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Madden’s on Gull Lake: A Job with a View

The brother-and-sister team of Ben Thuringer, COO, and Abbey Pieper, chief sales and marketing officer, is the third generation to run Madden’s on Gull Lake, located just outside Brainerd. While their father had some stringent requirements for them getting into the family business, they say they plan to make it just as hard on the fourth generation.

Howard McIntosh, spends his summers at Madden’s on Gull Lake, winters at a country club in Florida and then “sits out” the necessary amount of time back in his homeland of Jamaica. 

As a 20-year veteran of the hospitality industry, McIntosh is an H2B worker—the saving grace for resorts in the summer. “Bartending is my passion,” he says in a voice retaining just a bit of its Jamaican lilt. He was turned on to hospitality by watching American TV shows. “Do you know the show, ‘Love Boat’?” he asks. “Isaac the bartender on ‘Love Boat’ was my idol” growing up. Isaac made hospitality on a cruise ship look like fun, which is why McIntosh signed on to serve and bartend with a cruise line, before landing at resorts.

Seating outside thet gallery.

Family-run Madden’s gears up for the season starting with 50 employees and exploding into around 500-plus every April. To accomplish that daunting feat, they rely on workers to return like McIntosh, who is not only experienced, but who has their high standards of service.  

“That’s a lot to get trained, especially if you have a high bar like we do,” says Abbey Pieper, the third-generation who runs the resort with her brother, Ben Thuringer. Plus, “with the visa system, you don’t know when you’ll get (someone like) a Howard back,” Nor are they sure how many of the limited number of visas awarded by the U.S. government yearly they’ll be able to count on. 

Madden’s employs about 220 local workers, and then relies on the government visa programs for seasonal businesses to fill in the remaining workers. The J-1 visa is designed for international students and the H-2B visa caters to resorts, which rely on temporary workers in order to keep the operation running. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated there were more than 600,000 job vacancies in the hospitality sector. January 1 of that year, when businesses could apply for the visas, the Department of Labor received 81,600 applications for 33,000 available visas, according to Lodging News. 

Thuringer is part of a group that lobbies for raising the cap on the number of visas allowed each year. It’s capped at around 60,000, but 150,000 is the demand, he adds. In addition to working at resorts, the visas are for businesses such as fish processing plants, hospitals and carnivals. 

Although food is delivered twice weekly to Madden’s on Gull Lake, the chefs try to source as much as they can locally, as well as growing some of their own.

Contrary to what some people believe, the H-2B visas do not take away American jobs, Pieper says. Instead, they generate jobs, about 4.64 per every visa user. 

Zane Scheffer, a native of South Africa, is another shining example of how the program has helped Madden’s. This is his fourth season at Madden’s and he’s worked his way up to head chef at Mission Point, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant. He works hard when he’s working—60 hours a week is considered part-time, he says, with a laugh—but the reward, besides playing golf when the course isn’t busy, is that he and his wife who also works there are free to travel back to South Africa for three months of the year.

To help foreign workers, Madden’s has dormitories on the property for $4 a day. At those rates, it fills up quickly and when the housing is gone, Thuringer says with a shrug, it’s gone. 

Finding qualified workers is just one of the stresses for the seven restaurants on the property. About 60 percent of their business is corporate, Pieper says, but summer guests are switching from the more predictable “packaged guests,” where the meals are included in the room rate, to “EPs,” which stands for European Plan, which is room only. “People want flexibility, which impacts Brent’s world,” she says about their food and beverage manager, Brent Linnemeyer. “You don’t know where they’ll show up” to dine.

Bartender Howard McIntosh from Jamaica is one of the Madden’s “rock stars,” and the very type of returning employee the resort needs to keep up the level of service guests have come to expect. 

That means the kitchen has to be ready for feast or famine. To accommodate the uncertainty, Linnemeyer says the staff is cross-trained and able to shift fairly easily from one restaurant to another. For someone like McIntosh who loves talking to people, that’s a bonus. He’s both a server and a bartender. And although he doesn’t have a degree in psychology, old reruns of “Love Boat”—and experience—prepared him for the counseling side of being a bartender. 

As much of the menu as possible is locally sourced, Linnemeyer says. All the chefs are prepared to work around guests’ food allergies and preferences. “Even if they see nothing on the menu” they can eat, “we can create something with the ingredients on hand,” Scheffer says. 

One of the highlights for the guests is having the fish they’ve caught in the lake prepared for their dinner by one of the chefs. While most of the guests hand off cleaned walleye or bass, there’s always a guest who supplies a less appetizing fish, which a chef will swap out on the sly for a better one—so no egos are harmed in the process. 

Returning seasonal workers also take the newbies under their wing and train them in the way things are done at Madden’s, Pieper says. 


Third generation is charm

Pieper and Thuringer weren’t handed the 300 room keys to the castle without earning them. Their father, who is chairman of the board, was explicit in his requirement that if the two of them wanted to go into the family business: They needed a four-year-degree in business and a minimum of five years working in a 5-star establishment. Thuringer worked at resorts in Vermont and then returned to the Twin Cities to work with Morrissey Hospitality at the St. Paul Hotel. “Bill Morrissey was my mentor,” he says about the hospitality great who died in 2016.

Madden’s used to bring in guests chefs from the Twin Cities area for its annual food and wine weekend, but now thanks to the talents of people like Brent Linnemeyer (left), director of food and beverages, and Chef Zane Scheffer, they are showcasing their staff at this year’s event the last weekend in September. 

Why the hospitality business? “After leaving college I needed a job and I still need a job,” he quipped. 

Pieper originally planned to go into medicine, but there was something about hospitality that stayed with her—even though her first job as a child was picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot, she says, laughing (she did get promoted to scooping ice cream). She has an  advanced degree in business and worked at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs before returning home. “Our dad is our toughest fan,” Thuringer says. 

Their grandparents’ generation built the resort during the Depression, using railroad ties and whatever other building materials were available. The siblings’ father took over from his father-in-law and grew the resort to where it is today. A storm in 2015 destroyed one-third of the resort, which became their transition into leadership. Their mother still is in charge of design for the resort.

One of the reasons Madden’s is known for its “above and beyond” approach to hospitality, Pieper says, is because of their core values. One such value is: “Every guest is my guest.”

Employees are empowered, via another core value: “Give them the pickle.”

“You feel like you’re trusted so you can go up and beyond,” McIntosh says. That empowerment also is what makes people like working there even though the hours are long and the work hard.

“You’re welcome to be creative,” Scheffer says about his duties in the kitchen.

“We operate like a huge family,” Pieper adds. 

And there are other perks as well. 

For McIntosh, it’s the ability to send money home to his family in Jamaica. “My 20-year-old daughter wanted to study here and she’s going to college in Naples (Florida),” he says. “It makes me feel good that I can do something for her which I didn’t have.”

There’s that view and then there’s another. 

“I always say to new hires the greatest thing is you can take five minutes to see the lake and watch the sunset,” Linnemeyer says. 

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