Cory Bissell is notorious around town. Always dressed dapper, with a shock of blond hair and Buddy Holly frames, he is most widely known as the owner of Kilwin’s in Frankfort. However, even if you are not a “fudgie” or a candy connoisseur, it is likely that you recognize his mug from any number of the other organizations and activities that dot his resume—Bissell is a very busy young man with deep Benzie County roots.
Bissell graduated from Frankfort High School in 2005, but his family line goes back 10 generations, to Elberta and Frankfort’s beginnings—French Canadian-born John Greenwood and his wife, Caroline (Robar), of Ludington, settled in what is now Elberta in June 1855. They made a living by hunting, fishing, trapping, and farming, and they contributed greatly to the development of Gilmore Township, according to The Elberta Alert. For instance, the Greenwoods’ first home, commonly refered to as the Cedar Log House, was used as an informal school from 1855 to 1860, when the Greenwoods moved their farm just south of Elberta, and their first residence officially became the Cedar Log School, the first schoolhouse in Benzie County. Additionally, John Greenwood was a blacksmith and operated shops in both Frankfort and Elberta, including a shop at the Cedar Log House that was Benzie County’s first place of business. He also was the first to carry the mail from Manistee to Frankfort, when the trail was less than developed. But arguably the most Founding Fatherly fact in this allegory is John Greenwood’s hand in the naming of this area: according to Blacklock’s History of Elberta, Joseph Robar and Frank Martin were others who moved to this area in 1855, with Martin living temporarily at the trapping shelter of Joseph Oliver, credited as Elberta’s first (white) settler. The high winds off Lake Michigan would pile snow and sand, so Robar and Greenwood helped Frank Martin to erect a wall of logs to protect his home—they called the place Frank’s Fort, and this is said to have been the inspiration for the name “Frankfort.”
Nowadays, Bissell is Frankfort’s candy man. After working at Kilwin’s since the age of 15, Bissell (now 29) bought the store at 23, just after finishing up at Grand Valley State University in 2010. Meanwhile, his father, Dave, is the water superintendent for the City of Frankfort, and his mother, Amy, is the registrar for Benzie County.
Bissell’s love of this place and its people is apparent in his jovial personality but also in his dedication to local organizations and events—something that he likely picked up from Mom and Dad, both civil servants. For instance, Bissell is on the Frankfort Planning & Zoning Commission, he is a member of the Benzie County Community Chorus, he often participates in productions by the Benzie County Players, and his store sponsors numerous local events from the Betsie Bay Frozen 5k to the local youth soccer programs. And because he cannot sit still for very long, in the winter, when Kilwin’s closes from the New Year through early April, he is a server at The Roadhouse Mexican Bar & Grill in Benzonia. Not to mention that Bissell also performs wedding ceremonies in the summer, his busiest season at the store!
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Bissell in the last few sleepy Frankfort days, before the busy summer season is set to begin.
The Betsie Current: What made you first want to work at Kilwin’s, back when you were in high school? What was it like back then?
Cory Bissell: I knew I liked working around people, and I have always had a huge sweet tooth. Kilwin’s had the best tasting ice cream and seemed like a fun spot, where I would fit in.
Current: We know that you studied Physical Therapy in college. That is a pretty far cry from owning your own candy store. So why did you return “home” to Frankfort, after leaving the area?
Bissell: I was wrapping up my undergrad and trying to decide where I was headed afterward. My plan was to be a free spirit and take a year off to travel/work/see some new places. I came home for the summer to save up some money and was met with an offer to manage and then buy the store, if I could. I enjoyed running things so much that I decided to change paths and give it a go—grad school is always waiting, as a back-up.
Current: What did you miss most about this area while you were away?
Bissell: The outdoors!! I took for granted how beautiful this area is and what all it has to offer. It blew my mind that people had to travel 30 minutes, pay to park, and hang out on a crowded beach in Grand Haven. It was beautiful, but I missed having it all right out my back door.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Bissell: With any place, there are the pros and cons. Frankfort has always been home to me, and so I cherish it for all of the memories that I have of growing up here. I also enjoy the different people that find their way here and become part of the culture. It is nice to have friends from many different backgrounds. It was a bit difficult, when I first moved back, to find a good friend group—there are not a lot of people in there 20s and 30s around. Owning Kilwin’s has also meant that I don’t have the freetime to travel and take weekends to see college friends. It is a bit remote in that sense. The most rewarding part of my job is how happy it makes people. That is something I always strive to do, and I appreciate finding a fulfilling career that allows me to do so every day.
Current: What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Bissell: I—very loosely—consider myself a Renaissance Man. Moreover, I feel the call to do my part, giving time to boards and organizations. I have been involved with the Frankfort Planning Commission and helped to create Frankfort’s Downtown Development Authority, which helps to shape Frankfort, as well as protect the charm and character that we all love. I also sing with the Benzie Chorus and put on plays with the Benzie Players. The arts have always been a passion, and I feel privilaged to be involved. I have Sue and Jay Gainforth to thank for getting me started, as well as my [maternal] grandparents, Jean and Bill Higman, who would take me to musicals at Interlochen.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope it will continue to grow? What’s next?
Bissell: Life in the summer is always busy, and our town seems to be booming. I have increased staff every year just to keep up. It is great to see knew visitors who are falling in love with the area and new businesses making a go of it here.
Current: What are some ways that you and your business give back to the community?
Bissell: I am a proud supporter of the summer reading program, put on by the Benzie Shores District Library in Frankfort. I also donate gift bags throughout the year to many different charities and events that benefit the schools, community, and nonprofit organizations. I think it’s so important to give back to the community that has been—and continues to be—so supportive of me.
Current: Is there a busy season for you or is it pretty constant year-round?
Bissell: Summer has always been the bread and butter of our year. Like many businesses in our area, that is the time that makes or breaks a year. With the growing popularity over the past few years, the shoulder seasons have become increasingly busy. I have seen a large bump in business, especially in the fall during color tour and the Frankfort Film Festival. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and it makes my season to get everything decorated and to play Christmas music and prepare gifts for everyone. January through March are quite slow, and so I close the store, to recharge my batteries and prepare for the next season. I fill my time with some travel, and I moonlight over at the Roadhouse [as a server]—it’s great for getting me out of the house on snowy days and to see all of the friendly faces.
Current: We would think that owning your own business would be challenging/time-consuming enough, yet you seem to have a lot of things on your plate? How do you balance them?
Bissell: It definitely is a balancing act and requires a lot of my time. I have always enjoyed being busy and having a project to work on. It does get difficult to make everything work at times, but I have a lot of help from family and flexible friends that work with me. It’s definitely a team effort, and I owe so much thanks to my partner, Matthew.
Current: What kind of impact do you think that you have been able to have, as a young person, on the community?
Bissell: I am not sure what kind of impact I have made. I hope I am an example that, with hard work and a great support system from family and the community, anything is possible. There is a bad stigma that young people are less driven or not willing to put in the effort. I would like to say, when given the right opportunities and support, we all can achieve great things. While I do understand the other side of it, I like to be a reminder to keep an open mind. I also hope that the youth in the area may see my path as a reminder to reach for the stars and see where it takes them.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people back to this area?
Bissell: Northern Michigan would benefit from having more quality housing opportunities that are accessible to young people and families. It is becoming a big issue that many communities are discussing and finding difficulty solving. We are in a new age where people can work remotely and choose where they want to live. It is important for the vibrancy of our community and schools, as well as businesses, to foster opportunities for young people.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Bissell: I try to get out and support as many local events as my schedule allows. I enjoy the local music festivals and farmers’ markets the most. It is great to see what talented people live in Northern Michigan, and I love music. The farmers’ markets are a great way to get some truly delicious produce and homemade goods, as well as support local, sustainable operations.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County change since you moved away and came back? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Bissell: I was home every summer to work at Kilwin’s so I didn’t miss out on much of the ongoings through the year. I didn’t notice too much of a change during this period, and that is what I think many people like about the area. I want to see the area continue to attract creative people and offer the special memories that are made here.
Current: What is your favorite item that you sell at Kilwin’s?
Bissell: It changes seasonally, especially when we introduce limited edition confections. Right now it would have to be the jordan almonds. Sweet and crunchy!
Current: What’s your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Bissell: The perfect summer day starts out with making a full breakfast at home—something I rarely get to do—then either biking/hiking/kayaking through the afternoon; dinner on the deck of Coho with friends, and heading to a friend’s house for a bonfire, preferably with someone with a guitar.
Kilwin’s of Frankfort is open Monday-Thursday 12-5 p.m., Friday 12-8 p.m., Saturday 12-6 p.m., and Sunday 12-4 p.m. Call the store at 231-399-0350.