WRITER | PATTI EDDINGTON
PHOTO | FORTINO’S GENERAL STORE
When Fortino’s General Store, located in the middle of Grand Haven’s main shopping district, went on the market in late 2014, the city held its collective breath. People worried about what might become of this beloved institution that had thrived for 103 years and three generations in the same family.
It would be hard to find locals – and even many tourists – who haven’t at one time pushed open the wood and glass door, inhaled the mouth-watering smell of roasting nuts, squeezed through the narrow aisles, picked out some cheese or fancy wine, and selected fine chocolates from bin after bin of sweets. Nostalgia seems to seep from those walls.
Grand Haven residents needn’t have worried, though. When they decided to retire, owners Margie Michlitsch – a granddaughter of founder Louis Fortino – and her husband Ken knew exactly who could do justice to the Fortino’s legacy. They approached Kelly Larson, owner of several local ice cream and confectionery stores, widely known throughout the community for her unwavering support of schools, businesses, and women’s causes.
“It was a hard decision to sell out of the family, but we always felt Kelly was the one.” Margie Michlitsch says. “She had the experience in business and the love of the town.”
And that would have been the end of a beautiful and heartwarming story – except Larson initially said no.
“The difficult part was that most people buy a small business to give themselves a job, and I already had a job,” Larson says.
Still, a few months later, three people in a 24-hour period told her she should reconsider. “This was the day before we took a family trip to Yellowstone. I had it in the back of my mind the whole trip and talked to my husband Eric about it,” Larson recalls. “When we got home and were walking out of the Grand Rapids airport, we ran into “Aunt” Rita (a good family friend and Michlitsch’s sister). She told me that she’d been praying for me to come around, and I laughed. I called the realtor the next day.”
Fortino, an Italian immigrant, opened his eponymous shop in Grand Haven to sell produce in 1911. The picturesque small city on the Lake Michigan waterfront grabbed hold of his heart from the beginning.
He said, “Now I have felt God’s country, and I never need to leave again,” Michlitsch says.
In 1923 Fortino built the current store just down the street from the original location. He operated it until 1941, when it was purchased by his son Paul and daughter-in-law Mary Jane, who decided to focus on gourmet food rather than produce. Margie and Ken Michlitsch took over Fortino’s from her parents in 1977.
Larson – whom some Fortino family members call “the blonde Italian” – has an MBA and years of practical experience working at her parents‘ candy and ice cream stores and, eventually, owning four stores of her own. Still, she says she fretted about the right way to run such a beloved institution. She implemented changes thoughtfully and slowly, always attempting to keep the same feel of the business. The atmosphere and the aforementioned delicious smell waft from a back room in the building, where Fortino’s continues the time-honored tradition of roasting redskins, cashews, almonds, pecans, blanched peanuts, macadamia, and Brazil nuts.
“There are so many people who love Fortino’s. Some families bring their children, just as their parents brought them. They line up outside and take pictures to send in their holiday cards,” Larson says. “The Fortino family took the time to get to know everyone, and we try to replicate that spirit of community in all that we do. They were a great example to me, and I am honored to be the one to carry on the tradition.” For their part, the Fortino family feels grateful, Michlitsch says.
“Her changes have been good, and they have been subtle. We were right; she was just the person to take over. She’s doing great things.”
A look at why they come
Tourists flood Fortino’s during the summer, but locals are loyal shoppers throughout the year. In addition to roasted nuts, Fortino’s stocks 490 varieties of candies: milk chocolate turtles and dark chocolate sea salt caramels, 90 kinds of “kid candy” like Nik-L-Nips and Zotz, 160 varieties of candy bars, an assortment of 69 types of chocolate bars, and 285 types of old fashioned candy like Necco Wafers and jawbreakers.
Additionally, the store sells various specialty food, wine, beer, and spirits, totaling nearly 6,000 items.
Fortino’s General Store
114 Washington Avenue
Grand Haven, MI 49417
(616) 842-0880 l FortinosGeneralStore.com