Callewaert & RYBA Family
Over the last century, the Ryba-Callewaert family has been busy building a successful family legacy on Mackinac Island. What started as a single sweet shop back in 1936 has grown into a booming collection of unique businesses that showcase the charm of Mackinac. With a historic waterfront hotel, a few locally inspired restaurants, a quaint bed & breakfast, a colorful bike shop, and famous fudge shops across the island, the Ryba-Callewaert family’s hospitality has helped make Mackinac Island one of the most popular summer destinations in America.
A Sweet Beginning
In 1936, the sweet start of the Ryba family history of handcrafted confections began on Detroit’s east side on the corner of Jefferson and Chalmers. This is where Harry Ryba, known as the original Fudge King of Mackinac Island, opened hist first sweet shop. This marks the beginning of a decadent family legacy.
Second Detroit Location Opens
In 1946, Harry Ryba went on to open a second Detroit location, where he honed his craft as a master fudge maker. The following year Harry finds himself slightly irritated by a loud but driven tween selling newspapers in front of his store. Impressed by his drive and determination, and he hires the ambitious Victor Callewaert.
The Family Legacy is Born
Harry and his wife, Ethel, had six children. High school sweethearts Rena Ryba and Victor Callewaert marry in 1957. The following year Victor and Harry officially become business partners.
The Official Sweet Treat
Ryba’s Fudge begins to take off when the ambitious pair start peddling their signature fudge at events, festivals, and fairs, most notably the Detroit and Chicago Auto Shows. Ryba’s remains the official sweet treat of the marquee event, known as the North American International Auto Show, until 2019. As these events and venues continued to grow, so does Ryba’s.
Mackinac Island Fudge
As demand for their famous mouthwatering fudge skyrocket, Harry puts Victor in charge of opening their first fudge shop on Mackinac Island. The Corby building at 7340 Main Street is purchased in 1960, and space in the Dennany building at 7245 Main Street is leased in 1963. They begin to handcraft their creamy, delicious fudge in the storefront windows luring island visitors to watch as the confectionary artisans pour the molten chocolate from the large copper pots onto marble slabs. Harry coins the term “Fudgies,” his affectionate name for the visitors seeking the sweet treats in Ryba’s signature pink box.
Raising a Family on Mackinac
The move to Mackinac Island proves to be an excellent start for the family as they continue to grow. In 1963, the Pancake House, a traditional breakfast spot that serves hotcakes long after conventional breakfast hours, is added inside the Dennany building and Ryba Bike Shop opens in the vacant lot next door.
Lake View Hotel Acquisition
In 1965, the Lake View Hotel, a 36-room property downtown, is purchased. In 1983, the hotel expansion of the Pilot House restaurant and the addition of 49 guest rooms begins and is completed two years later. Harry Ryba owns this stately property until 1992.
Bicycle Drive-In is Built
The Bicycle Drive-In snack shop is built at 7463 Main Street. Over the years, this location becomes the Dockside Restaurant and, in 2004, Mary’s Bistro. The Draught House is added next to the Bistro in 2014, making it Northern Michigan’s largest selection of craft beers with over 50 taps. In 2015, Mary’s Bistro and the Draught House are connected to form Mary’s Bistro Draught House.
Lake View Transit Company is Started
Harry opens Lake View Transit Company with three boats. He remains in the passenger and freight transportation business until selling the transit company to Bill Shepler in 1971. Lake View Transit grows into what is now known as Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry.
A Landmark Decision
Aside from a brief occupation by the MRA in the 1940s, the Island House sat vacant, deteriorating so much that the Chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park wanted it torn down. Harry and Victor recognize the hotel’s historical significance and rescue the Island House from pending demolition. Together, they paid $60,000 to buy the rights to the hotel from the owners and to lease the building from the park commission. In the words of Victor Callewaert, “When we got the keys to the building in July 1969, I was amazed at what I found. A box of keys with no names and no door numbers on them, nothing. I went through the hotel, and when a key opened a door, I left it right in the lock. I would open one door and find six rooms behind it. That’s if you called them rooms. When we took over the building, it had over 200 guest rooms.”
Island House Hotel Reopens
Every step was taken to maintain the striking architectural features of the Island House Hotel’s beautiful exterior during the family’s two-year renovation process. On June 23, 1972, the Island House opened with a spirited celebration! The completely revamped hotel debuted with 98 rooms. Today, the hotel boasts 94 rooms, as some of the smaller rooms have been combined, and other rooms were removed to install an elevator for improved accessibility.
Hotel Becomes Landmark
On August 11, 1973, the State of Michigan anointed the Island House Hotel as an official Michigan Historic Landmark. When a building becomes classified as a landmark, it’s because it has given value to the public, which means it will receive special consideration when it comes to the building’s preservation. This was a huge victory for the Ryba-Callewaert family.
The Corner Mall is Built
In 1976, Harry builds the Orphan Corner Mall at 7463 Main Street, adding another of his thriving fudge shops, several retail outlets, and second-floor apartments. In 1978, The Corby building is torn down, and Corby Heights is constructed in its place.
Harry Ryba is Featured on the Cover of the Detroit Free Press
On Sunday, July 1st 1979, the Detroit Free Press does a cover story on Harry Ryba and his success building his fudge empire.
Harry Ryba and Victor Callewaert divide the company into two entities, with Ryba taking ownership of Lake View Hotel, Ryba’s Bike Shops, and the Orphan Corner Mall. Callewaert assumes ownership of Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Island House Hotel, and Pancake House.
Victor and Rena’s son, Todd (27), replaces Victor as General Manager of the Island House Hotel. This allows Victor to expand his role overseeing all the Callewaert businesses. In recent years, Todd Callewaert has taken the helm as CEO, filling his father’s large shoes.
New Fudge Shop in the Selma Building
Victor leases space for an additional Ryba’s Fudge Shop in the Selma building at the end of the former Arnold Line Ferry Dock, as well as the Harbor Place building adding Fred’s Burger Joint and Ryba’s Ice Cream Parlor to the first floor and Studio Suites above until the lease on these businesses ends in 2012 and the Selma building is sold. A 45-bed building known as Georgetown is built to house additional seasonal employees. A welcome addition to the 17-bed building for seasonal housing known as Brownsville that they had built in 1990.
The Addition of the Annex
After extensive renovations during the 1980s, the following notable change for the Island House came in 1995. The property undergoes an extensive archeological dig to assure there were no burial grounds or fossils, clearing the way for the first addition to the historic hotel since 1912. A 5400 square foot annex is added to the grounds behind the original structure to house an indoor swimming pool, hot tub, three guest suites, and Ice House Bar & Grill, named after Mackinac Island’s oldest ice house located on the northwest corner of the property. The 1852 Grill Room is remodeled. Modern amenities such as telephones and cable television are added to the hotel guest rooms.
Harry Ryba’s Passing
Harry Ryba, known affectionately as the “Fudge King” of Mackinac Island, perishes at 88, leaving behind his wife of 64 years, Ethel, and passing his title on to Victor, who in turn teaches his children and grandchildren the master craft, ensuring that the legacy lives on.
Ryba’s Opens New Locations in Chicago
Ryba’s Fudge Shops open in McCormick Place, Chicago, Illinois. The following year a shop is added to Chicago’s famed Navy Pier. These shops provide Ryba’s delicious, sweet treats to the “Windy City” until 2017.
New Shop in French Outpost Building
Ryba’s Fudge Shops open in the French Outpost building on Mackinac Island. This shop remains a fixture on Grand Avenue until 2015.
Starbucks comes to Mackinac Island
Ryba’s Fudge Shops purchase the building at 7308 Main Street. In 2006, the building is torn down and rebuilt to bring Starbucks to Mackinac Island. Opening in 2007, the café is one of only a handful of locally owned and operated Starbucks globally.
Mary’s Bistro Draught House Opens
In early May of 2004, Mary’s Bistro Draught House opens in time for the island’s summer season. The restaurant was named after Victor’s oldest daughter, Mary Callewaert, who has always been passionate about delicious cuisine and wine. Today, Mary is the COO of the family business overseeing operations throughout downtown.
Rena Ryba-Callewaert’s Passing
Rena Ryba-Callewaert, Victor’s beloved wife of 52 years and daughter of Ethel and Harry Ryba, passes away at 71. In 2014, a spring trail near Arch Rock on Mackinac Island is dedicated in her memory.
1852 Grill Room Renovated
Named after the year the Island House Hotel was first built, The 1852 Grill Room was revamped to add stunning floor-to-ceiling windows to showcase the gorgeous bay view and updated seating in the dining room, lounge, and outdoor patio. Today, it is the most popular casual fine dining restaurants on Mackinac Island.
Mackinac Island’s oldest operating hotel, the Island House one of only two Historic Hotels of America in the Straits of Mackinac area celebrating its 165th anniversary. Everyone’s favorite Mackinac Island watering hole, the Seabiscuit Café as well as the 14-guest room bed and breakfast known as Pine Cottage are purchased.
New Easy Saving Program
To offer island visitors the opportunity to earn “spend like cash rewards” for food, drinks, hotel rooms, and most importantly fudge, the 906 Rewards Club loyalty program is added. Today, it is Mackinac Island’s largest savings program!
Island House Hotel opens with the completion of a four-million-dollar, multi-year renovation of guest rooms, bathrooms and Ice House BBQ. An outdoor hot tub is added to the deck overlooking Mackinac Island State Park.
The following year, Island House Hotel is chosen as one of the top ten Midwest hotels by Condé Nast Traveler.
Legendary Family Historic Hotelier of the Year
The Callewaert family is awarded the honor of Legendary Family Historic Hotelier of the Year by the Historic Hotels of America for their commitment to the preservation of Island House Hotel.
Today, Victor and Rena’s children – Todd, Mary, Ann, and Gregg – and their children can be found working in various capacities throughout the family businesses. At any given time, you will find multiple generations of the extended Callewaert Ryba family working inside one of their many business ventures. What started as one sweet shop on Detroit’s East Side has now become a thriving family legacy with the historic Island House Hotel, 1852 Grill Room, Ice House BBQ, Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Mary’s Bistro Draught House, Pancake House, Pine Cottage Bed & Breakfast, Seabiscuit Café, and a Starbucks!