, the news spread quickly to Door County.
Coulson said he tried to thank the customer who originally nominated the Inn, but ABC said they couldn’t disclose her name for privacy reasons. But after the contest, she contacted the Inn, herself. “We got to know the woman and her husband,” said Coulson.
It wasn’t the only national exposure the Inn ever received. Their fish boil was featured in The New York Times, they’ve appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Midwest Living, and many other publications. And they were listed as one of the top 15 hotels in the nation by Conde Naste.
COULSON SHARES LIFELONG LOVE OF MUSIC
Music has been a part of Andy Coulson’s life, interwoven like lyrics to a melody.
His interest in music began early, when he took up cello in grade school. “My mother would take me to a local Catholic school with an orchestra,” said Coulson. “I took lessons from a nun. So, I did have a music background.”
When he was in high school, and the folk music movement was taking off, Coulson became interested in banjo and guitar.
You might think that a successful businessman with an MBA wouldn’t continue to be identified as a banjo player, decades after high school. But Coulson breaks any stereotype you might envision.
In fact, music is an important part of his business at the White Gull Inn.
The White Gull’s fish boil, for instance, often comes with entertainment, in addition to the dramatic “boil-over.”
“Master Boiler Russ Ostrand would boil the fish and play the accordion.” said Coulson. But on Ostrand’s days off, Coulson would conduct the fish boil and play banjo. (Ostrand has since retired.)
It expanded from there, involving more music and musicians.
“In early ’80s, we decided to become a year-round business,” said Coulson. But winter nights could be quiet—especially Wednesday nights.
“Someone suggested I do a house concert,” he remembered. But, he didn’t know what a house concert was.
His friend explained the concept: traveling folk musicians, often on tight budgets and in need of work, are invited into the homes of fans along the route of their travels. The fans provide the musician with food and lodging in return for a concert to a small group of friends, often right in their living rooms. A collection at the door helps defray the artists’ expenses.
Although the Inn’s dining room wasn’t a private-home living room, it would work the same way. “So, we offered it. The musicians loved it, but crowds were small.”
That was 32 years ago.
Little by little, the winter folk concert series grew. Today, the popular series routinely sells out. “And in recent years, we’ve gotten a little bit better-known musicians.”
Although Coulson has a soft spot for bluegrass, the White Gull concert series includes a wide range of folks-style music. “A series can get a reputation. But I don’t want people to think that bluegrass is just what it is.”
He’s hosted some big names in contemporary folk and acoustic music over the years, including Fred Alley, Garnet Rodgers, Tom Paxton and Cheryl Wheeler. And yes, there have been bluegrass concerts.
During the summer, Coulson also hosts singer-songwriter Katie Dahl who had developed a reputation for her contemporary folk music. In fact, Dahl, along with Coulson’s daughter Emily and composer James Valcq, wrote the well-received musical, Victory Farm for the American Folklore Theatre (now the Northern Sky Theater) in 2012.
Coulson continues with his music. He and his bandmates Tad Gilster, Tony Gebauer and Rick Gordon practice together on Wednesday nights. “It’s like poker night. We pick and play. And we do about six to eight concerts a year.”
Since 1972—with only one brief interruption—the 68-year-old Coulson has been at the helm, guiding the 120-year-old Inn from a seasonal hang out for young people to the well-known, classy establishment it is today.
As with any venture, there is, of course, a story to tell. And it starts at the beginning.
A Wisconsin boy, born and bred, Coulson grew up in the small village of Slinger in Southeast Wisconsin. Nurtured in the ways of small-town country living, he attended a one-room country school. In high school, he and his siblings, a brother and two sisters, attended boarding school at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam.
With the college-prep schooling in his pocket, Coulson attended University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he majored in English.
He decided to work in journalism, working for the Hartford Press during college summer breaks. After graduation, he began work for the Paper for Central Wisconsin, a short-lived daily, started by the Miles Kimball Company, in 1967 said Coulson.
“I did it for about a year and a half. I found it a great experience—you learn more in six months working for a paper, than attending college for an English degree,” said Coulson. As a journalist, “you learn everything you can (about a story) come back and write it as fast as you can. For me, that was just a great experience.”
But, he added, “There were parts of it I didn’t enjoy, like the hours and deadlines and the lifestyle in general. Back then, a lot of long-time reporters would all go out and drink and smoke...you don’t have to do that to be in the biz, but I was not connecting socially with the people I was working with.”
“Then one night...” Coulson began.
It’s the way all good stories get rolling.
“I was commiserating with a buddy of mine who also didn’t like his job,” Coulson said.
That friend, Keith VanDyke, had learned that Australia was looking for immigrants. If you were skilled in a particular field they needed, and would commit to living there for at least two years, they would pay your transportation, Coulson explained.
“So, we said, ‘Let’s quit our jobs and go to Australia.’”
The very next day, they did just that.
Their impulsiveness came with a price, however. They were not aware, he said with a laugh, there was a six-month vetting process for the program.
Suddenly unemployed, with a half year before their anticipated new venture, they both decided to head to Door County where they heard they could find ample summer work.
“I had a blast. And I found myself more comfortable in this (inn-keeping) business.”
That summer of 1970 was a watershed moment for Coulson, learning about Door County and hanging out at the White Gull Inn.
“Our visas came that summer,” said Coulson.
But they were having such a good time in Door County, he and his friend decided to stay, for a little longer, anyway. “We stayed the summer here, then went to Australia.”
After arriving in Australia, “First of all, I tried to get a job in journalism,” said Coulson. “But, in Australia, you had to work your way up.”
Even with his experience everyone was required start at an apprentice level. “I just wasn’t willing to put that kind of time into it, in a country that I might only be living in for two years,” said Coulson. “So, I couldn’t get a job at a paper. But I did get a job with McGraw Hill [Publishing] as an editor, working with authors for textbooks.”
After a short time, he realized it was not a good fit. Coulson eventually began working at Australian resorts. In the evenings, he played guitar and banjo at cafes for extra money.
“One day, I got a telegram from my old college roommate, Dan Noonan, saying that the White Gull Inn was for sale,” Coulson remembered. A group of individuals was going to purchase the Inn, and they wanted him to join in.
“I loved the idea. And as much as I loved Australia, I was ready to come home.”
He replied to Noonan, saying he was interested, “If I could be the manager.”
The Australian adventure came to a close for Coulson. But because he hadn’t completed a mandatory two-year-stint in the county—the requirement for Australia’s promise of free transportation—he had to pay the airfare back.
As a 24-year-old without a large bankroll, he borrowed the money to purchase the White Gull from his somewhat dubious parents.
The total needed was $15,000, Coulson explained. So each of the five partners had to pony up $3,000.
“My parents...I think they were horrified,” said Coulson. But they likely thought this a better option, “relative to staying in Australia and becoming a musician” as he was doing, he said.
That’s because at one point while he was in Australia, his parents had written urging him to return and go into business with his father, Coulson explained. They worried about the direction Coulson’s life was heading.
“I was playing my guitar in restaurants at night, so when I told them I was coming home to become part owner of a resort, it was better than what they had been hearing.”
As for Coulson, the White Gull was the ideal place. And the coincidence of having this opportunity fall in his lap so soon after spending his first-ever summer in Door County was not lost on him. “I would hang out here that summer. I knew the White Gull and loved it.”
In those days, the season ran from Memorial Day through Labor Day. “And it would sit here, empty, all winter. There had been no money to put into it, so there was a lot of...‘deferred’ maintenance,” he said.
So he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. To keep expenses down, he stayed in a tiny, closet-sized room at the inn, doing book work on a desk that pulled down over the bed. “I’d have the receipts and money on the bed, next to me.”
It’s nostalgic now, thinking back to those humble beginnings.
Coulson paused in the interview, looked up and said, “That’s basically the end of it, Heidi. I’ve been here ever since.”
Because, of course, that’s not the end. There’s always “the rest of the story.”
Why not buy the Inn?
Today, Coulson is 68, although you wouldn’t guess it. He’s energetic and youthful and still at the helm of the Inn, along with his wife, Jan, and daughter Meredith, who recently signed on to eventually take over the operation.
The Inn has fully involved the Coulsons’ lives. In fact, it was at the White Gull that Coulson met his future wife, Jan Lindsley. “She was the first person I hired,” he said.
Like many young, seasonal workers, she roomed at the Inn while working at Thumb Fun Amusement Park in Fish Creek. “About halfway through the summer, she was suddenly available, and I hired her here.”
They eventually began dating, and in 1975, married. Jan was quickly in the fold of the White Gull. “Jan started as a housekeeper, waitress, bookkeeper and cook,” said Coulson, describing those early days.
In the meantime, ownership of the White Gull was in flux. “One guy sold out after the first year,” said Coulson.
But the Inn was gaining traction. “The seasons were growing. We were putting money back into the building,” said Coulson. “Things were getting better all the time.”
Still, Coulson said, “In 1981, I had gone back to grad school to get an MBA. One thing I learned is that being a one-quarter owner of a lodging business was not a reliable future.”
At the same time, Andy and Jan were starting a family—and they, of course, wanted a reliable future. Their daughter Meredith was born in 1977. “She was the reason I went back to grad school,” said Coulson.
Working impossibly hard for six months, and then having little work for six months—and the economic instability that lifestyle offered—convinced Coulson he needed a new direction.
“I told my partners, ‘I want to sell out,’” said Coulson, who was ready to put his MBA to use in some other business, on his own. Instead, the ownership group tried to sell the inn.
“I figured I would take what I got out of it and start a business of my own. But it was during a time of historically high interest rates, so nobody even inquired.”
Then, Coulson’s original partner, Dan Noonan (who today is a Milwaukee County Circuit Judge) suggested Coulson, himself, buy it.
“Jan and I loved the Inn. So, we said, ‘Sure.’ We had a good track record and got the financing...so we bought out the others. We did that in 1981.”
After the buy-out, the Coulsons hired their first manager, Joan Holliday, who today owns the Blacksmith Inn in Baileys Harbor with husband Bryan Nelson.
With a manager in place, Coulson decided he would be free to try something different with his career. “I had an opportunity to take a job in Southern Wisconsin in a completely different field.”
With the White Gull in capable hands, the Coulsons moved to Fort Atkinson. While Andy started work with a high-tech start-up, Jan attended college at UW-Whitewater.
“It (the start-up) basically crashed and burned. But it was a great experience—and I learned what the rest of the world was like,” he said. “So we came back because we really, really loved it here.”
And their family continued to grow. Their daughter Emilie was born in 1984, followed by Hannah four years later.
By that time, they had decided to run the Inn all year long, and they also purchased a neighboring building, the Whistling Swan, and opened a lodge and boutique. Jan ran the businesses there for 10 years before the Coulsons sold it to focus on the White Gull.
They also became involved with their community and local school. Andy was elected to the Gibraltar School Board and served on different committees in town.
In a nice twist of fate, Coulson was able to continue his musical interests with a winter concert series at the Inn, and with his band, Highland Road Bluegrass Band. (See Music sidebar.)
It sounds pretty idyllic. But there were some bad times, of course, like two different fires in buildings on the property that meant putting pieces back together again.
And there were some truly great times, like winning “Best Breakfast in America Challenge” (see Breakfast sidebar on page 35.)
And that is still not the end of the story.
A few years ago, the Coulsons convened with their daughters to see if any had interest in continuing the family tradition of the Inn. At the time, all three were involved with other things and living in far-flung corners of the world—Hannah in New Zealand, Emilie in California and Meredith in Madison.
So, eyeing a possible retirement, the Coulsons listed the Inn for sale...again.
But when daughter Meredith changed career course and returned, the Inn was taken off the market, to remain in the family.
As the years creep by, Andy and Jan think about getting a little more free time, maybe slipping away in the winter to a warmer climate. But right now, they are still at the helm of the place that contains their hearts, souls and a lifetime of memories.
As Meredith takes the reins, Coulson said he and Jan “will stay the course, and slowly work our way out. There’s not a date set in mind. We love the White Gull. We are convinced...this is our home.”