Crunchy's among East Lansing businesses that have adapted to changing landscape during past three decades
From the thousands of initials carved into the wooden booths of Crunchy’s during the past three decades to the posters signed by noted Spartan athletes from the past, it’s obvious the little green burger shack at 254 W. Grand River Ave. has found its niche in East Lansing.
“Crunchy’s has kept its soul,” said MSU alumnus Leo Poroshin, who has been frequenting the business for more than a decade. “They’ve remained who they are, and good things stay the same.”
The same cannot be said for the city that surrounds it, which has experienced major redevelopments in its downtown in the past three decades and expects to see many more in upcoming years.
But despite what has happened in the city surrounding the business, during the 30 years Crunchy’s has called East Lansing home, the restaurant is one thing that has remained the same in an ever-changing city landscape and plans to keep up its tradition.
‘Where everybody knows your name’
For many Crunchy’s patrons, walking down the familiar, yet suspicious green alley to the restaurant door is a lot like coming home.
Poroshin said that laid-back, relaxed feeling is why he has been frequenting the bar for more than 10 years and why the bar has been so successful.
“It’s the ‘Cheers’ of East Lansing,” Poroshin said. “It’s where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Owner Vivian Keeney, who bought the restaurant with her husband in 1994, said they were hesitant at the time to make changes to the restaurant, wishing to preserve the cozy feeling patrons grew to love in the 12 years it was owned by first owner Paul Grattarola.
“Crunchy’s has been successful because we didn’t mess with a good thing,” Keeney said. “Although we increased the capacity from 84 to 108 in 1998, it remained a small, casual restaurant that caters to all ages.”
From the well-known “Crunchy Burger” to the Sharpie-covered buckets of beer that line the walls, patrons also have come to rely on the consistency the restaurant’s owners have honed in its 30 years of business.
That reliability is crucial for downtown businesses to stand the test of time in the East Lansing community, Director of Planning and Community Development Tim Dempsey said.
“(Successful, independent businesses) do a number of things,” Dempsey said. “They provide a product people want, and they also do it consistently and have good service. From my perspective, that’s always been the biggest challenge.”
Besides the change in capacity, the restaurant has undergone next to no changes despite the change in ownership from Grattarola to Keeney and her then-husband in 1994, Keeney said.
A streetscape staple
In the time since Crunchy’s opened its doors, the city’s streetscape has shifted several times as projects, such as City Center II, folded and developments, such as the Marriott at University Place, 300 M.A.C. Ave., were built, and the shape of downtown completely changed.
When Bob Fish decided to open his flagship Biggby Coffee shop next door to Crunchy’s in 1995, the parcel where customers now enjoy a coffee and the morning paper was boarded up and unrecognizable.
“It was an Arby’s with weeds as tall as I am,” Fish said. “(That portion of) the west end of East Lansing sort of was a wasteland at that moment of time, and the exclamation point was Crunchy’s.”
Family-owned businesses have folded, giving way to corporate chains. But Crunchy’s has stood its ground.
“I can go back to childhood days — (East Lansing) was a city with quite a bit more diversity of business back then,” Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub owner Trisha Riley said. “Today, it’s much different. There aren’t as many anchor stores for families to shop in. The dynamics of the downtown have changed.”
Through the decades
Although Keeney has worked to keep Crunchy’s as similar as possible — through Spartan championships won, more students coming to MSU and even her husband’s passing — to when the business first opened its doors in 1982, the external differences from other bars in the area are what make it stand out to its patrons.
In 1998, the restaurant upped the amount of beers on tap they offer from five to 27, and decided to focus on Michigan craft brews, many of which they carry on tap.
“Back 30 years ago … there were not a lot of beers being served in bars and restaurants that were different from one another,” general manager Michael Krueger said. “Crunchy’s was one of the first ones in the mid-Michigan area to delve into the craft beer market. We work hard to keep the relationship with breweries that aren’t necessarily served everywhere.”
For its 30th birthday celebration, the restaurant will offer its specialty beer, made in conjunction with the Marshall, Mich.,-based Dark Horse Brewing Company, available for customers.
The restaurant’s brew, Tall, Dark and Crunchy’s, was just one more way for it to incorporate a Michigan brewery, a focus that sets it apart from other East Lansing bars.
“It’s a comfortable atmosphere; people are so easygoing,” studio art junior Natalia Tortora said.
“They don’t judge you at Crunchy’s, which is what I like about it.”