It was the Great Depression that spawned the birth of Chalet Suzanne in the early part of the 20th Century. It was the Great Recession in the early part of the 21st century that led to its demise.
Chalet Suzanne and Lake Wales have a long history together. In the scheme of things, they are about the same age. Lake Wales became a city in 1917, received its municipal charter in 1921 and Chalet Suzanne opened its doors to the public in 1931.
It was supposed to be a resort community. It could have been another Mountain Lake. Bertha and Carl Hinshaw, were partners with J.L. Kraft (yes, the cheese guy) and they had plans to develop their acreage in Lake of the Hills into a golf and tennis community. The land and the view from their property was every bit as bucolic and picturesque as the view from Iron Mountain.
But the Great Depression got in the way and the cheese guy pulled his funding. Then Carl died. Bertha, now a widow with two children, opened her lodge and the rest is history.
It is a history of excellent food and service, brushes with the rich and famous, soups that went to the moon and signature dishes like baked grapefruit. In a world where counter service counts as dining out, the Chalet was still in the business of three- and four-course meals.
In its heyday, the Chalet would be a required entry in any respectable travel book.
I spoke with Bertha’s grandson, Eric Hinshaw, Monday as he flew his crop dusting plane in the skies above Michigan.
“We had a good year last year. One of the best in 10 years,” he said. “But we needed to double our revenue to make it work. We asked the Lord to let us know if this was going to work and we knew that if we were able to double our revenue we could keep going. He gave us our answer. We did not double our revenue.”
Eric is a retired commercial airline pilot. He and his wife, Dee, have worked hard to keep the inn alive. When the Great Recession hit in 2008 things went south big time and the Chalet, like many businesses, struggled for survival.
“Since then we have been working extra jobs in order to keep the doors open and make payroll,” Eric said.
For years now, Eric and Dee would travel to other states during the summer and earn extra money crop dusting while their children ran the inn. That money helped pay the mounting overhead and bills.
There were times when Hinshaw thought the enterprise could make it, but the recession and an ever-increasing list of needed capital improvements proved too big of a hurdle.
“The Fire Marshal let us know that we had to have a major upgrade to our systems and there were other things that would cost us a lot money. The financing to do those things just isn’t there anymore,” Eric said. “We have one of the greatest brands in the world, but without the money and the financing, we couldn’t do much more with that brand.”
Eric said the family has put about $1 million of their own money into the business and taken very little out.
In the end, the decision to close came down to the couple asking themselves some profound questions, he explained.
“Why are we doing this? What are we stressing ourselves out for? Is it for our kids? Is it our pride? Is it a blind obligation to a bygone era?”
When Eric’s wife Dee recently dealt with a difficult guest issue, the stress prompted her to have a temporary health issue, Eric explained.
“My wife is more precious to me than anything — even the Chalet and all its history. We talked about it after that and decided that now would be the time to start shutting it down,” Eric explained.
As things wind down toward the August closing, Eric has some advice for folks who love Lake Wales.
“There are all sorts of gems in our area. Go out and support them once in awhile. Put it on your calendar to visit a local restaurant or attraction. We have so many things to do in Lake Wales. Go out and explore and support those places.”