When Grand Rapids native Carmen LaPlant joined the Burger's Shoes team as a store manager seven years ago, it didn’t take long for the seed to be planted in the mind of former owner Maria Leyrer that one day she would be the one to carry on the legacy started by Leyrer's father, Ludwig Burger, 54 years ago.

“Sometimes you just know when someone has it,” Leyrer said. “She definitely just has the entrepreneurial spirit.”

The gradual transition from manager to owner was a natural progression for LaPlant, who began her crash course in learning the responsibilities and challenges that come with running a business from Leyrer over the past five years, as the wheels were set in motion for a change to take place.

That fateful day arrived on Sept. 22 after nine months of planning. As fate would have it, LaPlant officially took ownership of the business exactly 54 years to the day that Burger, a Slovenian immigrant, originally opened the Cloquet store at 1609 Carlton Ave. in 1967.

For LaPlant, the process has been a bit of a whirlwind, but she said she’s grateful for the opportunity knowing how much the business means to Leyrer.

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“She grew up here. This is her heart, and her father was so important to her,” LaPlant said. "So, it was hard for her to find out how to let go and when to let go. I am grateful for the timeline that we’ve had.”

While the decision to retire was far from easy for Leyrer, the familiarity and trust in LaPlant maDE the change a whole lot easier.

“I would not want this business to go forward with somebody that I didn’t know,” Leyrer said. “It’s that close to my heart that I just wouldn’t want it to be just a business, and she gets that.”

Ludwig Burger, pictured, opened Burger's Shoes in 1967.
Contributed / Maria Leyrer
Ludwig Burger, pictured, opened Burger's Shoes in 1967. Contributed / Maria Leyrer

Leyrer, who took over the business in 1995 after her father's death, is confident that Burger's Shoes is in good hands and will continue to thrive under LaPlant's leadership.

"It’s been all part of the bigger picture of making this legacy go forward," said Leyrer. "It was really important for me and my family for sure, and the community. I mean what would we do without a shoe store?"

‘The stars aligned’

LaPlant’s path to ownership began years before her tenure as manager of the store, and may have never happened if it had not been for some convincing by Leyrer.

LaPlant previously worked in the shoe department of Younkers in Duluth when she rented a Cloquet home owned by Maria and Michael Leyrer, next door to Burger's Shoes. On the initial rental application, Leyrer was intrigued by LaPlant’s work history, which also included a stint at Benders Shoes in Grand Rapids. The parallels between Leyrer and LaPlant led Leyrer on a mission to persuade LaPlant early on in their relationship to come work with her, but to no avail.

The playful back and forth eventually turned to one final plea by Leyrer when she learned that LaPlant was moving back to her hometown to sell insurance. This time, her request was successful.

“I’m like, 'No, you have to come talk to me, I’ll do anything,'” Leyrer remembered. “'I’ll pay you full-time. I’ll pay you benefits, just come see me and I said just talk to me.' And so we talked, and we just clicked from the get-go. She’s like my daughter, almost.”

Maria Leyrer, former owner of Burger's Shoes, carries a shoebox in the store Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. 
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Maria Leyrer, former owner of Burger's Shoes, carries a shoebox in the store Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

LaPlant said she’s thankful for the effort by Leyer, as it has turned into a life-changing relationship for both women.

“She was very, very passionate about wanting me to be here, and I’m very thankful for that,” LaPlant said. “Our whole journey together has been amazing.”

In the time since the two joined forces, Burger's Shoes has reached new heights, with the store posting its highest grossing year ever in 2020. While the pandemic delivered unprecedented challenges — including a six-week period when the store was forced to close — support from the community, along with visitors from out of town, have been integral in keeping the store on the right track financially.

“I think people stayed closer to home, and so I think actually we probably had more community business,” Leyrer said.

LaPlant said she doesn’t anticipate making any immediate changes to the store, but said there may be some small updates as business slows down in the first quarter.

The Burger's Shoes store has become a staple in the Cloquet community, and interactions with regular customers are among the greatest joys for LaPlant as she carries on the legacy of the establishment. She hopes that the store’s regular customers will continue to support the business in the future.

“That’s why communities thrive, it’s all of the community. Huge thank you to each and every person that chooses to shop local, anywhere. Shoe store, coffee shop, wherever,” said LaPlant. “It’s all a circle and it’s cool. Keep going, community.”

A newspaper ad for the Sept. 22, 1967, opening of Burger's Shoes.
Contributed / Maria Leyrer
A newspaper ad for the Sept. 22, 1967, opening of Burger's Shoes. Contributed / Maria Leyrer