Just Add Bricks- Downtown Flint’s Recipe For Restaurant Revolution

It’s 6pm on a bright Friday evening. The telephone in the host stand is ringing incessantly. A bartender is racing from speed rack to speed rack mixing craft cocktails in a frenzied blur, and behind the swinging door of the kitchen a ticket machine is humming with non stop dinner orders. “ORDER-FIRE, one sweetbreads, one Szechuan Calamari and two chicken and waffles!”

If you were to close your eyes for a moment and take it all in you could swear that between the din of the kitchen and tempo of the dining room you had been transported to Chicago, New York or LA. Surprisingly, nay happily, you are smack in the middle of Downtown Flint.

The restaurant scene in Downtown Flint has been on an uprise for the better part of a decade. Trailblazers like 501 Bar and Grill, Blackstone’s and Cork on Saginaw set the scene around 2009 with fresh innovative cuisine that was more common in the suburban towns surrounding Flint.

As Saginaw Street was in the midst of a revival well known chef Luis Fernandes was tapped by a group of local investors to ply his trade downtown. As a chef and owner of several past successful restaurant ventures it only seemed natural that he would be a good fit for a new small plate tapas style restaurant, 501 Bar and Grill. The food and atmosphere of the restaurant are more reminiscent of a big city than a small factory town like Flint.

Fernandes, after a hiatus of sorts to open other restaurants in the area, has recently returned to 501 and turned the day-to-day reigns of the kitchen over to Chef John Turner.

501 continues to turn out food that is well inspired and boldly flavored. “With such a diverse population frequenting the downtown area it makes it a lot easier to be creative,” said Turner.  “My food preferences lean toward big bold flavors from the Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mexican regions. It gives me a little more leeway to experiment with things that may not go over so well in a more rural environment.”

Chef Marge Murphy, owner of Cork on Saginaw, was a true pioneer in her own right. Her decision to open a wine bar in Flint (a concept new to the area) and roll out a selection of bistro style small plates and curated wine list was seen as a huge risk.

At the time, she had been running a very successful catering business but felt the pull to join in on the revitalization efforts that were starting on Saginaw Street downtown. She originally envisioned a small 40 seat bistro. “I ended up with 72 seats plus a patio,” recalled Murphy.

“I knew it was a risk in Flint but I saw a need there for a welcoming, comfortable place on a small scale with homemade bistro style small plates and a stellar wine collection,” said Murphy. “I knew I had to have something for everyone and so we had craft cocktails, beer and an extensive liquor collection.” Her calculated risk and subsequent success helped to affirm that you could bring ambitious food to downtown Flint.

Having the influence of chef proprietors like Murphy and Fernandes working literally steps away from one another it was only natural that they would spur on a wave of culinary pioneers in the area. Robb Klaty, the dynamo of Flint’s restaurant scene is one of the entrepreneurs behind Hard As Flint Concepts. Along with Operations Manager Ryan Beuthin, Klaty has been testing the waters with concepts that 20 years ago would have gotten you laughed off the bricks of Saginaw Street. French Crepes, Asian Fusion, and craft beer with BBQ have been a huge hit with the ever-changing face of downtown’s population. His eateries, which include The Flint Crepe Company, Merge and Table & Tap, continue to evolve and impress.

“One thing that we were taught early on and that has continued to prove true again and again is that people are drawn to compelling experiences, and particularly ones featuring great customer service.” added Beuthin. “It felt a bit like a gamble at first, but it soon became a given that any customer that received a phenomenal experience with us quickly forgot about whatever unusual food they were encountering and got hooked on how the experience made them feel and, subsequently, felt compelled to share this experience with others.”

The shift from a daily influx of suits and briefcases commuting into downtown proper to ironic t-shirt and messenger bag wielding twenty-somethings has created an instant market for the adventurous global flavors that Klaty’s restaurants offer. He’s not alone in his efforts to invest in Flint’s evolving restaurant scene. Blackstone’s has been a melting pot of of Flint’s young professionals and college coeds since opening in 2009.  

“I see a very bright future for the Downtown Flint restaurant scene,” said Spencer Ruegsegger, General Manager of Blackstone’s. “The downtown growth I have seen in the past 6 years working at Blackstone’s has been incredible. Ten years ago people were afraid to walk two blocks of downtown let alone put it on their list of somewhere to stop and eat.” He sees downtown as a destination for people living in the outlying suburbs of Genesee County. The talent and hard work is starting to really show in the quality of the food and in the various dining experiences to be had. “It’s only a matter of time before Flint’s restaurant scene explodes and reveals some of Michigan’s best,” he adds.

This population shift that’s flooding the downtown area with college aged consumers brings with it a market for street food. Enter Vehicle City Tacos and their unique take on Tex-Mex. With Flint making a historical transition into a college town Dan Moilanen saw an opening to introduce the food truck concept to downtown.  “At the time, few of the restaurants downtown kept their kitchens open past 11pm, since many of the restaurants and bars haven’t done an exceptional job at attracting the student market,” said Moilanen. “So I saw an opportunity to capture the late night food market, which didn’t fit into many of the business models with existing establishments.”

Moilanen sees a need for more quick, convenient and affordable food downtown. And he’s not talking about fast food, but rather a demand for food that is creative and flavorful. “I think we have a real shortage of quick, convenient, and affordable food that isn’t fast food in the downtown area. People want quality food, that’s within their budget, but doesn’t take up too much of their time, that operates when they’re out socializing,” he says.

It’s worth mentioning that the Flint Farmers’ Market move into downtown proper has also spurred the demand for some unexpected ethnic flavors that are quickly becoming crowd favorites. The vendors at the Market are doing their part to meet the demand for quick, affordable and flavorful food.

Longtime market vendors like Sam and Enaya Jawhari have been feeding the soul with their traditional Lebanese recipes for years. The eclectic flavors of Steady Eddy’s Cafe along with the entire Weston clan and their soulful take on Southern barbecue at Charlie’s Smokin’ BBQ are consistent hits.  Newcomers like Sweet Peaces Veggie Bistro, Market Deli by Hoffman’s, Chubby Duck Sushi and MaMang are raising the bar with their bold flavors.

As a midwestern town, Flint often gets overlooked as a home to adventurous eaters. Chef Tony Vu, owner of MaMang in the Flint Farmers’ Market sees a shift in the palate of local diners that is a direct result of having so many great ethnic foods to choose from. “Through these diverse ethnic options, not only are we getting different expressions of familiar flavors, but also getting unique combinations of the whole spectrum of tastes and textures,” said Vu. “All in all, it makes for a vibrant and exciting food scene, especially when you start to see the local and ethnic cross over in really unique ways.”

Flint’s potential to continue evolving into an urban food mecca stems on the ability to keep churning out chefs. The opportunities to mentor some of the young talent coming out of area culinary programs like Mott Community College are important to note. Finding and fostering talent in the kitchen is tough in any city, let alone Flint. In an age of instant gratification it’s hard to explain to young cooks that they need to start from the bottom.

Bootstrapping it and working your way to the top is a common blue collar theme and one that fits Flint well. It’s no different for the chefs working downtown. “I myself started as a line cook and progressed to Executive Chef here,” added Turner. “I have had some great bosses and I have had some great employees. But I have also had my fair share of people that think they are amazing but fall very short.”

For Murphy finding new cooks to mentor is a daily struggle. She was fortunate to retain a good core of kitchen labor from her days operating a catering business, but eventually young talent moves on and up to management and corporate chef positions. She sees the restaurant industry changing rapidly, and not necessarily for the good. “I am fortunate to have a great staff at this time but as always we are looking for others as we hope to continue to grow and be a success in Flint,” she adds.

If you were to equate Downtown Flint’s restaurant scene to a typical restaurant menu it would be safe to say that it is only on the appetizer course. The past decade of redevelopment and calculated gambles taken by the likes of Blackstone’s, Cork on Saginaw and 501 Bar and Grill are paying dividends by way of setting the table for further growth. Bringing more chefs into the kitchen, so to speak, will only help to strengthen the case that downtown Flint’s urban renewal is still progressing at a rapid boil. As entrepreneurs like Klaty and Moilanen continue to see Flint as a place to invest, the lineup of restaurants will continue to take shape.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of On The Town Magazine

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