Raising The Bar

February 17, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — “Build it and it will come” could become a new theme for Bernie and Gina Kersten and Ozzie Martinez, co-owners of Big O’s Café.

The Big O’s became the city’s second downtown restaurant the Michigan Liquor Control Commission approved for a new development district liquor license. But the restaurant’s owners had to fill a somewhat unusual request from the commission before the state agency would give its big OK.

“Before we could actually start selling, they wanted to see the construction of a bar. So the week prior to our receiving our license, we knocked out a bar real quick,” said Bernie Kersten.

The Big O’s at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW started serving Jan. 31. The license was the first for the owners as they didn’t serve alcohol at their previous location on Bridge Street, which was destroyed by a fire in 2005.

Kersten told the Business Journal the LCC never explained why they had to build a bar in their street-level restaurant before they could get their license.

“We questioned that because in our initial investigation, the local investigator mentioned that we didn’t have to construct a bar and we could serve tableside. So when we brought that to the commission’s attention, they said if that’s the case you’ll have to file an appeal and go before the commission,” he said.

“So we decided, rather than wait for that to happen, it would be quicker to construct a bar.”

The Big O’s was the first downtown restaurant to apply for the new liquor license, which is similar to a Class C license except it costs less and isn’t transferable. The city approved the request last June, a week after the Downtown Development Authority did so.

But Ritz Koney Island at 64 Ionia Ave. SW became the first downtown restaurant cleared by the LLC for the development district license, which costs $20,000 and requires that an applicant make at least a $75,000 financial investment in its downtown location.

Ritz Koney, which is owned by 3 Cousins LLC, began serving beer and wine late last November and planned to add a full-service bar later.

City commissioners approved the new policy for the downtown liquor licenses in April, a month after the DDA ratified it.

Kersten said business has been good at Big O’s since the license has been approved, even though they haven’t publicly announced they’re serving alcohol. That situation will change soon, though, as he said the restaurant is planning to hold another “grand opening” event early next month to let everyone know they have a full bar — one they built themselves.

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