Businesses downtown sink or swim during summer slow season
To cope with the severe drop in customers during the summer, local restaurants are forced to adjust services or even close their doors
It was the morning of June 30 and Derrick Austin stood outside a restaurant on Grand River Avenue, looking up and down the empty summer streets of East Lansing.
It was hard to believe it was actually over. To the dismay of Austin and many others in the East Lansing and MSU community, Moe’s Southwest Grill, the restaurant he’d managed for the last three-and-a-half years, was closing for good.
This is a scene that has become all too common in East Lansing as of late, as Moe’s was the third notable East Lansing restaurant to close this summer — along with What Up Dawg? and Firehouse Subs.
“Trust me, we didn’t want to leave,” Austin said in a prior interview with The State News. “Trust me, it sucks … I met a lot of friends here, lots and lots of friends ... lots of families.”
As a result of these numerous closures, many students and people around East Lansing have begun to take notice.
“I think it’s funny because we actually just drove by Moe’s and said something like ‘I don’t know how it closed down so fast,’” MSU student and redshirt junior wide receiver Tres Barksdale said. “I just started liking it. I’ve always been a Chipotle person, but I started to like Moe’s and it’s just crazy that it just closed downwards.”
For Moe’s and so many other restaurants in the East Lansing area, their failure can ultimately boil down to just one reason — their inability to generate enough revenue during the summer months of this college town.
You have to be careful in a college town
“I’ve been in the food industry for 30-plus years,” Austin said. “(A) college town is different. I would say it’s its own world, especially East Lansing … once school starts, boom, you’re crazy busy ... and boom, (the students) are gone and your business slows down big time.
“You have to be careful in a college town.”
For both Barksdale and fellow MSU football player and student Tyler O’Connor, two guys who have spent the last four summers in East Lansing, they’ve come to realize there’s no way the people who remain in East Lansing during the summer can make up for all those who leave when the school year is over.
“During the summer, I think it’s understandable just because there’s way less people on campus and everything, and being a college town there’s not a whole lot of business outside of students,” O’Connor said. “But I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a lack of advertising or what, but I think Moe’s is kind of like an unknown secret in a way just because it’s kind of down at the other end of the block.”
In addition to this, Austin explained chain restaurants like Taco Bell or McDonald’s are able to survive the summer because they can spread the wealth from other stores within the franchise. However, for the Moe’s franchise Austin works under, it only has one other store, located in Royal Oak.
Sam Short is an East Lansing resident and restaurant entrepreneur in the Lansing area who previously served as president of BarFly Ventures. He played a huge role in the opening of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and HopCat East Lansing.
Today, Short has shifted his focus to his role as co-owner of the Potent Potables Project — the parent company of several Lansing restaurants such as Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, The Cosmos and The Creole.
Connecting with customers
Throughout his career, Short has learned a thing or two about the restaurant business. And he said there are several things that need to be addressed before one can even think about opening a restaurant. These include getting in touch with the city and the people one is going to work with on a daily basis, as well as contacting the local enforcement such as fire chiefs to check the liquor licensing laws in the area.
When it comes to operating a restaurant in a college town such as East Lansing, Short said the main target shouldn’t be college students.
“The goal isn’t to shut them out,” Short said. “It’s just that you have to focus on your regular crowd first. Look, college kids are going to come. They’re going to come out and they’re going to drink ... They’ve got disposable income … They’re young. They’re vibrant. They’re interesting.”
“What you need to pick up on is the three to five months a year where college kids aren’t around. And to be able to do that, you’re going to need to be able to identify what your locals are interested in and try to give that to them. And if you can do that, if you can hit that mark, it doesn’t matter in the summer.”
It can be done
Still, businesses can be successful in East Lansing. Short pointed to numerous restaurants that have been around East Lansing for years — Harrison Roadhouse and Rick’s American Cafe, to name a few.
For Barksdale, he sees some of these mainstays as a potential reason for why newer restaurants fail.
“I think people just have their Potbelly and their Pita Pit, Cosi and Chipotle that people are so stuck on,” Barksdale said. “So I think maybe people see all those places as the places they go to. Some people just don’t expand and go out to different places, so that might be another reason.”
However, all of this is not to say people have stopped trying, or aren’t excited about new opportunities in the area. Black Cat Bistro, Sweet Lorraine’s Fabulous Mac n’ Cheez! and most recently Velvet ~ A Candy Store are all businesses that have opened up within the last few years.
“We are excited for a new adventure and ready to have a year-round store,” Velvet co-owner Trisha Berakovich said. She and her husband Erik Berakovich moved their store from previous locations on Mackinac Island and Harbor Springs.
“We love the community and we are excited to see how we do,” Trisha Berakovich went on to say. “I think we are different. We look fancy, but we have reasonable prices and it’s all homemade. What sets us apart is that we make almost everything here and the fact that we are a family-owned business.”
Short also said in some cases a restaurant will close and attempt to come back and rebrand itself; that’s essentially the case with What Up Dawg?. The restaurant closed in May, but by the end of June, a GoFundMe page started by the former general manager surfaced online, asking the community for help to bring What Up Dawg? back as a mobile hot dog cart business.
“I’ve been thinking about the community and the multitude of relationships I’ve had the opportunity to build while serving great food, and I hope I can continue to have the chance to create a context for lasting memories,” MSU alumnus and former What Up Dawg? general manager Corey Austin wrote on the GoFundMe page.
But to find a man who has found a way to perfectly cater to MSU’s students, look no further than Joe Conrad.
Becoming a mainstay
Conrad is a former MSU student who brought his Conrad’s College Town Grill business to East Lansing in 2007. Today, his business has expanded to include three restaurant locations around MSU’s campus, with the latest opening up in the Frandor Shopping Center.
“I think I just relate with my customers more than other businesses in town … just because I’m actually here,” Conrad said. “Being in the stores is the thing that gives me a big advantage of really knowing what our customers are looking for and just understanding the trends of East Lansing and when business is going to be good and when business is going to be bad and just understanding (that) just because you have a storefront on Grand River, that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to be successful.”
Restaurants in East Lansing can be hit or miss, as previously demonstrated. Each and every generation of MSU students might know and frequent a different set of restaurants as different businesses come and go, just as every four years a different set of students come and go.
Still, at the end of it all, Short said there’s more to opening a restaurant than meets the eye.
“Essentially, I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’d be so cool and awesome and I’m so good at cooking this cuisine.’ Realistically, while all those things may be true ... the nitty gritty is that you’re opening a small business,” Short said. “And as exciting and fun as restaurants can be, if you’re not considering all of the rest of it, what I would consider to be generally much more important than, you know, like your wallpaper choice and your table design, you’re starting at a disadvantage.”