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How do you turn a leisure activity into an expansive hospitality group drawing millions to a town of under 700? Hard work. Craftsmanship. A welcoming spirit. For Blue Gate Hospitality Company in Shipshewana, IN, these same traits that define Amish Country also embody the quality goods and services they provide for the many who trek to this corner of Northern Indiana, a testament to the kindness of one local resident and his desire to make people smile.
Mel Riegsecker with Model Wagon

A Crafty Origin

The history of Blue Gate begins with the imagination and craftsmanship of its founder, Mel Riegsecker. The son of an Amish harness maker, Riegsecker worked as Vice President of Manufacturing at a LaGrange County RV factory. In 1970, he built his first scale-model horse-drawn wagon to be displayed in his father’s shop — a simple hobby project and nothing more. Riegsecker showed off the model to his father, who suggested displaying it in the elder Riegsecker’s harness shop.

“Mel thought that was a good idea, so he left it there. As he was leaving the shop, his dad said, ‘Hey, if somebody wants to buy it, how much do you want to sell it for?’” said Andrew Rohrer, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Blue Gate Hospitality, adding the thought had never even occurred to Riegsecker. “Mel was not real crazy about that — he’d spent two years on it. So, he told his dad to put a price on it no one would ever pay, and he left. Less than two weeks later, Mel went over to see his dad, who was scuffling around the shop.

“He said, ‘Hey Mel, a guy was in the shop the other day and was looking at your model. He asked me how much for it and I told him a price I thought he would never pay. He took out his checkbook and wrote a check on the spot.’”

After the first wagon was sold, he built a replacement, which was also displayed in his father’s shop and was again, quickly sold. In time, Rohrer said, Riegsecker’s reputation spread, and customers traveled from across state borders to request customized model wagons of their own. Eventually, Riegsecker quit his job at the RV factory to build and sell models full-time. Soon after, the highly detailed miniatures caught the attention of a Chicago department store — Montgomery-Ward.

“So, Mel started to sell his models through Montgomery-Ward, JC Penney, and Sears catalogs,” Rohrer explained. “And that is when he really started to get busy.”

Shipshewana Furniture StoreGrowth & Expansion

What began as a passion project soon evolved into a full-blown operation expanding far beyond the confines of his small wood shop. In 1984, he purchased a former truck cap factory building at North Van Buren and East Middlebury streets in Shipshewana, renaming it the Shipshewana Craft Barn. But this new facility was much more than just a center for his model manufacturing.

“He had a little extra space in there and his wife, June, wanted to put in a little gift shop,” Rohrer said. “So, they added the gift shop and rented out some space. Mel also wanted to put a little ice cream shop up front. People would come to see him build the models there, so he thought, ‘Well, I can sell them ice cream.’”

In fact, Rohrer said, June remained an integral part of Blue Gate throughout its development. “June has been Mel’s partner in every step of the ever-growing enterprise. She started by making clothes for Mel’s models, then managed the gift store and even handled the restaurant decor and uniforms when they expanded. All this while being a full-time mom to two preschoolers!”

But as customers showed an interest in purchasing the ice cream shop’s furnishings, the freezers were removed, and the shop shifted to manufacturing its own tables and chairs rather than selling furniture built by others.

The Blue Gate Restaurant in 1988So began the furniture division, Rohrer said. Over the next several years, Riegsecker Marketplace expanded from a single building into an entire hospitality complex. Riegsecker bought a 55-seat restaurant across the street called Der Strudel Haus in 1986, expanding its capacity to 105 seats and renaming it Blue Gate Restaurant and Bakery — which was eventually replaced in 2000 by a brand-new, 700-seat dining space along with a 300-seat theater and full-service bakery.

The name, Rohrer said, came from an old story Riegsecker told about an English man who lived across the street from an Amish family in Pennsylvania. “One day, the English man noticed the Amish son painting their picket fence white,” Rohrer said. “The gate was painted last and oddly was painted blue. The Englishman couldn’t figure out why the gate was blue when the remainder of the fence was white.”

According to the story, the English man noticed a large wedding at the farm weeks later — one of the Amish daughters had been married. The English man assumed it was Amish tradition to paint the gate blue if the family has an eligible daughter ready to be married, but the logical explanation was the son had run out of white paint and finished the job with leftover blue paint. Nevertheless, Rohrer said, Riegsecker picked the name for its brevity and memorability.

Blue Gate Theater full of spectatorsAdditionally, Rohrer said, Riegsecker invited local musicians to perform live in the mid-’90s, answering the call of residents who lamented the lack of evening activities in Shipshewana. After the new Blue Gate facility opened in 2000, touring Southern gospel artists became a staple on the Blue Gate stage, later joined by musicals — the first of which being “The Confession” — along with larger artists across numerous genres.

“One thing you need to know about Mel is he loves doing new stuff. He is always looking for the next thing,” Rohrer said, adding that Riegsecker has since retired from full-time operations of Blue Gate — now operated by his son, Ryan, and son-in-law, Phil — and resides in Florida, where he still performs live music. “He’s always trying to find the next way he can serve visitors.”

Joy in Service

Riegsecker family photo Riegsecker has since stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the Blue Gate, having passed the reins to his son, Ryan, and son-in-law, Phil Heyerly, who serve as president and vice president, respectively. His daughter, Kathy, and daughter-in-law, Jodi, are both heavily involved in the business as well, Rohrer said, and some of Riegsecker’s grandchildren have even stepped in to contribute. Thanks to the family’s dedication, today Blue Gate Hospitality businesses are a definitive part of not just Shipshewana culture, but Midwestern culture as well. Visitors can enjoy a meal at the restaurant, marvel at the many models from Riegsecker’s early modeling days — many of which he bought back at auctions, Rohrer said — and chase it with a fresh-baked dessert from their onsite pie bar, which includes a reinterpretation of a regional specialty.

“Whenever Mel had guests visit Shipshewana and treated them at the Blue Gate, he always ordered them a warm piece of Old-Fashioned Cream — our special version of the unofficial-official state pie, sugar cream — with a generous scoop of cinnamon ice cream,” Rohrer said. “He did this so often over the years, we put it on the menu and called it ‘Mel’s Favorite.’”

The furniture and gift shop, both still in operation, allow visitors to bring a piece of Riegsecker’s dream home with them, as do the many artisan shops surrounding the original complex. Horse-and-buggy rides provide an entertaining glimpse of Amish life, and a myriad of shows — Blue Gate plans about 500 shows per year at the Blue Gate Music Hall, Blue Gate Performing Arts Center, and Michiana Event Center — promise captivating evening performances suitable for all ages.

“It is so much fun. There is never a dull day here in Shipshewana,” Rohrer said with a laugh. “It is a great, family place to work. The culture is still small town even though we are doing these huge shows. It is very rewarding to see the growth. Whenever we set a record or get a new, big name, it is always a celebration around here.”

Mel RiegseckerFor a town of just 658, drawing more than 2 million visitors per year is a source of pride for everyone involved, Rohrer said. “The entire Riegsecker family and everyone who works here takes great pride in the quality of what we do. The reason I think we have grown over the years is we spend a lot of time thinking through not only what we are going to do next, but how we’re going to do it and making sure it meets the quality standards that we set,” Rohrer said. “We do not want anyone going away saying, ‘Well I could have gotten that down the street.’ My goal is to get them to Shipshewana so they can experience the hospitality and the quality of everything we have. I think that is as good a legacy as anything else.”

And to Riegsecker himself, that satisfaction is an unparalleled source of happiness. “All the times I’ve been around Mel, he’s happiest when he’s around a crowd of people experiencing things that he’s created,” he said. “Mel’s the president of the company — he has 400 employees. But he would take the time out every day to emcee almost every single show. Mel takes great pride in seeing the pleasure a crowd gets from the thing that he’s created; the thing that Blue Gate is.”

Planning a Trip?
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