By Maxwell Harden

Weary travelers from Michiana and beyond journey to Marcellus looking for the house with the bright red barn to spend the weekend relaxing with friends.

The Red Barn Retreat, 93473 Sibert Ave., Marcellus, has earned a reputation as one of the best small retreat venues in Michiana.

Owned and operated by Sally Johnson, the retreat offers scrapbookers, quilters, crafters, small business owners and groups of friends and family space to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a weekend and partake in relaxing activities.

Sally’s venture into hospitality began more than 10 years ago, when she and her friends were looking for places to scrapbook. After hosting scrapbook nights at each other’s homes, Sally decided to learn more about the hospitality business. She rent homes to host retreats for a few years before deciding to create a retreat space on her property in Marcellus.

“I started looking into it and found out that there were several businesses that do this sort of thing,” Sally says. “I decided to try it myself.”

The Red Barn Retreat is named after the signature red barn adjacent to the house, which was initially set to house the retreat space before Porter Township shut down the project. While the initial plan was for the barn to host “unhosted” retreats — retreats where the entire space is rented for a group to use on its own — Sally and her family decided to switch gears and turn their home’s basement into retreat space.

“It was discouraging at first,” she says. “But we regrouped. We tore apart the basement, moved walls around and made it work and formatted it as the township wanted.”

The Red Barn Retreat features space for up to eight guests per weekend. Each guest receives their own 6-foot work table and bed, while the cooking and cleaning are done by Sally herself. It also features kitchen space, a bathroom and extra craft supplies.

“I prepare all their meals and feed them unless they want to do their own thing like order out or dine out,” Sally says. “We just cook a lot of like feel-good, comfort food.”

Sally’s client base has grown over the years thanks to word of mouth and social media. Guests use the retreat as a meet-up space to relax, with some guests traveling great distances to meet and catch up with friends.

“We get a lot of locals within an hour of here,” Sally says. “We get a lot of Indiana customers, a lot of Chicago. We’ll have groups of local teachers sometimes. It’s more of a meeting place. I’ve had a girl fly in from Texas and a girl who came in from Florida. Usually, they fly in to a friend’s house, spend a day there and then come spend the weekend here.”

When she’s not hosting weekend retreats, Sally spends the weekdays hosting small workshops and prepping for the next retreat. According to Sally, she washes 24 loads of laundry every Monday and Tuesday, frequents five to six grocery stores every Wednesday, and cleans for five hours on Thursdays.

“Since I don’t have retreats during the week, I might as well be teaching classes,” she says. “The prep and hosting work is definitely more than my 40-hour job but it’s a lot more enjoyable.”

One of the hurdles Sally faced early on was building a client base. Social media played a big role in spreading the Red Barn Retreat gospel.

“I have a pretty good website,” she says. “I had a great girl help me build a website and get that up and running. I don’t feel like I’m wonderful with technology or social media but it’s kind of made for an older generation. A lot of my clientele use the app, so Facebook has become an amazing way for me to get known. It has taken me probably five or six years to build up my client base to where it is now.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected businesses nationwide, and the Red Barn Retreat is no exception. The retreat closed in March for three months during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, and business has dwindled in the months since. According to Sally, the retreat was busy for more than 40 weekends per year before COVID, which has caused her to lose half of her revenue for the year.

“We run on a pretty tight budget, so having to close for those three months was rough,” she says. “Basically, there were 19 weeks that either I had to close, guests had to cancel or reschedule or they just weren’t comfortable.”

Adjusting to a COVID world, Sally makes sure all surfaces are sanitized and plates every meal.

“We used to do a lot of family-style dining for the girls,” Sally says. “Mainly because they want to be treated like a family and then they can pick and choose what they want but with COVID, we just switched things up so that everything is plated. We did a ton of cleaning before this — you just have to do more now. You sanitize more and we bought new chairs that don’t have any cloth on them, so everything can be wiped down in sanitized easier.

Using funds received from the Michigan Small Business Restart Program, Sally had a porch and patio area built in her backyard to allow guests to have more room to space out.

“Now there was more space for girls to go to either relax or to get more space from each other,” Sally says. “Some girls can eat inside and some of the girls can eat outside, so the backyard has a lot of outdoor living space. We were closed for basically three months, so we figured if we’re gonna stay open, then why not improve it while we have the time?”

Initially hosting retreats part-time, Sally left her job as a sales rep a few years ago to focus on her retreat full-time. It was a financial risk, but with the support of her husband and daughter, she pressed forward toward her dream.

“[My husband] was very supportive,” Sally says. “ He told me that you need to do what you love. It’s a lot of work, probably more work than I was doing as a rep but I enjoy it. As a sales rep, it just got to a point where as much as you love the people, you don’t love the work. I think it was just him saying that we’d make it work and encouraging me to keep going.”

“I’ve had girls tell me they’re not crafters,” Sally says. “So, I’ll put together a class for them, and they’ll make blankets, a little picture book or we’ll do barn quilts. The girls are excited to do it, and [the crafts are] really simple so they’re generally happy about that.”

While the pandemic has hindered business this year, that hasn’t stopped Sally from putting everything into making sure her retreat can thrive.

“We really do take any income that comes into the business and put it back into the business,” she says. “My hope is someday that this will basically be my retirement. It’s hard work but I love every minute of it.” χ