Restaurant partners are all about neighborhood flavor
L&B Portfolio’s growth menu doesn’t include downtown Grand Rapids.
Larry Zeiser said he might be a bit of a masochist.
He knows he probably could make more money by putting a restaurant downtown, but he likes the neighborhood locations his company’s restaurants have grown into, and that model likely won’t change in the future.
Zeiser and business partner Brian Giampapa own and operate the L&B Portfolio of restaurants, including Logan’s Alley, Graydon’s Crossing, Derby Station and the recently opened duo of Little Lucy’s Café and Brighton Graye’s Bistro, both at 1747 Plainfield Ave. NE.
Nestled between the Creston and Cheshire neighborhoods, Zeiser expects the area to become a “really cool neighborhood district” with all of the development currently in progress on the stretch, including a 616 Development mixed-use project and the Creston Brewery.
Grand Rapids’ west side will likely be viewed as an extension of downtown, which is great, Zeiser said, but his goal is for the Creston and Cheshire area to remain a true neighborhood. The area is home to both the Zeiser and Giampapa families, a main reason the company opened the dual restaurant concept earlier this summer.
The concepts took four years to fully come together in the 7,500-square-foot space, but 14 months ago a meeting with the building’s owners, the VanderKooy family, set the plans in motion.
“We’ve driven past this building for four years with it vacant,” Zeiser said. “At the time we didn’t have the cash, infrastructure or systems in place. We called on it again, and the family liked us, and we knew what the neighborhood needed.”
Zeiser has served as the Creston Neighborhood Association’s president and vice president in the past, so he said he knew what the residents in the area desired most.
Little Lucy’s Café provides a breakfast and brunch restaurant, coffee shop and bakery. Brighton Graye’s Bistro provides a “more upscale” dining experience than currently available on the stretch of Plainfield Avenue.
The two establishments bring L&B Portfolio back to five restaurants, a level it had hit before until the business contracted to refocus and figure out its preferred growth pattern. Zeiser said for a restaurant group to get to five concepts is difficult as the income doesn’t justify streamlined departments and infrastructure behind the operations.
“We were a mom-and-pop operation trying to run a company, and that’s when you fail. We sucked it back and said, ‘Let’s learn how to run these things and where we want to grow next,’” he said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve tried to learn.
“We’ve been through a couple recessions, and now we’re going through a time when the economy is almost too hot and it’s hard to find good people.”
L&B Portfolio has been around for more than 15 years, since the childhood friends from New Jersey bought a bar and opened Logan’s Alley in 2000. Zeiser had worked at Wolverine Building Co. since 1995 and when Giampapa moved to town in 1999, the pair determined their lives needed new direction.
One Sunday, the pair decided to follow the clichéd story of “two childhood friends open a bar,” and on the following Monday, Zeiser quit his job.
“I hated getting up in the morning,” he said. “I’m 45 and just recently started making the money I did when I was 28. I work longer hours, but I love going to work. I really love what I do.”
The two friends have followed their passions as they opened their locations. Logan’s Alley followed the early passion of beer — and looking back, Zeiser said maybe it would have been smart to start a brewery. Nevertheless, Founders Brewing Co.’s cask nights had left them wanting more from local bars.
Zeiser said people labeled them crazy for starting a bar with six taps, none of which would pour Budweiser or Miller products. They also filled the Logan’s cellar with 90 bottled beers. Within six months, the bar had 12 taps. Within a year, it was up to 18.
Less than two years after opening Logan’s Alley, the pair opened the Cambridge House, focused on wine and spirits. The restaurant was sold three and a half years ago to Eric Albertson, who opened the SpeakEZ Lounge.
In 2005, a focus on food re-entered the picture as L&B opened Graydon’s Crossing on Plainfield Avenue.
“You can see how we grow: It’s about our passions,” Zeiser said. “Graydon’s was, ‘OK, now we like flavorful foods.’”
L&B Portfolio also operated and sold off several restaurants as it grew too big, too fast, including Muskegon’s Captain Jack’s and JD Reardon’s in the Boardwalk Condos on Monroe Avenue.
The company did keep one restaurant — Graydon’s Derby Station in East Grand Rapids — that might have launched prematurely based on a misread of the market demographics, Zeiser said.
“The clientele wasn’t ready for the Indian cuisine part,” Zeiser said. “If we opened it now, I think it would be fine. The beer tends to be high-recognition craft beer, but we couldn’t do a sour party like we could at Logan’s or Graydon’s.”
Back to running five restaurants, L&B Portfolio now has several avenues of possible growth, Zeiser said, from opening other locations of their concepts such as Graydon’s or Little Lucy’s Café, or producing baked goods and other items for other restaurants, consumers and retailers.
Zeiser said handmade cheese, roasted coffee and baked items all seem enticing as growth options.
Watching consumers’ tastes change and increasingly talented restaurateurs start businesses in Grand Rapids has challenged L&B during its 16 years in business.
“It’s a tough market, but you can look at it one of two ways,” he said. “You can get upset, or you can look at it and say, ‘It’s only going to make me better and make me up my game.’
“It’s more challenging and more difficult, but I think it’ll just make us better.”