How to Start a Successful Restaurant in Flint, Michigan
It was operating as an official business for only a few days when I got wind of The Flint Crepe Company, a roadside restaurant in the form of a “crepe cart.” As I drove to work down Court Street one morning, I caught my first glimpse of the operation. It was two guys huddled around a set of propane fueled griddles making crepes for a small crowd of locals. How cool is that? I thought. Another positive development in Flint.
That was just after Labor Day. Since then, the owners of The Flint Crepe Company, Robb Klaty and Tim Goodrich, have been working around the clock to nurture their fledgling business, and the response and support from the Flint community has been overwhelmingly positive. I caught up with Tim yesterday as he was chillin’ in his van after another successful lunch rush, and I asked if he’d share the story of how his business evolved from dream to reality.
Tim is a laid back, easy going guy, who doesn’t wear his excitement on his sleeve, but his passion for the journey he has recently begun manifests itself unmistakably in his boyish smile and in the satisfaction that fills his eyes. I leaned against the door of his very black van and listened for almost half an hour as Tim narrated a story that had me captivated from start to finish.
Tim and Robb have agreed to let me share their story with you, which I hope you find as inspiring as I do.
Robb and Tim had only known each other for less than a year before becoming business partners. Tim was working part-time at a local church, and Robb, already a business man, was the owner of a successful lawn care company. They shared an interest in owning a business in Flint, and they shared a mutual friend, who suggested they start a food establishment in the downtown area. Robb had already been thinking about a restaurant that specialized in omelets. According to Tim, “He was now off that idea and thought maybe crepes would work for Flint. Something different. Something which many people seem to love. Something simple with low overhead.” And why not? Who ever thought sushi would make it in Flint? Different works. It’s a good philosophy in the food business. At least in Flint.
THE RESEARCH: PART I
“So we went to Chicago to check the idea out. Closer than NYC, but still with several crepe restaurants.” Tim’s smile brightens as he tosses me this tidbit of information. I can tell he is a man who loves his research. And what a cool idea for testing out your market. But wait, it gets better. They visited 10-12 crepe restaurants in downtown Chicago—on their bikes! In his great story telling voice, Tim simply tells me, “We rode all over downtown going from restaurant to restaurant, seeing what they had on the menu, what we liked or disliked about the food, the décor, etc. We came back to Flint confident that crepes would work in Flint.”
THE RESEARCH: PART II
Shortly after their return, Robb began looking into what kind of equipment they would need to purchase and what kind of location they might secure. Their investigation led them to believe that maybe a crepe cart strategically placed in the downtown area would be the best way to get the business off the ground. Within a couple of weeks, they had ordered a cart, and Robb began the marketing push, promoting the idea on Facebook and trying to get 333 fans to support them (apparently Robb is fond of “un-round numbers.”) To their surprise, they amassed a fan base of over a thousand within the first three weeks. Ironically, that’s about 333 per week.
Tim was in charge of developing the crepe batter and most of the crepe recipes. Here’s the process he engaged in that led to the tasty crepes that now fly off their griddles: “I went to work trying out different recipes, modifying them, giving them to friends and family, and getting input and ideas from those who were interested” Just a week before opening The Flint Crepe Company, Tim and Robb invited several friends to join them for an official crepe tasting evening. The young entrepreneurs were delighted that nearly all of the crepes they created were well liked and well received by their guests.
After applying for the requisite permits and getting Health Department approval, Robb and Tim settled on an opening day, Labor Day, in the Flint Chamber of Commerce Parking lot. The rationale behind opening a restaurant in downtown flint on Labor Day is brilliant. As Tim put it, “We thought there would be fewer people who would come out on Labor Day and we figured we didn’t want to screw up too badly in front of a lot of people.” It also gave them a chance to get their “crepe legs” and test out their skills on their new and larger griddles.
The choice of location was also strategic and well-planned. It turns out that the City of Flint has an ordinance which prohibits any carts like the crepe cart from doing business in the downtown area. (This explains why the Hot Dog Cart mysteriously disappeared from Saginaw Street). They made inquiries, of course, and tried to resolve the issue so they could run their business and not fear being shut down only days after getting started. They learned “informally” that if they stayed on private property, nobody would bother them. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce parking lot.
Days after getting started, Tim and Robb received a couple of visitors. A Flint police officer and a representative from the City Clerk’s Office notified the new business owners that they were in violation of the city ordinance and “to the extent that the cart was on private property that we were in violation of certain land use restrictions.” Uh oh. According to Tim, the officer and the representative didn’t actually say they were going to do anything about the “violations.” They were just there to notify.
The new business owners were beginning to realize that there were "certain business interests which were not happy about us being there." As Tim and Robb understood it, these business owners were the ones behind the ordinance and were trying to protect their own business interests in the downtown area. But the crepe guys know how to play the political chess game. Tim spelled it out like this: "We figured nobody really had the guts to come and kick us out because nobody wanted to be the one responsible for getting in the way of a new business in downtown Flint." And they were right. A lot of the people they shared this information with, including me, were surprised and outraged that Flint would even have such an ordinance. For the time being, even though they kept hearing that something worse would indeed happen, the crepe duo decided to stay put and see what transpired.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
After evaluating the pros and cons of their location (they were pretty far from UM-Flint and the heart of downtown and customers were complaining that it was hard to find a place to park), Robb and Tim made another strategic decision. Rather than wait for a potentially political and messy controversy to erupt, they would focus on their own business interest and move The Flint Crepe Company to the grounds of The Flint City Farmer’s Market. As it turns out, it was their smartest decision yet in their brief yet determined journey toward crepe stardom. Business was so good their first day at the Market that they settled on this as the spot to close out their crepe cart season.
After only two month in business, Tim and Robb are convinced that there is a market for crepes in Flint. The next chapter of their story has yet to be written, but already they are taking steps to find the resources and open an actual storefront restaurant downtown.
Tomorrow, Saturday, Halloween, will mark the end of the first season for The Flint Crepe Company, so I am calling on all of you to gather your friends and family and come to the Farmer’s Market to help celebrate Tim and Robb’s success and to show them how much our local community loves and supports The Flint Crepe Company. Please share this post widely on your social networking sites or any other way you know how. Since the event is tomorrow, we don’t have much time to rally the troops, but let’s at least try to get 333 supporters to attend. And if you can't find the cart by the following the delicious crepey smells, then just look for the very black van.