As interviewed Bee Roll, the owner of Beezy’s, when she was first opening her restaurant on Washington Street, and again as she celebrated her first anniversary, I felt compelled to check in once again when I was reminded that her five year anniversary was approaching… I hope you enjoy the interview.
MARK: So, has it really been five years?
BEE: Yeah, it has. Wow. Time flies and all that.
MARK: How will you be celebrating this huge milestone? I mean, it’s pretty rare for a restaurant to make it five years, right?
BEE: I read recently that 80% of restaurants are closed by the five-year mark, so I’m proud of the milestone, and it’s been a lot of work, and a lot of goofy decisions to make it work, but all the right stuff keeps happening! To celebrate, we’ll be donating 5% of our sales, for the entire week, to Hope Clinic, to fund their food program and social services. They operated Oasis Cafe, which had been in the space that’s now Beezy’s. While I’m not formally affiliated with the organization, it seemed a fitting homage to our history. There will also be whiskey and cupcakes at random intervals.
MARK: I know it’s kind of early in the interview to go off on a tangent, but I’m wondering, if I were to open a ‘cupcake and whiskey’ restaurant, what would you suggest that I call it? Would Frostingfaced work? Or, how about, Yeast Affection? Or, Cask & Cake?
BEE: Frostingfaced is the most playful I think, but Cask & Cake would be sweet!
MARK: So, when will you officially be celebrating your anniversary? Is it next week that we’re talking about, or the one after?
BEE: November 10th is the official birthday! I guess I’ll always associate it with a Monday regardless… the Monday after election day… but, this year, our birthday falls on Friday!
MARK: When you say you’ll be donating 5% of sales the whole week, do you mean the week ending on the 10th, or beginning on the 10th?
BEE: November 4th through the 10th.
MARK: A few years ago, we discussed how, now that Beezy’s was up and running, you were getting antsy for another big project. At the time, we were discussing the possibility of you opening another restaurant. “It’s akin to spacing births,” you said. “Beezy’s is getting ready to wean… it’s almost ready to send off to preschool, and I could consider having another ‘baby’.” An interesting analogy, given that, instead of opening that second restaurant, you went off and got pregnant… not just once, but twice! So, once the second baby is weaned, should we expect a third, or will we finally see that new restaurant?
BEE: Yeah… That. Well, interestingly, and not surprisingly, it’s been an adventure (and continues to be). The birth of my son gave me a pretty clear deadline on what needed to happen, and by when, so the cafe would still thrive without my constant supervision. Had I not gotten pregnant, I’d likely have dawdled in the delegating department for much longer… It hasn’t been a perfect transition, but I’m enormously proud of my crew. I’ve found that it’s harder now managing the identity and personality of the place, though, as so much of it was tied to my (often booming) voice and presence in the kitchen. Letting go is such a long process… and to do it without spiraling into dejection or boredom is challenging for me. Add to that a new baby, and now another, just as I’m just getting the hang of this one… it’s tricky to navigate and find some semblance of true integration.
I loathe the word ‘balance’ because it simply isn’t flexible enough a word to describe what really needs to happen to run a business the way I want to… I need more dexterity than ‘balance’ can ever cover. Balance seems stagnant, and still, and careful… I’m a little more messy, chaotic, and ultimately rhythmic… and, oddly, consistent in the maelstrom of my daily existence. Which is why I guess I love restaurant work… so many things have to go right to prevent all out pandemonium. It feels amazing when it works.
So balance vs. integration is a big part of what will be guiding me the next few years. But that doesn’t answer the question of another new restaurant. I don’t know. On one hand, I’m growing little humans that may turn into future restaurant owners; on the other, without losing focus of the daily operations at Beezy’s, I’m so interested in enjoying as much of my babies’ childhoods as possible. I’ve got a much shorter window to bear children and rear them the way I wish to, than I do a window to open another business. So, the short answer is, “We’ll see.” It certainly isn’t a burning desire at this point. That said, if the right opportunity presented itself, and finance fairies showered me with funding, I’d be open to exploring the possibility. I’m just not… as hungry… for that rush. At least not at this time. I’m realizing now how much more I like being in a support role, rather than at center stage; and, even at center stage, I abhor the spotlight and work to construct ways for other people to be successful, or to get the light shone on them instead.
MARK: When we talked on the occasion of your first anniversary, you said, “I’m fairly certain that Beezy’s could take off anywhere, but I made Ypsi my home with a passion I’ve never felt for the dozens of towns I’ve lived in.” Is that still the case? Are you still feeling the love?
BEE: Oh, totally. Even now that I’m not drunk (either metaphorically or literally). 2009 was so great – I was freshly in love [and I married him!] and Beezy’s made it to the one-year mark, and I was still standing, and Andy was down the street at the Elbow Room, and I laughed more in that year than I had my whole lifetime combined. And, now, finally, especially since I’m no longer trying to do everything, I’ve been working on getting to know all the people I saw every day through the kitchen doorways. There still isn’t enough time, and I’m now at the mercy of both a beautiful and tiny tyrant [oh babies!], as well as the myriad goofiness of a busy restaurant, but it’s nice to feel like I can walk a little more slowly and enjoy the amazing community of people who’ve helped Beezy’s grow and thrive. And there’s been a bit of a baby boom it seems these last couple years [I don’t know if that’s statistically true], so it’s awesome to watch people adapt and grow as parents (myself included, even though I already have an older model), and to be able to see it outside the lens of the kitchen and/or total exhaustion. I really had to be so incredibly immersed, or I don’t think we could have made it this far. So, yes, I still feel the love, in a big way.
MARK: When I interviewed you four years ago, you also noted that you were in the midst of writing a five-year vision for Beezy’s. I know you’ve still got a year left to go, but I’m wondering how close you’ve come to realizing that vision.
BEE: Well, it seems I was wise enough at the outset to make the vision be more about how it FEELS rather than what it does… which is sort of a cheater move… but makes it easier to feel that I’m doing alright. I really need to still buckle down and make firm, lasting steps toward longevity and sustainability. It’s hard in the land of small business to get funding; and I still operate without credit. There are days [weeks/months] where my leaps of faith and positivity know no bounds, and others where I’m afraid to leave the house because I feel like a phony, so this next phase is going to be more of the same emotion and passion, less shell game, and continued slow and steady growth. In general I’m a pretty slow person [if you’ve had a conversation with me, this seems like a lie, I’m sure], and careful, and cautious. I would rather move slowly than move BIG. I’d rather be consistent and reliable than novel and trendy. I’d rather last than be a flash in the pan. And it isn’t very glamorous to talk about a business that way, but it’s my absolute truth.
The thing about vision though, is it needs check-ups… exams. And it’s good when things get shaken up even if no action is taken, the stirring can make lasting change start. Sometimes things need to simmer and sometimes they need to boil… So I refer back to my vision, and my priorities, and ask myself: “Am I taking care of people to the best of my ability right now? Am I taking care of myself? Okay, no? Yes? What needs to happen then to make it better, every day?” Every day this conversation happens in my head. Like I said, I’m kind of slow. But, if the heat gets cranked, I can boil no problem… I’m ready. (And sometimes I totally get burned, and it takes a little recovery time.)
So, in many ways, I’ve realized my vision, and yet I’m nowhere close because there’s so much more work to do to make it better, and to be more helpful and a better contributor to my staff and my community.
MARK: I know that, from the beginning, you’ve expressed an interest in using Beezy’s as a springboard for local micro-businesses, and you’ve been successful at that, at least in one instance that I’m aware of. Riki Tiki Pies launched under your roof, uses your kitchen, and sells through Beezy’s. Are there other small businesses that you’ve worked with that folks might not be as aware of?
BEE: Well, one of the first projects was with Stef Stauffer and her wonderful salsas via Nightshade Army; and she’s still a kitchen gnome after hours.
With Riki Tiki Pies, it’s been a really illuminating experience – mostly because it’s incredible to so closely watch someone grow and nurture their passion and yet, I’m able to provide the ultimate safety net – she doesn’t have to do it forever. And there’s little risk of what might occur if she had her own space. Of course, the down side is she’s pretty limited by our space constraints so, if she wanted to expand, it would mean a very big leap.
MARK: Can you go into a little more detail concerning what you’ve learned from the Riki Tiki and Nightshade Army experiences? And how, do you think, you might you be able to leverage that experience to help get other businesses off the ground?
BEE: I mostly enjoy [aside from eating delicious pies!] the coaching aspect with Riki Tiki. It’s fun to be able to advise without having to manage or control the situation outside of caring for the facility. I love seeing other people do great work and I love that I get to play a part in that success. I’d love to see more (non food especially) micro-projects at Beezy’s, like weekend retail [used records or books! comics! handcrafted goods! art supplies!], but, as much as I’ve tried to recruit for that, no one has taken it on yet.
In the meantime, another of my crew, Caleb Zweifler, has been working on establishing a first and third Fridays presence at Beezy’s, and I’ve basically given him free reign to run these events. While they’re occurring at Beezy’s, the cafe isn’t open as its known incarnation. Another staffer, Marisa Dluge, has been selling her cupcakes, and Riki Tiki Pies sets up too. Caleb’s fiancee even did pizza from scratch the first night. So it’s a chance to give people room to experiment and see if what they imagine their business could be is what they actually want. As I often explain to people, doing something you love and doing something for a living aren’t always compatible. It may be super fun to make brownies, but if your livelihood depends on it, you better make sure you love fixing equipment and accounting and HR and a hundred other things too. I don’t mean that to discourage folks, but it’s why I love giving people the opportunity to test drive their ideas. It ultimately can lead one to the realization that, “Oh, hey, making brownies [or whatever – I’m using that as an example since no one is doing that right now at Beezy’s] is fun when I want to, but not when I have to.” But the idea isn’t about Beezy’s… It’s about them and cultivating a whole new experience. Though, if I had the staff interest/community interest I’d work on a limited Beezy’s menu for those nights. As it stands though, that’s not in the works.
Also, the 826michigan tutoring lab – so cool. It’s still really fresh but going very well so far, and the energy the organization brings, and D’Real Graham himself is just a whirlwind of inspiring enthusiasm. There’s a palpable difference and yet, you’d never know during the day that it’s what happening in the space four nights a week. It really meshes with my ultimate vision of food being a front for bringing people together.
MARK: Let’s talk more about the 826 collaboration. How’d that come about?
BEE: I latched on to them back in ‘08 when Mittenfest was still happening at the Elbow Room… I kind of fell into it and wanted to be involved because of the positive energy. I met Brandon Zwagerman and asked what was going on, and he explained how it was a fundraiser for 826michigan. So, I thought, “Hmmm, my daughter is out of town for the holiday week.” And, as we were still closed on Sundays back then, I offered to host an after show brunch Saturday night. Only about 30 people showed up, but I sent a check to 826 and they had no idea it was coming. Over the course of the last 5 years, I’ve held an annual daytime event – a Mittenfest brunch – to contribute as a sponsor. And we’ve done various other projects here and there. The, last summer, Amanda Uhle, the 826 program director, contacted me about entertaining the idea of hosting a tutoring lab after hours during the school year. I responded immediately that I loved the idea and we should get together. It seemed the perfect use of space and, as I hadn’t initiated another weekday evening project, I thought, “Why not give it a shot? If it works, perfect. If it doesn’t, there wouldn’t be any major loss,” at least as far as I could foresee.
What I really love is how it brings another element downtown – not just eating drinking and shopping, [and hopefully the activity will lead to that!] but parents and kids being downtown just as a regular thing. It makes it feel like a town. And I can’t say enough about D’real’s passion and enthusiasm for Ypsi in general, but particularly his investment in keeping things looking great and being such an active presence!
MARK: Can we talk about bad stuff too? I think it’s safe to say that you’ve had your challenges as well, right? I mean, among other things, you had your restaurant broken into at least twice that I know of. I’m curious as to what, if anything, you learned from that experience.
BEE: Oh yeah, well, here’s the thing: bad stuff happens all the time. And far more good stuff happens than bad – so in my punk rock pollyanna worldview, while it sucks in the moment, there’s so much that is working well I can’t invest my energy in the bad. That spans from crime to bad attitudes and everything in between. I hate bullies. I won’t be bullied – so whether it was being broken into a couple years ago [which ended up bringing a lot of positive change and action around here] or a customer who thinks he or she can treat me or my staff like crap, I’m gonna take action and then move on to the good stuff. The laughter, the sausage gravy, the bacon aroma, the quiet snowy mornings and the crazy Sunday brunch hours – too much good.
MARK: How would your advice to prospective entrepreneurs, who might be thinking about opening a business in Ypsi, be different now than, say, four years ago?
BEE: I’m the worst at advice. What works for me isn’t gonna work for most people. I’m not afraid to go my own way and I’m not terrific at working with others. Collaborative autonomy is more my thing – buuuuut, it would essentially be the same advice I would give anyone anywhere that wanted to open a business, and I don’t know that it would be different from four years ago – “mind your own business” would be the clearest advice I could offer. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word – have your hands and eyes and heart in and on everything; but take care of your business and yourself so that it will sustain. Don’t get caught up in your competitors drama, support the good things, brush aside the bullshit [don’t ignore it, but, like I was talking about earlier – is that where you want your energy to go?]. If you believe in your ideas, you can make it happen. Ypsi specific I’d say is SO incredibly supportive of new business, our community genuinely wants to see successes – don’t squander it. Be open when you say you are, explain when you’re not. Don’t rest on your laurels – strive for greatness, do better every day. Be great, not just open.
BEE: I am not seeing a lot of radical change – but incremental awareness and lots of energy surrounding the Shape Ypsi master plan and the DDA vision work; I’m all for things taking a long time. I’m notoriously impatient but also, like I said before, pretty slow. Positive change takes a long time. There’s a lot of work to do still.
MARK: How well do you know your customers? Do you have a sense, for instance, where they’re coming from? I’m curious as to how many are from the City, and how may come in from Ann Arbor, or elsewhere… And I’d also be curious to know how many that come in from elsewhere might visit other businesses while in town. For instance, I know that some of Clementine’s friends, when they come to eat at Beezy’s, also visit the Rocket. I suspect it would be a difficult thing to quantify, but it would be cool to know how integrated the ecosystem is. I mean, people know that folks come into town and drink at the Tap Room before going to the strip club, but do they realize that there are other mutually beneficial relationships that exist between businesses?
BEE: I think so – we all say good things about each other and send folks off to other shops. Since we stopped serving espresso drinks last year, in order to streamline the menu and inventory, and because, even though quite a few people are bummed about it, it really wasn’t benefitting service or enhancing the experience – more adding another layer of wait time… anyhow, the point is, it was exciting to be able say, “Hey, bring in your mocha from the Ugly Mug or your latte from B-24’s.” And really mean it. I want to serve great food, and a lot of it, as quickly and deliciously as possible, so why not naturally try to spread out the work and keep people in town longer? During the week, I’d venture 90% are folks from around town. On Saturday it’s 50/50. And, on Sunday, I really have no idea. It depends on what kind of event may have occurred Saturday night.
I think Beezy’s has become a destination of sorts, but I can’t see how anyone would just come through for breakfast and not at least wander a bit. So many great places – Materials Unlimited and World of Rocks, Mix and Ypsi Studio, tattoo joints & hair salons… although I do get a fair amount of Yelp reviews from people who say that they were just driving through from the Detroit airport or on their way elsewhere… It can be hard in the mornings to do other things around here since we’re pretty much the only thing open until 11 o’clock.
MARK: What could we as a community do better? Or, more specifically, what could our business community do better? I mean, clearly our community, in a broader sense, could do a better job of supporting our local businesses, but I’m curious as to how our business owners might be able to better support one another. I know, of course, that most folks are just swamped trying to keep their heads above water, but do you think that opportunities might exist for greater collaboration?
BEE: Well, I think I touched on that above… Just be great… I don’t know that collaboration is necessary for that, other than giving each other honest feedback. If each of us cared for our businesses and staff at a really high level, the bar would get raised. I’m not averse to downtown events and festivals and such – they’re important. Not my “thing,” but great ideas – often I think our community focuses so much on having events, they tend to blow it on the regular days. And, yeah, keeping our heads above water is real, but we can act with the intention of being busy and being prepared.
MARK: Yeah, I wasn’t talking about events so much, as, to be honest, they kind of leave me cold. I was referring more to information sharing. I love, for instance, that Go Ice Cream is running out of Bona Sera, and that Riki Tiki is running out of Beezy’s, and I’d like to think that there’s a mechanism for business owners to share information on things like that, so that others might try it.
BEE: Ah, got it! Perhaps the difficult thing there is managing space and time; [what isn’t?] I think it would be different for every business and what makes sense for them – obviously it’s natural to produce foodstuff out of restaurant kitchens in off hours, but I suppose it’s kind of oddball to open up after hours for tutoring; or at least not immediately a linear leap of “OF COURSE!” I’m all for encouraging others to maximize utilization of space; it seems the folks at Mix have really done a skillful job of utilizing space! Some of the groups I interact in don’t share information the way I hope to; and I probably don’t share information in the most helpful way since I just DO stuff, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s just information overload.
MARK: Clearly you can’t just tell people that they need to patronize local businesses because it’s better for the community. I guess it can work for a while, but, at some point, you need to get beyond guilt and offer a superior product, right? In other words, I think people, at this point in our history, probably know that locally owned businesses, more often than not, are better for their communities. They know that, when they buy coffee at Starbucks, a good percentage of that money they’re handing over goes to the company’s shareholders, out-of-state. And they know that, when they buy their coffee at Beezy’s, they’re helping make all of this other stuff happen. They know they’re supporting a business that creates opportunities for new entrepreneurs, donates soup to the teen drop-in center down the street, keeps their doors open after hours for tutoring, brings people downtown, which keeps our streets safe, and all of this other stuff. For a long time, my thought was that we needed to educate people to these facts, and maybe some of that still needs to happen, but now I’m thinking we need to refocus, take the next step, and really start competing against the chains… Clearly Beezy’s has done that from the beginning. But, quite often in Ypsi, that’s not how we do things… Or, at least, that’s been a problem historically… It’s kind of a catch 22. Space is relatively cheap, so people jump in without really thinking things through, and then they go belly-up when it becomes obvious that people would rather eat at Olive Garden, even though the food might not be as good… Customers like consistency. They like cleanliness. They like knowing what they’re going to get. And I think that’s where we could do better. I don’t know that I really have a question. I’m just happy to see that the bar is being raised, and I think that you had a lot to do with that.
BEE: Well, I’ve said this before, but I don’t think just being local is enough – we have to be great. Too often people rely on buzzwords and not the action and integrity of actually DOING, responding and tinkering and striving for being better. Not just ‘good for Ypsi’ but fucking GOOD FOR GOOD. I used to hear something along the lines of ‘I can’t believe this place is in Ypsi’ or ‘Why didn’t you open in Ann Arbor/Dexter/Canton’ and nobody really says that anymore. Unfortunately there’s still Ypsi stigma, and, ultimately, I don’t care about that fight – I’m gonna keep striving to be great for the sake of greatness, not to prove a point. I’m proud to be a part of representing Ypsi and take it seriously – but I’m also fervent about not being a carbon copy big box olive-garden-esque corporate monkey; If we want the world to be different, we have to start creating that world; even if we make mistakes and misstep here and there.
[note: If, based on this interview, you should feel the need to visit Beezy’s, click here first and find out how, during the month of November, you can get yourself some free coffee or soup!]