Friday, November 27, 2020

Joe Conrad and the Number One: How grilled chicken and tater tots changed the fabric of East Lansing

A look into Conrad's Grill, student experiences, the owner and the glorious Number One

October 20, 2020
<p>Joe Conrad poses outside of his restaurant on Oct. 18, 2020.</p>

Joe Conrad poses outside of his restaurant on Oct. 18, 2020.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Firsts are cherished souvenirs in everyone’s life - first kisses, jobs, cars and concerts. The firsts we tell are usually unforgettable tales about life-altering moments, told over and over - exaggerated each time they're retold. But some firsts are neither; some are so rememberable they can be told as they happened, even if they weren't as far-reaching. Example: The first time I sunk my teeth into a Conrad's Number One.

It was a loud, sunny Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. CMU students raced south to MSU's campus in hopes of seeing their football team defeat the 2-1 Spartans … and to party. I was still an innocent freshman learning the ropes behind the curtains of being a college student. I tailgated with the Spartan Ski Club. I screamed the fight song, while watching MSU win, 31-20. And I staggered down Grand River Avenue. It was then that I bit into my first ever tender, tater-tot covered, cheesy, ranch-drizzled Number One from Conrad’s Grill

My first stop at Conrad’s, like others, is an enlightening story fueled by greasy delicious soul food meant to put you to sleep 10 minutes upon finishing it - whether it’s 3:30 p.m. after a noon Saturday kickoff or 2 a.m. during a study cram session. 

As a former MSU college student himself, founder Joe Conrad saw the untapped potential his specialty wraps could have in East Lansing, so he decided to invest.

“I did think there was a market for another late-night option besides pizza or subs,” founder Joe Conrad said.

“I had my fair share of late nights in East Lansing when I was a student, and - I mean as good as pizza is - some other options like grilled wraps and fried foods is what I like to eat at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Conrad opened his first restaurant in East Lansing in 2007. Since then, he’s added two more to his college hometown, while also branching out with others in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. The grill, he said, was inspired by his favorite self-made delight, the Number One. 

A tortilla stuffed with grilled chicken, tater tots, mozzarella and cheddar cheese, sour cream and ranch: The Number One draws a feverish excitement to hungry late-night crowds, both familiar and unfamiliar with Conrad’s concept. 

“When I found out that the Number One had tater tots in it, I flipped out,” junior Veranika Nicaj said.

“I think I screamed, ‘Oh my god! No way! Tater tots!’”

For Nicaj, the wrap did not disappoint. It lived up to its fanfare, and she unashamedly let everyone around her know.

“I start eating it; I scream at the top of my lungs, ‘I could eat seven of these right now!’” she said.

“And my neighbor knocks on our door and asks, ‘Is everything OK in here? There’s a lot of screaming going on.’ And we had to explain to this girl that it was just because I was so enthralled with the Conrad’s.”

The Number One is not the only item on the menu, though. Over the years, Conrad said he and fellow employees have experimented with new chicken and tot recipes, creating anything from the Sweet Thai wrap with jalapenos, pineapple and sweet Thai sauce; to the HRK Nasty wrap with banana peppers, jalapenos, onions, ranch and barbecue sauce. 

“I don’t really enjoy a lot of salty and greasy food, generally,” sophomore Hannah Lee said.

“But Conrad’s food I really like because when I’m in the right mood for it, it really hits the spot.”

The rumors and reputation of "how do these ingredients work well together?" in wraps and other late-night munchies have kept Conrad's busy, especially on the weekends. And weekends in East Lansing? Conrad has seen it all.

“Friday and Saturday nights are just a blur,” Conrad said. “Every Friday and Saturday night, whatever story you can imagine, Conrad’s has seen it.”

But the crazy stories and tot-filled experiences standing outside Conrad's were put on hold because of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has caused Conrad’s to shift strictly to takeout or delivery, eliminating any in-person dining or late-night line jumbles out the door. 

“I think that’s part of the Michigan State experience, is coming to Conrad’s late at night on a Friday or Saturday,” Conrad said.

“That’s the most unfortunate thing about all this, but luckily we are delivering more food than we ever have, so luckily we can still get the food out to everybody.”

The concrete enterprises themselves are not what make Conrad’s distinct from other East Lansing eateries. Instead, it’s the food; it’s the people you share a bite of it with; and it’s the memories you fashion all together, regardless of where you are and the formality of the setting.

Sometimes the greatest flashbacks are the most casual. 

“I remember my freshman year when I lived in the dorms with my roommate and suitemates,” Lee said, reminiscing about her earliest Conrad’s feasts.

“It’s just some random Tuesday night. We’re up at like 2 a.m., and we just randomly order Conrad’s. That memory really stuck out to me just now because I had a lot of fun back in freshman year with my suitemates. And we ordered so much Conrad’s. I feel like that’s when my love for Conrad’s started.”

In Michigan, because of the pandemic and a grease fire at its business in the Lansing Frandor Shopping Center, Conrad’s is currently only serving food from its 1219 E. Grand River Ave. establishment in East Lansing. But since its locations were already so close to each other, the lone Conrad’s at 1219 E. Grand River Ave. has been able to handle the extra delivery workload, Conrad said. 

In talking about the Lansing Conrad's marred by fire, Conrad said, "We're doing everything in our power to get it open as soon as possible, but it's basically a complete remodel."

It will likely be two to three months before that Conrad’s opens again, he said. Only time will tell. But Conrad also said he wants to expand operations in the near future by opening another Conrad’s on Jolly Road.

“If everything goes well, in a year from today, we’ll have four Conrad’s operating in the area,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

While other college campuses undoubtedly have their own special late-night cravings spots that their students boastfully rave about, Conrad’s is incomparable. There are locations featured in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, but East Lansing will always be home to the Number One. 

“I think for Spartans, it’s something that they can talk to their friends at other colleges about and say, ‘We’ve got Conrad’s, and you don’t,’” Conrad said. “It’s something that they can be proud of, that a fellow Spartan started up a food place just for them.”

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