The owners of Saddleback BBQ in Old Town – and now Okemos – know how hard it can be to open to open a restaurant in Lansing. In fact, when Travis Stoliker and Matt Gillett opened Saddleback in REO Town in June 2015, they weren’t sure it would work out.
“There was a little bit of doubt,” said Gillett.
But armed with great food and great service, Saddleback found a loyal family and enough success to open another location.
Aaron Matthews and Sam Short – the cofounders of Zoobie’s, Creole, Punk Taco and the newest Punk Taco/Zoobie’s hybrid – have also found ways to make restaurants in an uncertain Lansing market successful. Besides their own ventures, they run Potent Potables, a consulting company that helps restaurants get started. Short said while they can’t mention names, they’ve helped open “a few breweries, bars and restaurants in Lansing that you would recognize.”
The trepidation Gillett and Stoliker felt was probably warranted given the high turnover of restaurants in Lansing. For every restaurant that is successful, there are many that fail, and the restaurant scene in Lansing can sometimes seem like a revolving door. Despite the ever-changing scene, it seems like Lansing is in the midst of a restaurant boom, with places like Arcadia Brewing, Lee’s Coney and Grill, Pzaco in Dimondale and Klavon’s in Mason opening over the last year and into this year.
Given the instability of the restaurant market in Lansing over the years, how can these places and other Lansing staples work to find and hold onto success over the coming years? Gillett and Stoliker point to people as one of their most important assets.
“We’ve got a great staff,” said Stoliker. “They are really loyal, and they care about the brand and the culture. We give a great experience on the service side.”
Short agreed, “Every single restaurant on the planet makes money with two things: food and drink. The things that are going to differentiate you? The people that sell your food and drink for you.”
Short said they’ve invested heavily in their staff at all their locations, making sure they have 401(k)s and benefits – things that many other places just don’t do.
“Everyone has a favorite bartender, and our crew in Lansing is fabulous,” he said.
The second ingredient for a successful restaurant, which is probably tied for first, is the food. Stoliker and Gillett attribute their restaurant’s successes with not only quality people but extremely high-quality food.
“We cook in a way we call blue collar,” said Stoliker. “Someone comes in at 10 p.m. to start the smoker overnight. … It’s a very time-intensive process, and we think putting in that time and care means the customers will love the product.”
Short said the food at Zoobie’s, Punk Taco and Creole is great because “we’re foodies. We make our own mozzarella, our own tortillas. … No one else does that. We do it because we love it. We’re a scratch kitchen.”
But according to Gillett, great food that the owners love isn’t enough to keep a restaurant going.
“If you’re not worried about your bottom line … you’re not going to be in business very long,” added Stoliker. “If you’re just a great chef, then it’s just a hobby … not a business.”
They spend a lot of time looking at the numbers and they’ve also invested in the technology that many markets are utilizing, like the ability to place your own order at a kiosk and get alcohol to go.
Short said they didn’t open Punk Taco just because they love tacos. “We talked to a lot of people in our city and others. You can’t shirk that stuff.” He added that he thinks many places fail because they don’t really know what they are getting into. He advised people thinking about opening a restaurant to invite 30 of their friends over for two weeks straight and cook for them.
When it comes to staying alive in the Lansing market, Short, Gillett and Stoliker agreed it’s about realizing how diverse the market is. Between the students, government workers, GM workers and families, Lansing’s makeup is diverse. While Short urged owners to realize that not everyone will be your customer, having a concept that is appealing across the board is helpful. That’s what Stoliker and Gillett love about barbecue.
Great restaurants will be opening across the area in the next few years, and while a few are bound to close, great food, a smart business sense, awesome partners and great people will send those places cruising toward a long stay in Lansing.