Lehnen Tunes In To Downtown

October 2, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Frank Lehnen had never worked in the bar or restaurant business before he opened two bars of his own.

But during his 20 years as an account management field rep at Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., he worked with all kinds of people — and listened to all kinds of problems.

“From a social standpoint, that gave me a pretty good background,” he said. “You see all walks of life in the bar business, too.”

Lehnen had dabbled in real estate all the while he was with MichCon. He’d buy a property, fix it up, rent it for a couple of years and then sell it.

About seven years ago MichCon began restructuring and downsizing, and Lehnen began to think about changing careers.

Four years ago, while he was still with the gas company, an old bar on Bridge Street in the Stockbridge business district became available. At the time, the West Side didn’t have any eclectic live music lounges, he recalled.

So instead of hanging around and worrying about whether his job at MichCon would or wouldn’t be cut, Lehnen decided to strike out on his own.  He leased the bar, renovated it and renamed it The Radio Tavern.

“I kind of wanted to use my ideas somewhere else,” he said. “When I was at the gas company, if I had a good idea it usually fell on deaf ears. I like to think I’m somewhat creative, and this gives me an outlet to take my ideas and do something with them.”

He felt a club that incorporated all styles of music and that was located close to downtown could work.

The concept of a live music club also incorporated some other interests: He’s a singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right.

“For me it’s therapeutic. It’s a stress reliever. I just enjoy playing,” he said.

He’s occasionally lured onstage to perform with one of The Radio’s featured bands.

The Radio Tavern accommodates about 200 and offers live music Tuesday through Saturday. A couple nights a week there’s no cover charge. Otherwise, cover charges can range from about $4 to $12.

Earlier this year, Lehnen purchased the building on Ottawa Avenue NW that housed Rocky’s Bar, now Rocky’s Bar & Grill.

Though he kept the original name, the newly renovated bar that opened in August is not the Rocky’s of old. It has a new, trendy, more urbane attitude.

Rocky’s accommodates nearly 100 patrons and offers a limited menu — a menu inspired, in fact, by Lehnen’s mom, a native of Boston.

“This is so much different than The Radio. This is more of a pub,” he remarked. “We wanted it to have high quality pub fare: a few items done really well.”

In addition to managing both bars with the help of assistant managers, Lehnen does all the music bookings for The Radio, which is a full-time job in itself.

The Radio opens at 5 p.m. while Rocky’s, which has a kitchen, opens at 10:30 a.m. He’s thinking of bumping it up to 7 a.m. so third shift workers in the area will have someplace to go after work.

“We might try that and see how it goes. I don’t think there are a lot of places doing that.”

Although the two bars are located in different areas and have distinctly different “feels,” both areas are going through revitalization.

“There are a lot of similarities in that (the neighborhoods) are both kind of on the upswing and both close to downtown,” Lehnen said. “It’s going to take some time, but it’s exciting to see that happen.”

He’d like to see the flavor of the Stockbridge business district go a little bohemian, in the same vein as Chicago’s Bucktown and Wicker Park neighborhoods, just west of downtown Chicago, where residential areas commingle with small, vibrant business districts.

“They are areas that surround downtown Chicago that are pedestrian friendly and are extensions of the main hub downtown.”

In addition to the two bars, Lehnen, along with his mother, a retired Grand Rapids schoolteacher, and his brother, a Westdale real estate agent, own a limited liability corporation that buys urban commercial properties.

They bought and remodeled a building on Bridge Street, across from The Radio and next to American Bakery, which now houses two apartments and a small real estate office.

“It was like a crack house before,” Lehnen said. “I thought it wasn’t such a bad old building if someone just went in there and cleaned it up.”

He envisions the Stockbridge area with a mix of restaurants, bars, shops and housing, with old style streetlights and awnings distinguishing the commercial district. He thinks that’s the direction the area is heading.

The North Monroe business district is developing a trendy, bigger city feel with condos and apartments being created out of old warehouse-type buildings, a change Lehnen hopes will entice more people into living downtown.

“I think they’re already well on their way to what they want to achieve down here. I think it’s a very interesting combination of industry, small business and residential.

“If I can have a successful, cool little place that people want to come to, that’s even better.”

Next spring he’d like to wrap a deck around the side and back of the pub to create a patio bar. Eventually, he may renovate the second floor of the building into office space.

Then someday, when he has more time, he’d like to spend some of it “giving back,” he said.

“To be honest with you, I think some of the stuff we’re already doing with urban commercial properties is all about that, especially on the West Side.”  

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