Sharen and Brian Lange are key players in the rebirth of downtown Cheboygan. Their Nauti Inn Barstro, a boat-themed restaurant and bar on Main Street, has become a destination for residents and tourists in northern Michigan, with a creative tapas-based menu and a regular schedule of jazz-band and acoustic-guitar nights.
In addition, they have bought two other buildings downtown to house tenants for other business on the ground floor and residents for apartments upstairs.
The Nauti Inn is one of 25 new businesses to open in Cheboygan County in the last two years, including 13 downtown.
The Langes recently moved to Cheboygan from Lansing, but had spent a lot of time in the area over the years. It had been Sharen’s family’s getaway destination for generations.
Sharen said it was Dec. 23, 2015, when life began changing for her and her husband. Sharen was a consultant for nonprofits and director of music festivals in Lansing, including the Lansing Jazz Festival, and had been the director of the Indianapolis Jazz Festival. Brian was a sales representative for Stryker Orthopedics.
Brian announced to her he was looking at property they might buy in Cheboygan. “We had thought we might want to eventually build a compound on the Cheboygan River for our grandkids,” said Sharen.
Now, though, “eventually” had arrived.
Sharen reminded her husband there was a house on the river she had always loved, and they found out on Zillow that it was for sale. On Christmas Eve they talked to a Realtor, made an offer and closed on the sale on New Year’s Eve.
Their original thought, she said, was to continue living in Lansing and rent out their new house when they weren’t up north.
A month later, though, after a trip to their new house, she told her husband: “‘I’m not returning to Lansing.’ But we were only in our mid-40s. What was next? I wasn’t ready to retire.”
What was next for Brian was keeping his job for Stryker, covering the Michigan, Ohio and Indiana region while being based out of Cheboygan instead of Lansing. What was next for Sharen was looking into real estate downtown. “In cities like Cheboygan that are on the upswing, there are great deals available,” she said. “There were 18 empty storefronts downtown, and we looked at all these empty buildings and thought, ‘What does Cheboygan need?'”
Years earlier, the Langes had toyed with the idea of a jazz bar in Lansing, but a deal for a liquor license fell through and they gave up on the idea.
They decided it was time to revive that idea and found a good deal on a small vacant building on Main Street downtown.
After a total rehab, with Sharen acting as hands-on construction manager, the Nauti Inn opened in July 2017. It seats 10 at the bar, 36 at tables and a handful more on the patio, weather permitting.
“We’ve invested a fair amount of money for a small family. We pulled our money out of stocks and decided to invest it in Main Street instead of Wall Street,” she said.
The Langes recruited a young chef from Chicago, Tim Nebel.
“We brought him up for a weekend and he took the job,” said Sharen. “In Chicago, he’d be one of dozens and dozens of talented chefs. Here, he can make a difference and be known.”
She said that getting Nebel is a small piece of trying to recruit younger people back to Cheboygan. “We call it the missing middle,” she said. “We have 17- and 18-year-olds and retired people. For years, younger people couldn’t wait to get out of town. We don’t have a strong middle, and that’s one of the things we were trying to work on.”
Another addition to that missing middle is the Lange’s daughter, Emily, a graduate of Alma College who manages the front of the house at Nauti and lives downtown.
Nebel frequently changes the menu, which typically includes such fare as pan-seared lake trout, charbroiled flat-iron steak, whitefish-stuffed piquillo peppers, brie and fruit flatbread and Asian ahi tuna tartare. The bistro offers a wide range of cocktails and wine, with bottles ranging from $20 to $130 for a bottle.
The name “Nauti” is short for nautical, which reflects what Cheboygan has to offer and her family’s history of a love for wooden boats.
“We wanted a nautical theme. That’s the best way to represent Cheboygan,” she said. “As the city begins to rebound, we wanted a space that showcased what the area had to offer.”
Previously, the building had housed a series of businesses, including cafes and a T-shirt shop.
The centerpiece of the bistro’s nautical theme is a series of seven etched copper panels the Langes commissioned from an area artist they found online. The panels run along the top of the bar, the main piece eight feet long and representing an overhead view of the seven miles of the Cheboygan River as it runs from Lake Huron to Mullett Lake.
The Nauti Inn’s jazz nights frequently feature Brian, a saxophone player who got a master’s degree in jazz from Central Michigan University.
Sharen said the bistro is profitable and busy most nights. “We’ve been able to create a community here,” she said.
They are planning on an addition to that community. The Langes are looking at several other properties downtown and plan to open another restaurant within a year.
“We didn’t expect the hospitality business to feel so good, but it does,” said Sharen.