Kavanaugh family wasn't afraid to take a risk

EAST GULL LAKE - When the Kavanaugh family decided to close its popular restaurant and remake its business model with an ambitious building and remodeling project for its resort side in 2005, there was an element of risk.

Brothers Mark (left), Tom, Dave and John Kavanaugh stand near a sign featuring their family crest at Kavanaugh’s Resort on Sylvan Lake. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
Brothers Mark (left), Tom, Dave and John Kavanaugh stand near a sign featuring their family crest at Kavanaugh’s Resort on Sylvan Lake. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

EAST GULL LAKE - When the Kavanaugh family decided to close its popular restaurant and remake its business model with an ambitious building and remodeling project for its resort side in 2005, there was an element of risk.

A family business since 1969, Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort was where all six sons of Sherm and Mae Kavanaugh grew up working at the resort or in the restaurant. Today, four brothers, John, Mark, Dave and Tom, are hands-on owners who live on the grounds, splitting responsibilities such as desk work, sales, maintenance, and housekeeping. John's wife, Vicki, is office manager and Dave's wife, Brenda, handles reservations and works in the office.

The four brothers, along with older brothers, Tim and Greg, all did their share at the Sylvan Lake resort. The work days were long, Tom Kavanaugh recalled, but he said it was fun to work with brothers and teen friends they recruited as employees. On occasion, there'd be a few hours in the afternoon to water ski and play but by late afternoon it was time to return to cleaning fish houses, meeting the needs of resort guests and preparing for the soon-to-arrive restaurant customers.

The brothers agreed their German-Swedish mother was the cook in the family, despite the restaurant's Irish name.

"Dad didn't know how to cook worth beans," John Kavanaugh said.


When they closed the restaurant they immediately launched into the remodeling of more than 20 units, the construction of 11 cottage style buildings and the addition of numerous water features, activity areas, paved walking and biking trails and landscaping. The project started in the fall of 2005, at the conclusion of their summer season and had to be completed by Memorial Day of 2006.

"We did a big project and kind of went all in," Tom said.

There were days, Tom said, when he wondered if they would complete the project in time for the start of the summer season.

"There weren't four people in the world stupid enough to do what we did," he joked. "What are the chances they'd be brothers?"

Their father came from a farm background, and like a farm, there's always something that needs to be done at the resort. Like many small resorters, the four brothers take on most projects themselves. That included laying five semi loads of sod that were placed on the remodeled landscape about three weeks before the resort's reopening in the spring of 2006. During that project a huge amount of fill was used to create the desired landscaping. From October 2005 to May of 2006, the grounds bore little resemblance to the serene pastoral scene that greets guests today.

"It looked like a gravel pit here," Tom said.

They planned for the future with their 2005-2006 project. Water connections were established for what some day could be an additional 26 units.

Now, Kavanaugh's has 50 units ranging in size from one bedroom, one bathroom up to three bedroom, three bathroom cottages. Dave Kavanaugh is responsible for keeping the resort's machines - from trucks to lawnmowers - up and running.


"Dave can fix anything," Tom said, noting that his brother can usually be reached at the maintenance shop.

During the summer one person works about 40 hours a week mowing the 26-acre site. Once he completes every section, Tom said, it's time start the mowing again. The grounds are fully irrigated with a sprinkler system.

There aren't too many projects the brothers are afraid to tackle. He said one exception is adding Freon for the air-conditioning system, since they aren't licensed to do that themselves.

In a less strenuous endeavor, it's not unusual to find one of the four owners presiding at Monday rubber duckie races or cooking hot dogs at a weekly barbecue for the guests. Both the races and the hot dog meals serve as a time when vacationers know they can talk to the owner if they have a compliment or a concern.

The Kavanaugh brothers may keep busy running in different directions all day but they aren't hard for their guests - or anyone else - to find. They meet in the main office for coffee and conversation at 7 a.m. each day. They repeat the ritual at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The coffee break sessions are so ingrained into their routines that Rep. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, and East Gull Lake city staff looking for Mayor Dave Kavanaugh have been known to stop in because they know they can catch the brothers at those times.

At Kavanaugh's, about half of the units are resort rooms that are rented and half are owned by individuals but included in the rental pool for part of the year. The resort has both an indoor and outdoor pool.

Tom said there are eight year-round, full-time employees at Kavanaugh's. That employee number swells to about 25 in the summer. The full-time staff includes the four brothers, a full-time maintenance person and a full-time housekeeper and two of the brothers' wives. It's a smaller staff than Kavanaugh's had when it had a busy restaurant. In those days the resort/restaurant employed about 85 people.

Two additional maintenance workers are usually added in the summer. Three "boat boys" are kept busy in summer months, Tom said. The housekeeping staff includes about 12 people during the peak season.


In the summer, guests enjoy the resort's two beaches on the west end of upper portion of Sylvan Lake. There is a trail system on the grounds that covers about three-quarters of a mile. That trail system also links to a larger East Gull Lake trail system.

Today, it's the only commercial property on the lake, which is also home to Confidence Learning Center. Kavanaugh's has about 1,200 feet of lakeshore.Tom said the number of resorts has decreased over the years. He estimated that in the industry's heyday there were 3,000 resorts compared to about 800 today.

The resort is on city water but has its own well treatment system.

In the winter guests can snowmobile, cross-country ski, swim in the indoor pool or ice skate on the pond that was added in the 2005/2006 project.

The resort closes in the month of November - traditionally the least pleasant month for weather - and maintenance projects keep the staff busy, Tom said.

Most units are rented about 120 to 130 days out of the year. At full capacity, the resort can accommodate about 275 persons, if all the beds are full.

Kavanaugh's supplies towels for its guests, a service that keeps housekeeping busy.

"We do a lot of laundry out of a very small space," Tom said.


Before the Kavanaughs bought the property in 1969 it was a small nine-cabin resort with 800 feet of lakeshore that had been operating since 1954 - Brown's For Rest Resort. According to a brief history of the resort, all six Kavanaugh boys, five daughters-in-law, all 15 grandchildren of Sherm and Mae and the first of the great-grandchildren have worked at the resort.

Tom said the family "takes a ton of pride" in the resort. He joked that they've all adjusted to a lifestyle in which weddings, babies and if possible, deaths take place in the off season.

"We fully intend to be here until our last breath," Tom said.

Resort name: Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort.

Year founded: 1969.

Owners: John, Mark, Dave and Tom Kavanaugh.

Number of employees: Eight year-round employees, increasing to about 25 in the summer.

Size in acres: 26.


How many people can it accommodate: 275.

Little known facts: The four brothers can almost invariably be found at the office for coffee at 7 a.m., 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

What sets it apart: The resort is billed as a family-owned "true Minnesota resort" in the heart of the Pine Beach area where the pursuit of excellence has never wavered.

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