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From old favorites to newcomers, restaurants share their reasons for success in East Lansing

June 8, 2016
Trish Berakovich prepares chocolate covered pretzels decorated like baseball bats on June 8, 2016 at Velvet A Candy Store at 507 E. Grand River Ave.
Trish Berakovich prepares chocolate covered pretzels decorated like baseball bats on June 8, 2016 at Velvet A Candy Store at 507 E. Grand River Ave. —
Photo by Carly Geraci | and Carly Geraci The State News

Of the plethora of businesses in the downtown, 54 of them are eateries, according to the City of East Lansing's website. From chain sandwich shops and faux-Mexican to labeled authentic asian food and American delicacies of the cheeseburger, East Lansing provides a palate of ways to fix the hunger of it’s residents and students.

Though East Lansing’s reputation for plunging businesses under during the summer months there are establishments who have created a decades old longevity. But every mainstay was once new to the block with the same goal — to last.

And the success seems to come from genuine connection to the community it serves by providing unique atmospheres and above all, enticing food.

Out of the pool there are different restaurants and food stops at different levels of staying power. Seeing through their eyes what makes their longevity, how they hope to achieve longevity and how they intend to stay.

From the start

The most well known burger joint in the city sits on the edge of the downtown strip. Painted green and with a newly affixed sign hanging above the patio it’s the first restaurant that catches the eye of a traveler on Grand River coming in from the west side.

Entering the restaurant through the side entrance the first glimpse of the establishment is a dimly lit bar with hanging lights with fixtures painted green. The small bar stretch might be the first inclination that this bar itself isn’t in fact a bar.

And the first thing owner Michael Krueger will say is to forget the word “bar” when describing the place. A push toward restaurant is the focus and it’s plain to see if not told by a sign near the door with hands — one labeled bar one labeled restaurant — shaking in partnership.

“It’s certainly in my tenure here, something I’ve focused on,” Krueger says of being a branded a restaurant. “That’s the route we continue to go. Focusing on our food and craft beer selection of course to compliment that, hopefully everything else will fall into place.”

When it comes to food it’s been Crunchy’s version of burger which has made it famous. Garnering local awards and recognition from national media companies for it's craft in burger making, Crunchy’s knows it doesn’t need much promotion. But Crunchy’s was never intended to be the home of the best burger but rather an Italian restaurant.

Paul Grattarola, purchased Geno’s Restaurant in 1982 and after a try at Italian, he thought to change the place to be more casual American dining. Naming it Crunchy's, after his college nickname Crunchy’s, the place took off behind the burger and Grattarola’s introduction of the bucket of beer to the East Lansing diet.

“I think it’s been food number one,” Krueger said of the Crunchy’s longevity. “Not focusing necessarily on liquor but focusing on food and targeting not necessarily just one population. We don’t just target students, we don’t not target students though at the same time, we’re kind of like a melting pot of everybody kinda comes here.”

Even if food plays the starring role it’s the atmosphere which might have the sticking power.

“It’s sort of a welcoming spot where nobody really feels like they don’t belong,” Krueger said.

Booths in the center of the restaurant feature carved up polls and frames etched in names of patrons wanting to establish that they were apart of the famous East Lansing spot. On the walls are posters of the Spartans who contributed to helping Crunchy’s decorate the wall in championship newspaper displays. Still further is a perhaps accidental ode to Oberon beer in a line of beer advertisements.

But it’s that kind of shared feeling and atmosphere which make it a prominent spot and full house for game day with the fight song pumped throughout the place for Spartan touchdowns and wins.

“The community of East Lansing has been very supportive of Crunchy's,” Krueger said, who’s only owned the business for approximately a year and been a part of it for six and a half. “In that six and half years we’ve seen quite an increase in business and sales and I think that just keeping the bar clean, having good clean food, good quality food, I think has really been what has helped us maintain the crowd that we have and keep it coming back."

After 34 years it would be easy to coax along on the laurels that have made it famous but Krueger has the drive it seems to keep the place from reaching any level of being content. He’s pushed Crunchy’s to change in ways to adapt to its market.

“I hoped to help when I took over to help increase sales some and increase our food sales, that’s what my main focus was,” Krueger said. “I feel happy that we’ve done but at the sometime I don’t ever want to be content and knowing that’s all that we’ve done. So we got to continue to strive to push forward and to stays on the edge on the good quality food that is out there and make sure to pass it along to everybody.”

And the drive it seems to have paid off.

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“We’ll still get the old students and the old professors who come back to an MSU game - a basketball or football game - and a lot of them and they’ve told us specifically that they’ve come in and seen the changes that have been made over the years and it’s been for the better,” Krueger said. “So now they’re continuing to come back more and more instead of just having that one nostalgic trip. They’re actually coming back and hanging out. I think that's been big for our business as well.”

Something new

For Erik Berakovich, a life inside the candy store and the ice cream parlor has been a constant. Having grown up around Mackinaw and Mackinac Island, he knows a thing or two about making it. He did it then and he’s doing it now.

Velvet, the less than a year old candy shop, home to handmade ice cream, fudge, candy and chocolate creations made on site is hoping to bring a little Mackinac to East Lansing.

“The problem with Mackinac Island is that it’s very seasonal,” Berakovich said. “We do a lot of volume quickly but it’s about a four month season and you get a couple shoulder months but we wanted more of a year round business where we can prosper from a holiday season we don’t have up there.”

The winter months effectively shudder Mackinac Island, stopping the throng of business the summer months entail. Missing out on Christmas and Easter and other holidays for the candy store, which customizes orders of chocolates and different varieties of candies for occasions, was a loss in potential revenue.

East Lansing, nearly 300 miles from the island, seemed enticing to Berakovich out of towns he listed like Grand Rapids, Grosse Pointe, Birmingham and Royal Oak.

Berakovich, who attended MSU said she "liked the fact that it was a teaching university town, that was one of our main reasons (for coming to East Lansing).”

East Lansing, too he said lacked a business like his and wife’s. He felt the town needed it too. And now a year in he feels he was right in his assumption.

“I think we’ve met our goal but I think we can do better,” Berakovich said, adding he thought they had done a good job with marketing but was looking to do even more.

When it comes to handmade ice cream, the MSU Dairy Store is perhaps first on the mind for residents. Berakovich though plans to change if he hasn’t already flipped some Dairy Store patrons to him. He went to the dairy store as student but like a good businessman, he thought he could do better.

“I thought 'gee, I could do better,'” Berakovich said. “Not to slap on the dairy store cause they make really, really great products but I think I can do better and I think we’ve proven that.”

He also likens the thought of two homemade ice cream stores as having two favorite restaurants saying “you can’t always go to the same restaurant.”

The decor of the place he said was designed by his wife. What he calls a French and British inspired design, it’s reminiscent of Mackinac fudge shops which is a comment/compliment he often receives.

“We didn’t really envision that but a lot of people that come in say ‘oh my gosh it feels like we’re on Mackinac Island,’” Berakovich said.

Berakovich said he hopes to add more students to the customer base saying he wasn’t sure if many knew about the store. But for now as he continues to grow after just a year in, he hopes Mackinac Island can find a little niche in East Lansing.

Come back

Lou and Harry’s, an upscale looking restaurant with a long bar and jersey’s framed, signed and hung on the walls looks relatively new. And it is, sort of.

In 1992 the original Lou and Harry’s opened up at 245 Ann Street in East Lansing and, after 18 years of growth, it seemed only natural to expand. Wanting to try out a bigger location for live events and bigger environment were reasons given to the State News in 2010 by then-general manager Scott Rolen when Lou and Harry’s decided to check out of town.

But after a short time gone from the landscape of East Lansing it decided to move back. Buying up the space where the beloved Woody’s Oasis once stood and lodged between Verizon and Pitaya, the new location is one of three Lou and Harry’s operations in the Lansing area.

“When it didn’t work out the way we thought it would we just really wanted to be back in the downtown hub area,” Rolen said.

Now the 50-percent owner of the newest location, Rolen hopes to recapture some of what made Lou and Harry’s so popular in the past. A return to good food and good times.

“Obviously our food first and foremost but our service was always really good,” Rolen said. “We always treated everybody, we knew everyone’s name, stuff like that.”

For the longevity too is a factor for Lou and Harry’s, something Rolen contributes to that “family atmosphere.”

“I think just as long as you treat people right and good customer service, and your product is there and consistent, that’s what really matters,” Rolen said.

Featuring amenu full of Greek flavors and the sports bar palate, Lou and Harry’s offers a little bit more and then some, having added alcohol as well to the restaurant which none of the other locations currently have.

A large Lou and Harry’s sign hangs in the back of the bar. Leaving only a few feet of wall space the sign can be seen as a commitment to the brand if one is willing to brand it so large. It hangs a famed Pubs of East Lansing drawing on one of the walls, showing that feels like it belongs in East Lansing.

Another key to becoming established in East Lansing Rolen said, is making sure the staff represents the brand well.

“Your staff is a big thing,” Rolen said. “If you have staff that don’t care, don’t represent your brand well they're going to go down quick.”

As for changes, Rolen said everything food was is made from scratch but added recipes were still the same. The first three months of operation in the new location however were slow initially, said Rolen.

“About a month into it we started getting more slammed in here lunch and dinner,” Rolen said. “It’s been really well.”

As for the family atmosphere, when he finished the interview he got up, went to the bar, slapped some patrons on the back and shook their hands. He then motioned over and said the guys he just greeted have become regulars.

In terms of the future of the Lou and Harry’s brand, Rolen said the goal is to open in other cities.

“Definitely would like to be a part of East Lansing for a long time,” Rolen said.

As with any business the goal is to last and last a while. And so they try. 

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