One year ago this month, the Wurst Bar opened its doors in Ypsi. To commemorate the event, I thought that I’d interview the bar’s owner, Jesse Kranyak, and see how things have gone since we last spoke…
MARK: I’m not sure if you want for it to be public knowledge, but you’ve mentioned to me before that over half of your sales are non-alcohol, which, I suspect, isn’t something that you were anticipating when you opened a bar right across the street from Eastern Michigan University. Has that been the biggest surprise, or are there other, more significant, things that have caught you off-guard this first year in business?
JESSE: Well, honestly, everyday I’m caught off guard by something. That’s the restaurant business. As for the breakdown between alcohol and food, the other restaurant that I operate (Kelley’s Island House in Ohio) does about the same in terms of food-to-drink sales, and it’s more geared toward food culture, than the beverage side of things. I do feel that we are more unique as a bar in that we sell a lot more food than anticipated, but we also put a lot more effort into the food than we do into the beverage side. I mean, most of the work in pouring a craft draft is done by the brewery and the distributor before it even hits our draft system. I expected the food side to get where it is eventually, but it’s nice to see the hard work our kitchen crew delivers getting acknowledged so rapidly.
MARK: Did you bring your kitchen crew with you from Ohio, or are they all locals? And, if they are from here, how hard was it to build that team from scratch?
JESSE: Every year, the Island restaurant, which is seasonal, has a crew that’s about 80% new. This past year, we brought anyone (from Wurst Bar) that wanted to go with us and experience island life, and we returned with an Ohioan, Brigid, our Island House floor manager. So, whatever employees want to go with us to either place are more than welcome to. As for building the place from scratch every year, that’s been a great learning curve; in the past 5 years, we have basically opened 6 times from scratch between the two places. We opened Wurst Bar in 15 days, including remodeling and menu design. If you take out the remodeling, I think we have the process down to 6 days at this point. 6 days and hundreds of gray hairs.
MARK: As someone who finds business strategy unusually interesting, it’s been fun watching you change things up, and try new things. I was surprised, for instance, when $18 lobster rolls showed up as a special on the Wurst Bar menu. It’s not something that I would have expected, given the local economy. As they keep coming back, though, I’m guessing that you’ve found that there’s an untapped market for upscale fare. Now that you’ve established that, what’s next?
JESSE: Well, we sell a ton of lobster rolls in Ohio, and it was one of the most well-received specials that we ran, which is how it ended up on the menu. The lobster itself costs us around $25 a pound, not including the rest of the plate, so there’s a lot of risk in carrying an item like that unless it’s selling well. Since that worked, though, we’ve done a few “chef takeover” diners. They’ve been taking place the last Monday of each month… we let a different chef take over the kitchen, or Chef Klenotic spearheads something. Those takeovers really do well for us. The last one we had was mostly seafood-based, and we ended up selling way more steak than crab or raw oysters! A few weeks ago we ran a series of burgers that cost over $15 and included ingredients like duck fat, escargot and smoked goose skin, and we flew through those specials. So, there is definitely an upscale foodie presence in the area. I am not sure, though, that there is enough of one to base a business model on just yet, but there are definitely some Ypsilanti residents who don’t mind paying the extra money to get rare, or hard-to-make/source foods.
MARK: What can you tell us about Chef Klenotic? What’s his background?
JESSE: Chef Dan is an amazingly talented young chef that originally got into food by watching the Food Network, and got into the restaurant business as a dishwasher, eventually training under a chef in the Upper Peninsula. Then, he continued on in several Ann Arbor restaurants until he fell in with us. He has a great palate. If I were to have to describe the fine dining menu that he does for us in Ohio, I would have to say that the food follows the New Americana style, and his palate is based heavily in a fusion of Southeast Asian and Classic French cooking, like that of Julia Child.
MARK: I noticed a few changes when I was in last weekend. In addition to getting rid of the meat cooler at the front of the restaurant, and laying the groundwork for what looks like some significant renovation, it appears as though you’ve also gotten rid of the foosball table. I might be reading too much into the loss of the foosball table, but I’m guessing that its removal speaks to the fact that you’re shifting a little further across the continuum, away from the stereotypical college bar. Would I be right about that? Is this about making more room to accommodate sit-down diners?
JESSE: Well, the foos table just kept breaking… then the company we rented it from came and pulled it out one day without ever even mentioning it. So, I’m not really sure what the deal was there. I suppose having to constantly fix a foosball table that we don’t charge for is a pain in the rear, but, at the same time, you can’t expect that free games in a bar are going to be respected by every customer. As for the customer base, we’re not really moving along any continuum, but there is an end goal that we have in mind as far as the building design is concerned, and, toward that end, a construction application with the city is imminent for our new bathrooms… The crowd that comes in is very eclectic and, at any given time, there could be a table of grand parents sitting between some collegiate athletes and a group of local artists.
MARK: Is local competition beginning to step up a bit? I could be wrong about this, but, for instance, it seems to me that I’ve seen other bars start to do “tap takeovers,” where you have a particular brewery take over all of your taps for a predetermined period of time, since you introduced the concept locally. (I realize that bars elsewhere have been doing it, but, as far as I know, the Wurst Bar was the first place that I’d seen do it in Ypsi.)
JESSE: I think we covered competition in the last interview, and my opinion hasn’t really changed. I do not think that there is any competition in Ypsilanti – the market is still under developed and under appreciated in my opinion. A lot of the businesses in the area do share a lot of the same customers, but every additional business that offers something unique also adds to the quality of the entire neighborhood. This is not an area that has hit any saturation point, and, if another restaurant opened and we lost business, I would start heavily critiquing how I was approaching customers rather than think that they were being taken away. We still continually get customers that drive in to check us out from Birmingham, Royal Oak and Beverly Hills because of something they saw online. I think that’s great for other places as well. I live and work here in Ypsilanti and I would be pretty hard pressed to continue doing so if there were not other places to eat and socialize such as Sidetrack, Beezy’s or Red Rock.
MARK: On January 7, you’re set to begin late-night delivery service of brats and beer. What kind of market research did you do before deciding that this was something that you wanted to try, or was it just something that you felt might have promise… and didn’t require a lot of up-front investment?
JESSE: We don’t cater to the minors after 10:00 PM, as I feel it’s important to segregate the under-age population in a place where alcohol is served after the evening sets in. I do not, however, enjoy cutting them off from the food, so this offers a way for the younger population around here to still have access to our menu, if they get a late night craving for some of our food.
MARK: Are there plans afoot to open other Wurst Bars? I seem to recall there being talk about something in Ohio.
JESSE: Sure, we talk about it. The concept has been very well received and having another one an appropriate distance away would be something we’re interested in, but we haven’t really perfected everything in this location yet. Ask me again when we’ve upgraded the facade and the restrooms are new!
MARK: What’s been your biggest loser so far, brat-wise? Did any meat combinations just not work?
JESSE: So far, it’s all worked. We have tweaked some of the names, though. Our menu is small enough that most of the items we put on it have been dragged across at least a few different taste buds, and have been received well, but, when they’re not selling for us, we can keep the same recipe and just change the name. The Chicken Sausage Sandwich, for instance, became the Jerked Chicken Sausage Sandwich, which in turn became the Sweet n Spicy Chicken Sandwich… Not one of the 20 plus ingredients that go into the patty or the pepper coulis topping has changed, but the item definitely sells the best as the Sweet n Spicy Chicken Sandwich. I would have taken it off altogether, but I’m confident when I say that it’s one of my favorite menu items. (I literally just ate one for lunch.) We’ve reformatted the menu a few times, and stopped using fruit as an identifier when naming our sausages, although they’re often listed in the ingredients. All of the changes we’ve made were to help us showcase what we’d already identified as an item which should be well-received and unique.
MARK: When I talked with you a year ago, you said that you were going to attempt sourcing 85% of your raw ingredients from local manufacturers and distributors. How close have you come to meeting that goal? And, are there items that you’d like to find locally that you just haven’t been able to?
JESSE: Well, two menu printings ago, we used the back of the menu like a NASCAR, shamelessly advertising all of the local companies that we use for meats, and what not. Today, we source almost everything that we carry from local companies such as Frog Holler, Zingerman’s, Ferrari & Sons, Red Goose Spice Company and Sparrow Meats. And we use Michigan-based Green Safe for all of our paper products, and occaisionally have the Ypsi Food Coop order dry goods for us. We use Northern Haserot as our dry goods supplier and where we can not source locally with quality, such as hard cheeses, exotic meats and pantry goods. So, overall we are definitely locally sourced. I would be a lot happier if more farms were accessible to us (we locally get rabbit and duck as well), and I would love to have more involvement with the farm side of food, but there just has not been time to make those relationships yet.
MARK: You were nice enough, a few months ago, to sit down with a person that I know who has a food cart business in Ann Arbor and tell her what, from your perspective, it takes to be successful a restaurant owner in Ypsilanti. As I suspect that there are other would-be restauranteurs in the audience, I was hoping that perhaps you could share some of those same thoughts now… What are the top three pieces of advice you’d give someone thinking about opening a restaurant in Ypsilanti?
JESSE: Well, my business partner Jim would say: location, location, location, sign… I agree with that, and I would add that, regardless of where you wanted to open your business, if you want to be successful, you need to have a drive and passion for food and service. That’s the core. Someone who is disinterested in meeting new people every day is going to find this business a hard place to hang their hat. In the same respect, I think that emerging into any aspect of this business while television shows like Bar Rescue and Chopped are mainstream, you should have a passion and base of knowledge that is ever expanding through the discovery new foods and experimenting wildly within that knowledge.
MARK: I’m not sure I get your reference to Bar Rescue and Chopped. Are you saying that people are getting into the business, thinking that they’re ready for anything, because they’ve seen these food-based “reality” shows, but that you need to actually put in the time, understand food, develop your palate, etc.?
JESSE: No, not at all… I am specifically referring to our customers. It seems to be the trend that more and more people are watching and learning about food service and the culinary arts through television, blogs and social media. A few generations ago, families were passing on casserole recipes, and now they’re trying to find shishito peppers at the market to try and recreate something from their Bon Apetit subscription. So, I am saying that, as business owners and chefs, there has to be a constant desire to learn and grow in this field, or you’ll get lost in the mix, and forgotten about pretty rapidly.
MARK: You mentioned new bathrooms. Are the trough urinals on their way out? And, if so, what happens to retired trough urinals? Is there an after-market?
JESSE: They are on the way out! It has taken us a bit longer than we thought to get to the bathrooms, but I am getting ready to take drawings over to Ypsilanti’s building department in about 10 days. Hmmm… what could we do with the trough urinals? I guess we could always put them out back and start some sort of a garden.
MARK: Would the Health Department frown on salad greens grown in a retired urinal?
JESSE: Not if we call it recycled art.
MARK: How’s the lunch market? Have you been able to draw people over from the EMU campus, or does the fact that you’re a “bar” keep you from making inroads into the mid-day market?
JESSE: Lunches are a lot slower than dinner, but, as we constantly change and evolve to meet our customers demands, we have started working out some plans to drive lunch business to us. We will likely expand our delivery service over the next few weeks depending on the response it gets in the evening, and that should enhance our lunch reach.
MARK: Other than planning to expand delivery with the bratmobile, what else have you done to drive business during lunch?
JESSE: Advertising mostly… other than that I feel like lunch business is getting people in and out rapidly. There was a huge curve to cooking sausages from raw and getting them out in a rapid manner, especially early in the day, when our old grill was still starting to build heat. Even if you just take a raw Johnsonville Brat from the pack and grill it at home you’ll be looking at an 18-20 minute cooking time. When we started, it was taking about 17 minutes to cook our house-made brats, and then you add in the ordering time, and the part where the waitstaff is getting drinks. When you put it all together, there was easily a 20-30 minute time period between walking in the door and starting to eat. I would say most people don’t want to wait that long for the product that we’re serving, nor do they have that long for lunch, once you include traveling. So, getting the cooking times down by adjusting our methods and getting new equipment in, we’ve been able to drastically change the pace of our food service over the course of the year, and that’s starting to be reflected in our lunch service now.
MARK: Do you think, after a great many years of under-performance, that the Cross Street corridor might finally be turning a corner? And, if not, is there a particular kind of business that you think, if it were added to the mix, might make the difference? Is there, in other words, a niche that’s not being filled, that could really help pull students from the University?
JESSE: The more businesses that open and become successful along the corridor will, of course, improve the street. I don’t think that the type of business will matter as much as the construct in which it exists. For instance, there is a Sweetwaters going in a few doors down from us, and, from what I’ve seen at their Ann Arbor location, they invest a lot of effort in maintaining integrity and quality in the products that they serve. Getting a few more businesses into the area like that will not only bring students off campus, but they will bring students TO campus! EMU has a lot to offer, but one thing that is severely lacking is a “university town” type setting surrounding the campus, like you find in Ann Arbor, and pretty much any other town in the United States that has a college. That’s a big factor that a lot of potential students take into consideration when choosing a college. Frankly, I’m surprised that EMU is not bending over backwards to get as many potentially high quality and student-friendly businesses into the area as possible.
MARK: The history is interesting. After some brief flirtations with the City, during which they, for instance, constructed the Business School on Michigan Avenue, my sense is that the EMU administration made a conscious decision to pull away from the City, focusing all of their construction on the other side of campus. Personally, I think they’re afraid of the City. I think that’s why they built their new Student Center where they did, and why, a few years ago, they attempted to close College Place, the main thoroughfare connecting the campus with the City. It’s incredibly shortsighted, but I believe they think that bad things will happen if their students leave campus. Hopefully, however, that begins to change with the improvement of Cross Street. The bottom line is that the City can’t be successful without the University, and the University can’t be successful without the City. The sooner everyone realizes that, the better…. So, is there anything else that you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?
JESSE: I dont think so, you’re a very detailed interviewer. Thanks again for the opportunity to have a voice on your great blog.
[Now get over to the Wurst Bar, and wish Jesse and the staff a happy anniversary.]