By Pete Wurdock
The Uglyfish Baking Company is one of the last things one would expect to see while driving down CR 407, but its towering sign—believed to have come from an old Texaco station—makes it impossible to miss.
Owners Rick Guth and Ellen Airgood turned an Airstream trailer into a bakery shop in Deer Park. They had a soft opening in 2022. Currently Uglyfish operates as a “cottage industry,” which is regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. It means they are allowed to bake “non-volatile foods” (those that are not temperature controlled for safety) in their own kitchen.
The Uglyfish Baking Company sells cinnamon rolls, mixed berry pie bars, a variety of delicious cookies, brownies, gluten free items, and several kinds of bread. The shop is only eight minutes from Pine Stump Junction, located between Deer Park Lodge and the Muskallonge Lake State Park and their customer base is growing. It is not uncommon to see a line outside of the camper.
The real magic will unfold later this summer when the old Airstream becomes a full service bakery trailer right along the road.
Rick and Ellen have been around food for such a long time that you can hear the excitement in their voices when they explain what UglyFish will eventually become. “When the big camper gets done and we get our final health department inspection we will be able to bake in it, serve coffee and espresso and so much more,” Ellen said.
Their history began in 1991. On a cold, rainy day Ellen Airgood was camping with her sister at the Twelvemile Beach Campground in Alger County. It was raining and the thought of hiking or cooking was out. They ventured to Grand Marais in search of a comfort that could only be found in a hearty bowl of soup. Their quest led them to a little shop on the main drag.
“The shop looked so cute,” Ellen recalled, “so in we went. There was a sign on a decorative kettle that read Homemade Soup. I went to the counter and asked the guy what kind of soup he had for the day.”
He replied without any expression; “No soup.”
Undeterred by the man’s flat response, Ellen shot back. “But your sign says soup!” she said in a feigned protest.
The man cracked a smile. She knew he was testing her sense of humor and in that instant there was a tacit connection. “Try next door,” he said. “They might have some.”
Ellen and her sister left but returned later to eat. She had a cheese sandwich with veggies and a chocolate malt. On their way out the proprietor said, “You should come back here for breakfast.”
“My sister and I went back for breakfast, and we talked some more with the guy and exchanged phone numbers. Six months later we got married,” Ellen said.
Rick and Ellen were in love and worked together for seven years in his Grand Marais shop and often discussed their future. Rick owned a house in Grand Marais that was also zoned for commercial use. It was an idea he kept on the back burner in case they ever wanted to expand the business. While waiting on a customer one day a man stopped by and made small talk with Ellen. Their conversation turned to business and as the man left he said “If you ever want to buy a diner car, give me a call.”
They bought and restored one of the man’s diner cars. They removed the porch from their house and replaced it with the diner car and West Bay Diner was born. Rick was the only cook and he prepared every meal that ever came out of the diner and Ellen was the baker and self-professed “pizza girl.”
Ellen is also a successful writer. Her first novel, South of Superior, was released in 2011. Four of her novels have been published through a major publishing house.
Winters were busy in Grand Marais, and they used snowmobiles to commute from their home in Deer Park. Soon they began closing the diner during the winter so she could devote more time writing.
“I started trying to write novels 20 years before one was published,” Ellen said. Two of her novels made the list of Michigan Notable books and her latest novel, Tin Camp Road, was selected to be Michigan’s “great places, great reads” book for 2023.
Rick and Ellen owned and operated West Bay Diner for the next 24 years and tearfully sold it in April 2022. As they prepared to sell the diner, dreams of opening a road-side bakery in Deer Park surfaced and led to the Uglyfish Baking Company.