A champion of small business and hard work
Although it’s been in business for 40 years, Tommy Brann still considers the restaurant on South Division his baby. When half the power went out on Valentine’s Day a few years ago — leaving kitchen staff to resort to using their cell phones for light on one of the busiest nights of the year — Brann just shook his head.
“You never know what can happen in this business,” said Brann. “I hugged that Consumers Power guy that came out. He was my hero.”
The Brann family owns 10 Brann’s Sizzling Steaks & Sports Grilles in Michigan. Tommy Brann is the president of the company, a position he insists is no more than a title.
“We run it like a democracy,” said Brann.
Siblings Mike Brann, Johnny Brann, Joe Brann and Liz Steghuis work in varying capacities at other Brann’s restaurants. In regard to running a company with his family, Brann said he thinks it’s a lot like being a member of The Beatles.
“You make great music together, but you’re still different human beings and the way you want to make that music can differ,” said Brann.
He had a car at the time, but he never drove it. When, unbeknownst to Brann, a friend had a key made and started borrowing it regularly, Brann was working so many hours that he didn’t even notice.
Having a successful restaurateur as a father might lead some to believe Brann did not have to work as hard as other employees. But he was anything but complacent. He began working seven days a week, open to close, often without pay.
He had a strong sense of what it was to be a self-made businessperson, so when his father loaned him $30,000 to purchase what was then The Southern restaurant on Division Avenue, Brann paid him back with interest. As for working off that debt to his father, Brann said, “It’s the best thing he could have done for me.”
At age 19, Brann was one of the youngest restaurateurs in the state. The $5,000 monthly payments, keeping a full staff with Medicare and Social Security and the countless other responsibilities of being a small business owner, coupled with the reality of his father having his own restaurant to run and little time to provide professional guidance, left Brann with a lot of hands-on learning to do.
But what he lacked in experience he made up for in drive. In the past 40 years, he said he literally has taken only about 30 days off — and that includes weekends and his honeymoon.
Brann used to live in a house on the South Division property. When the restaurant needed more parking, he tore it down and moved into a motel, also on the property. The restaurant eventually needed even more parking, so he tore that down, too.
Brann is so dedicated to the success of his business that he considers himself not just the owner but an employee. Apart from his corporate responsibilities, Brann is involved in the daily functions of his restaurant, sweeping floors and clearing off tables when needed just like anyone else. And he rewards that kind of work ethic in his employees: His business partner, Tom Doyle, began working at the restaurant as a busboy.
Not surprisingly, Brann is a strong advocate for small business and active within the business community. Beyond being president of the Division Avenue Business Association and a Michigan Restaurant Association board member, Brann recently orchestrated a rally downtown at Calder Plaza celebrating free enterprise. More than 100 people showed up to celebrate the economic system and Brann’s “10 to Defend” principles of free enterprise, which include the compassionate nature of job creation and the trickledown effect of taxes.
Brann insisted that the event was not against anyone but rather an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of small business owners and employees in the community.
While not politically identifying himself with any party, Brann is always on the side of small business. “We’re sort of a rare breed,” said Brann. He believes the title of small business owner would elicit more respect “if people knew how hard it was to create a job — in time and money, in the time you spend away from your family and the risks you take.”
When a service person comes to fix something in his restaurant, Brann considers what becomes of the check he writes. “That trickledown effect helps him pay for his gas, helps him pay for his employees, helps pay for his kids’ Christmas gifts,” said Brann. “It’s a nice full circle. I just don’t like people to chip away at that circle.”
The work ethic and responsibility Brann learned from his early introduction to free enterprise is something he believes would have a positive influence in other young people’s lives. Brann would like to see high school students take classes to learn entrepreneurial skills and has even presented an idea to some of his congressmen for a program that puts at-risk preteens into supervised part-time jobs.
Having lived and breathed the industry his entire life, Brann has seen big changes in the Grand Rapids market. He said the area is so saturated with restaurant options that price-consciousness and marketing have become an essential part of survival. At the start of his career, Brann said he had about eight competitors to contend with — compared to the now hundreds of dining options in the area.
Brann recently finished reading Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson. He’s done a lot of thinking about his life’s work since then. “Any businessman would like to have the best business they can. That’s not all about the money.”
Brann is the first to concede he needs more balance in his life. One change he’s made is serving on the Michigan Voluntary Defense Force as Private First Class Brann. Though he humbly deemphasizes the value of his service, the involvement has helped fill a void for Brann; he had always felt guilty about not having served his country.
But when he looks back at what the family has built, it’s with pride. Brann recalls his late father as being many things: a great businessman, a community leader, beloved by his employees and dedicated to his family. A defining moment was getting his late father inducted into the Junior Achievement West Michigan Business Hall of Fame.
“He’s right next to Richard DeVos. John Brann is right up there. He was a blue-collar worker who sold sizzlers for a $1.95,” said Brann. “He’s right where he should be.”