article and photos by Patrice Johnson
More than 50 bicyclists cruised into the area for the inaugural Great Lake-to-Lake Bike Ride, Monday, Sept. 16, and as they pedaled, they whispered hot news into their headsets: “Don’t miss the new pit stop in Stockbridge.”
Trail ride participants veered off the Mike Levine Lakelands Trail and parked their bicycles next to split-rail fences. Then they dined on Paesano rolls bulging with ham, turkey, or roast beef. Manna, a new restaurant whose motto is “Manna, food worth walking about” had opened its doors—just in time to christen the completion of the cross-state trail and its inaugural long-distance bike event.
Stockbridge Village President Molly Howlett and council member Heath Corey were on hand to greet passersby. The council has been up to its elbows ensuring the timely completion of the Village’s paved, handicap accessible and multiuse section.
“It’s been a race to finish everything,” Howlett said, “But it’s so exciting and in such a positive way. It is beautiful.”
Owners Kevin and Naomi Carson worked feverishly to open their business for the event. “I thought bicyclists would arrive around noon.” Naomi grinned and rubbed the small of her back. “But I received texts at 9:30 this morning that the trail riders were arriving.”
The recently completed, multiuse Mike Levine Lakelands Trail stretches from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. In a stroke of good fortune, the repurposed railroad right-of-way passes through Munith, Stockbridge and Unadilla Township.
Mega-donor Mike Levine rolled up and paused to enjoy a few minutes’ respite. The 80-year-old is determined to pedal across the state on the trail and donated $5 million to help fund the 275-mile trail’s construction. Levine, a successful entrepreneur, has a vision for the trail. He foresees trails as community connectors, much as railroads once bonded communities together
“It’s marvelous to see the trail open and connect one great lake to the next across the state,” Levine said. “It’s just marvelous. What is supposed to happen is happening: the bikes, the kids, the families, the economic development. Naomi and Kevin Carson’s business is a harbinger of a business model to come. This energetic activity is going to become a daily event. Wonderful!”
Naomi Carson recalled a chance encounter when she first met Levine. “Somehow we got on the topic of Stockbridge and the trail,” she said. “I mentioned my dream of renovating the building into a pit stop for trail users, and he said, ‘Naomi, you are the incarnation of why I am donating money to this trail!’”
The Carson’s impetus came from Naomi’s 70-year-old father, local pastor Billy Allen. He had long held a vision for the vacant block building just east of the intersection of S. Clinton Street. The Carson couple decided to turn dreams into reality, and they purchased the property in 2017.
“What prompted us to do this was the trail,” Naomi said in reference to the extensive renovations. “The better the trail began to look, the shabbier the building looked in comparison.”
Years vacant, the building had endured ongoing graffiti and vandalism. “Every piece of glass in the existing building had been smashed,” Kevin recollected.
Breathing life into the building proved the least of their challenges. The property was also landlocked. To gain public access, they needed approvals to cross over the trail, which is a state park.
For over a year, the couple worked with the DNR to secure the requisite permissions. Next, the Village of Stockbridge approved the sale of village-owned parcels. Electrical hookups and water and sewer lines went into place, and the building was outfitted with plumbing, water, and electricity. An addition and handicap ramp followed. No small investments.
“Local contractors have been fantastic,” Kevin said, and he expressed appreciation to the late, Pat Harden, a village council member whose support was instrumental in Manna’s receiving the necessary village approvals. Harden saw the project gain traction but died prior to Monday’s opening.
Now, cedar-lined walls and state-of-the-art equipment greet visitors as they enter the freshly renovated building. Manna will be open seasonally with seating primarily outside. Inside will seat a maximum of 13. All products are biodegradable, and the facility is 100% handicap accessible from its wooden entrance ramp to its arthritis friendly door handles. A kitchen, complete with an oven and assembly station, is in the works in the basement.
Hours of operation: Sunup to sundown, Monday through Saturday; Sundays 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Manna plans to stay open through Halloween this year and reopen in March “with a much bigger menu,” Kevin added.
Naomi, renowned for her pies, faced another challenge from her father. If she intended to sell pies, he insisted, she must also offer ice cream. Today, she proudly points to a menu board featuring ice cream from the MSU Creamery. Pies are sure to come.
“I think he’s very, very proud.” She smiled and gazed at the throng of munching bicyclists. “Mike Levine believes businesses will come to towns because of trail improvements. I guess he was right.”