Restaurant entrepreneur expands list

January 4, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Money may be tight but people are still going out to eat, and Restaurant Partners Inc. has just expanded to get that business.

Jeff Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners, said his company recently acquired the Forest Hills Inn in Cascade Township and is about to officially celebrate the opening of Alleyways Bar & Grille, a new restaurant that the company opened in Muskegon in December.

Lobdell, 43, who is the immediate past chairman of the board of the Michigan Restaurant Association, said the restaurant industry in this state may be faring somewhat better than the economy in general, "but that's not saying much."

Nevertheless, Lobdell said 2008 was "a good year" at the dozen locations owned or managed by Restaurant Partners. The two new acquisitions bring the total of its locations to 14.

Restaurant Partners properties include the Beltline Bar on South Division, four Bagel Beanery locations, two Sundance Grill locations and the Omelette Shoppe & Bakery restaurants. The properties are located in Kalamazoo, greater Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Traverse City, where Lobdell is originally from.

Lobdell created the Bagel Beanery coffee shop/bakery chain, opening his first one in Grand Rapids at the intersection of Michigan and College in 1996. Later he opened two more in greater Grand Rapids and one in Kalamazoo.

He has been in the food service business for 14 years, and his establishments now employ a total of 500.

Lobdell said the acquisition of the well-known Forest Hills Inn on Dec. 11 was a turnkey operation: "The entire staff is still there." The 165-seat restaurant employs about 25 people and still offers the same menu it is known for, he said.

Lobdell said Forest Hills Inn was acquired from the Blanchard family, who started the business in 1961. Lobdell's brother, Marty, is the major stockholder in the Forest Hills Inn. Restaurant Partners has the contract to manage it.

The price paid for the Forest Hills Inn was not disclosed.

Alleyways Bar & Grille is in the same space that was previously Topo's, just off Henry Street and Sherman in Muskegon.

According to Lobdell, Alleyways has "a lot of Sundance Grill" atmosphere, he said.

Alleyways Bar & Grille seats 125. Yet another Lobdell brother, Greg, is the majority stockholder in that venture, with Jeff managing it through Restaurant Partners. Alleyways employs about 35 people. Lobdell said financing was not easy, and there were limited options.

"We actually got loans!" he said, jokingly emphasizing the challenge of getting financing in this era of extremely tight credit. But it was a difficult process, he said.

Both the Forest Hills Inn and Alleyways were financed by Choice One Bank in Sparta.

"I was very excited Choice One was willing to work with me on this," said Lobdell.

While he feels the restaurant industry may be doing better than the Michigan economy in general, the future is a worry to Lobdell and other restaurateurs.

"I think the margins are down in restaurants because utilities are up, and the price of food and labor is way up," he said. "The cost of doing business is higher than it has been, but I think the sales, in general, are about the same. Value places are doing well, and fine dining is hurting a little bit."

Restaurateurs in Michigan are concerned about the big picture in this state, he said, especially "the automotive industry, which our state's economy is so dependent on. We're concerned, wondering if we are still going to have as many people to feed."

"If the auto industry goes belly up, "there's going to be some consolidation, I imagine," he added.

"We're nervous about the health of our economy … and people dining out in general, in Michigan."

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