A few days ago, I posted something here about Ypsi’s newest, gourmet sausage-filled watering hole, The Wurst Bar. As I said at the time, I really liked the place, and, since my visit, I’ve been exchanging emails with the owner, Jesse Kranyak. What follows is our exchange. I hope you enjoy it.
MARK: Assuming you’re the same Jesse Kranyak that’s on Facebook, you were, at some point, a student at the University of Michigan, is that right?
JESSE: I was, but I was also at a few other schools before U-M. After high school, I went into the Marine Corps, and then I went to EMU for a few years, before dropping out of school to manage restaurants. I later enrolled online at Schoolcraft, and then finished school at U of M Dearborn.
MARK: Schoolcraft is really well known for their culinary arts program. Did you, by any chance, take any food-rated courses there, or are you all self-taught when it comes to cooking?
JESSE: When it comes to cooking I would say that I am very aware of flavors and tastes and I am relatively adept at concepts… But when it comes to implementing the two sides of a dish outside of my home kitchen, I don’t have a lot of experience, so I like to work with chefs in finalizing the menus I have made over the year. Here we have Chef Dan, who is an amazingly creative chef, his salad creations have been delicious, the veggie burgers he makes have all been really interesting and his first diversion from our original sausage recipes; the rattlesnake and the rabbit, have both been a real hit with the customers.
MARK: What kind of degree did you ultimately graduate with?
JESSE: I studied Anthropology at U of M and graduated a few years back. I’ve always been interested in the bar and restaurant scene, though. Its been my passion since I was a teenager. I was only going to school to pass the time. I never pictured myself using a degree for anything. I’ve always enjoyed managing myself much more than having someone else do it. Eventually I had all these credits, though, and it was time to pick a major and graduate. I ended up going for Anthropology, and that led me into the Peace Corps for a while, before settling into the hectic restaurant life for good.
MARK: And, would I be right in assuming that, for the past few years, you’ve been working at this restaurant on Lake Erie that’s linked to from the website of the Wurst Bar?
JESSE: Correct, I was managing a restaurant in Novi when my father, stepmother and her longtime business partner (and now also mine) Jim Seba made a land purchase on Kelleys Island that included a restaurant. Myself and some of my friends got together and helped them open the first year and business was great. That was about eight years ago… While I was in the Peace Corps my father became gravely ill and passed away, I came back early and helped close the restaurant for the season in fall of 2010. The next year we had a family meeting and decided that I could open the restaurant that year with a business plan I had already gotten financing for a spot in LA. That year we doubled business and the last year we saw an additional 30% increase. That place is called the Kelleys Island House and it’s been a lot of fun to run the past few years.
MARK: So, having been at EMU for a while, you weren’t a stranger to Ypsilanti…
JESSE: I live in Ypsi now. And I lived here for a little over two years before – between 1999 to 2001. And, for the last year, I’ve been living in Ann Arbor, while looking for a property.
MARK: Did you ever go to Theo’s – the bar in the spot you now inhabit – back when you were a student at EMU? If so, I’m curious to know your thoughts about the place. I’ve lived in Ypsi off and on for the past 16 years or so, and, I’m sorry to say, I never went in. To tell you the truth, I thought that it had closed a decade ago. I literally never saw anyone going entering or leaving. Did they do a good business as far as you know?
JESSE: I had been to Theo’s as an undergrad student, I can’t really remember much about it… Not that it wasn’t memorable, I have just always been a beer fanatic, back then it was quantity, now it’s more quality, so a lot of those 21 year old memories have slipped away…
MARK: Was in your idea to open a sausage restaurant in Ypsi, or was it the idea of your partners, who also own the seasonal place on Kelley’s Island, in Lake Erie?
JESSE: Charcuterie and fresh sausage making came about from grinding hamburgers at the place we run in the summer. Myself and our manager, Jeff Sanchez, are big time burger fanatics. We have trolled all the best spots across the USA, had burgers in LA at spots like Umami Burger, Redwood and Father’s Office or AJ Bombers in Wisconsin; Millers in Dearborn, of course, and many other places. So, 3 years ago when we took over the kitchen on Kelleys Island we started really experimenting with burger meat, blends, spices, seasonings, aging, etc… We ended up scoring pretty high reviews with a blend of hanger, brisket and short rib that we trimmed 95% lean and then added in 20% suet fat, seasoned with miso, tamari, and fish sauce to bring out the salty and savory flavors in the meat itself, we outfitted those with brioche and munster. So, we were sitting at Sidetracks (great burger) and talking about how everyone has the ‘best burger’, one of us said we should advertise the worst burger and then… well, it was obvious we had to learn how to make sausages. Then, the grinding really started getting complex, everything we were making started coming out really delicious, but there were so many more variables! I mean, we already use 9 ingredients in a regular hamburger, so you can imagine what goes into a rabbit and fig sausage. There were a few learning curves but we hired a new chef, Dan Klenotic, formerly from Cafe Felix on Main St. AA and a friend of ours named Mike Babcock who had been making sausages professionally for about 10 years came in as a consultant on getting the right mouthfeel and snap… and then here we are today. Putting the place in Ypsi was a no-brainer, a lot of the East Ann Arbor crowd, Depot Town and Michigan Ave folks are young professionals that are into new concepts and different foodie type menus and craft beers, plus this building, specifically, is located on one of most underdeveloped college campuses in the entire country.
MARK: Well, all the hard work paid off, at least when it comes to the burgers. As I mentioned on my site a few days ago, The Southerner, which comes with pimento cheese and a fried green tomato, is awesome. What’s the origin of that burger? And where do you get your green tomatos?
JESSE: Well, we had some great pimento cheese in Ashville N.C. And I thought, man, this needs to be on a burger. At that point it seemed kind of fitting to make go all the way south with a burger and it tastes great!
MARK: So, do you commute between here and Kellys’s Island, or are you here in Ypsi 24/7 now?
JESSE: I am in Ypsi 24/7, I rented a loft on Cross a couple months back. Kelley’s Island is surrounded by ice for another few months yet.
MARK: And, if you don’t mind my asking, I’m curious to how how this whole thing came together. It sounds like the owner of the bar in Lake Erie helped you with the money to get launched, is that right? I’m always interested to know how people with entrepreneurial vision are able to make things happen?
JESSE: As I mentioned before, my partner Jim has been working with my stepmom for over 25 years and they have both been a great influence on my desires to work outside the box. I decided that I was going to commit full time to owning a restaurant about 4 years ago and just started plugging away at making a business plan and learning all I could about the minutia involved in the business that is behind the scenes. The island was a great training ground for that over the years. The first concept I had involved a whiskey bar and gourmet sandwiches, think Reuben, but the bread is a rye and caraway seed waffle and the sauerkraut is kimchi. But, I really wanted to make this place in Ypsi to be a draw from a bigger radius outside of the community, so I had to do something nobody was doing in Detroit or Ann Arbor. Plus, the sausage game is really an incredible way to showcase flavors and kitchen talent.
MARK: What’s the reception been like so far?
JESSE: Well, honestly, the nights have been so busy for the first 2 weeks that I haven’t had time to catch up! We wanted to reopen the space before EMU came back from break, so that nobody noticed that the building was shut down. I think that having another closed store front in the area would have just been discouraging to everyone. So we were working in overtime mode, and a lot of the ‘kinks’ have been worked out on busy nights instead of being thoroughly thought out in the planning stages. We still don’t look very inviting during the day, so some glass doors will be replacing the famous THEO DOORS this weekend, to help draw some eyeballs into the place from that super traffic count on Cross St. to help out lunches. The neighbors have been great and very welcoming, but, like I mentioned before, I haven’t really met a lot of the other community members yet (except, of course, all the happy faces I meet at tables).
MARK: Where did you get the idea to put a cod and crawdad bratwurst on the menu? Did you pick that up in a cookbook somewhere, or do you just have a laboratory in the back, where you just keep trying different concoctions? I should add that I was at your place the other day, and my friend Jeff ate two of the cod n’ crawdad brats, and loved them.
JESSE: Well, we originally had Gator and Crawfish on the menu, that was flying out of here. It was in a Boudin sausage that traditionally has brown rice in it, but the ratios of brown rice to meat that we pay over $10 a pound for was really not working into our price points so we had to experiment. The first round was to cut the sausage with cod and drop the more expensive gator. Then people were complaining that the gator was gone. So, the menu that came out this past Wednesday has the final version; Gator, Crawfish and Cod. It’s about 40% cod in the protien portion, anything more becomes cod flavored and you miss the crawfish initial taste and alligator finish… otherwise we would have to sell the sausages at about $10 and we are here to provide an experience people can afford to try. But that’s been Dan’s project the last week, figuring out which percentages worked the best.
MARK: Is it at a surprise to you at all that people in this relatively small, financially struggling Midwestern town are willing to try things like rattlesnake chorizo sausages?
JESSE: No, not at all. Ypsilanti and AA have tons of foodies and people have loved experimenting since all the food television shows became popular. We put snake on the menu and sold 6 to the first 4 tables at lunch!
MARK: Is there any combination that just doesn’t work? Have there been disasters?
JESSE: We made a chicken and duck hot wing sausage that tasted great when samples on the grill, but as soon as we charbroiled it all the filling refused to tack and assemble itself, so the meat was just all over the place. When we make the sausages it is really easy to take a sample and cook it off on the grill, it’s spice has to stand up to a bun, but for the most part the recipes we have created have all been great.
MARK: I notice on your site that your vision is to eventually source 85% of your ingredients locally. Given that you’ve got stuff like cod, rattlesnake, and crawdads on the menu, that’s going to be a hell of a task. I’m wondering what kind of success you’ve had thus far finding local farmers, etc. to work with.
JESSE: Ahhh… And, a hell of a task it will be! So far we are a ways off from our goal, but my plan has been to get open and then work on sourcing, I made the website with the intention in saying 85% scratch made and locally sourced, but at 4am wrote scratch made and locally sourced 85%… I noticed last week and changed it, but I got together with our chef and decided that goal is actually attainable, we just have to be really clear with how we communicate that to our customers. For instance, thats only talking about meats, breads and vegetables… And is using a local company like Frog Holler to get Mexican Coke products considered local sourcing? And if we buy produce from them, but it’s a citrus? As for right now we are using about 25% local sourcing. That’s about to change, as I have been in contact with a few farms in the area the last two weeks. It just might mean we switch from lamb and bison merguez to lamb and yak, because I can get both of those products born and raised 20 minutes north of us. One hold up has been bread, we keep getting samples that cant hold up to the meats; too flat, too grainy, too salty. But, we have an email out to a couple bakeries, its just difficult to have any clout with vendors until you are a bit more established. When we do make the switch our entrance chalkboard will start listing all the local sourcing we do, so there is no more confusion between myself and the customers. On the island I make a Friday run to Cleveland’s East Side market and spend about 50% of our order budget buying locally, and that takes a lot of work being that it’s on an island. Anyway, my email is email@example.com and I’m more than willing to check out all of our local vendors that we haven’t been in touch with, who may be reading.
MARK: One last kind of goofy question.. Let’s say someone came to you with a special request, like a placenta sausage? Would you do it? And what would you mix in with placenta anyway?
JESSE: There’s no way to answer that without reversing all the readers’ thoughts on our food! But, I guess placenta eating is what most animals do after childbirth, and a quick google search makes it seem like quite a few human cultures do as well!
So, I think it would probably make a good blood sausage or British Banger…
And, I should probably add that I wasn’t asking about the possibility of a placenta sausage for myself. Arlo’s placenta was buried in the yard within a week of his birth. I do think, however, that there might be a pretty good little niche for that kind of thing.