The trio of Matt Annand and Terri and Luke Ebnet hope to use creativity to turn confusion into clarity.
The confusion stems from the name The Woods, which is what the Ebnets called their 13 acres on Highway 3 between Brainerd and Merrifield, which they purchased six years ago. Housed on the property prior to the purchase was an event center formerly known as Timbermist. Next to the event center was the bar and grill that used to be called the Chaparral Restaurant. Next to that was the Chaparral Bunkhouse.
The Ebnets believed calling the entire property The Woods would make things easier. In truth, it made things more difficult because people weren’t sure in which of the many buildings an event was taking place or where The Woods was, so the old names kept popping back into use.
So new names, new concepts and new ideas were created and with the help of Annand were implemented this season. The event center is now called the Gathering on 3. The restaurant is called b*merri gastro pub and the housing is still called The Woods.
For 15 years Annand displayed his creative juices as a former chef and part-owner of 3 Cheers, which owns Prairie Bay, Sherwood Forest and Iron Range Eatery. Annand stepped away from his ownership role to become executive chef and creativity implementation engineer to help the Ebnets’ wild dreams become reality.
“We weren’t short of ideas before, but once Matt came on board it makes it crazier,” Luke Ebnet said. “We’ll throw anything against the wall and see if it sticks. We’ve talked about treehouses in the back, but we can only do so much at a time. We’re on the right track, though, and this is the shot I’ve been waiting for. We have the right people at the right time.”
Home to one of the most elaborate and beautiful bars in the lakes area, b*merri is neither an acronym nor an abbreviation, but perhaps a combination of both. The “b” stands for Brainerd. The merri is in reference to Merrifield and the star separating the two is the “You are here” icon for where you’re sitting right now.
“Gastro pub means clever food that goes with beer,” Annand said. “We’re sort of beer-centric with the menu. We’re not beholden to that, but we do focus on that a little more. We love local in any way and local beer especially.”
The beer focus also ties in with the creative ideas Luke Ebnet stumbled upon while traveling: a self-tap beer system.
“We discovered it in Kansas City,” Luke said. “They’ve refined it to the point now where it makes a lot of sense from a management standpoint because there is no waste.
“When you come in you submit your card for a tab and you’ll receive a card that initiates the tap system. You swipe the card and you can choose which beer and how much of that beer you want to try. You pay by the ounce and that way you can sample a beer without committing to 16 ounces.”
The plan is to have 10 different local tap beers on hand with a standing bar to separate the tap from the diners. Plans to incorporate the north side of the dining room with the outdoor patio will be made possible with a 16-foot, insulated glass garage door.
Inside b*merri is the merri*market, featuring locally produced products like eggs, Amish candies, honey and other ingredients as well as take and bake pizzas and other tasty items created in the b*merri kitchen.
The Gathering on 3 event center, which refers to Highway 3, was reimagined, remodeled and ready for business right before COVID-19 closed operations. The center can seat 300 people and so groups of 150 are now able to use that facility. The team will also be doing extensive off-site catering out of that building.
The Ebnets hope to use the event center more as an entertainment center and not just for wedding receptions. They hope to bring dueling pianos, murder mysteries, live music and whatever else they can think of.
“We just need to listen to the community and what isn’t around here that you would like,” Terri Ebnet said. “We have this huge building and so let’s think outside the box. What else can we do with it?”
To highlight the rest of the property, the trio plans to start a drive-in movie theater behind the event center that will utilize a large parking lot for social distancing purposes, but also have patio seating. The movies will have a food theme so patrons can order dinner that coincides with the movie. Annand gave the example of “Kung Fu Panda” with an Asian menu or “The Great Outdoors” with a barbecue menu.
The movies would be family-oriented and the usual movie accompaniments like popcorn and other treats would also be available. The screen would be removable so one night there could be a movie playing and the next afternoon a wedding could take place.
“The governor told us to get creative so we decided to come up with a drive-in movie theater,” Annand said. “Not only is it nostalgic and a unique activity, but it’s also potentially safe for social distancing if people choose to remain in that mode. This will be different than any other drive-in. Not that there are a lot left, but this will be a foodie drive-in.”
The hope is for a late July or early August start to the movies.
Terri Ebnet said the drive-in was an old idea that was given new life because of the restrictions around COVID-19.
“With COVID this is a great thing because you’re still with family and you’re still in your car and this gives you an opportunity to come out and do something,” she said.
From the name changes to the different concepts and ideas, the Ebnets and Annand said the focal point was the community. The theater can be used as a community fundraiser or a corporate outing. The market is there for people looking to stay local while eating healthy. The self tap can also be utilized as a fundraiser.
“The community is a big part of our focal point,” Luke Ebnet said. “We’re working with the schools with a couple of programs. Matt has a lot of involvement with the soup kitchens. We are really trying to establish ourselves as part of this community.”