Brann immerses himself in more than just restaurants

June 4, 2012
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Johnny Brann Jr. is a very likable guy, a life-long learner who generously gives of his time, and someone who is getting ready to shake up the restaurant world this summer when he opens Kitchen 67-Brann’s Café along the East Beltline.

Brann, a third-generation member of one of the city’s most prominent business families, has developed a new concept for a restaurant. He said Kitchen 67 will feature “bold flavors” not offered here and high-tech advancements the computer giant Apple Inc. said don’t exist elsewhere in the nation. “It’s still set to open in August,” said Brann, who manages Brann’s Sizzling Steaks and Sports Grille at 401 Leonard St. NW.

With his grandfather, father and uncles establishing the family as highly regarded restaurateurs and respected individuals, Brann can’t pinpoint a single event he would consider a big break. He feels it’s been an ongoing opportunity he has had throughout his life to learn the intricacies of his profession. 

“I’ve learned from them,” he said. “My family has done a nice job in the community over the years, and that has opened doors for me because I’ve been able to learn a lot from other organizations and businessmen.

“West Michigan has been amazing with the amount of people that are willing to help and willing to share their time so I could learn from them. I’ve been able to self-educate through that.”

Brann said there never was a time when he thought about taking a career path other than the restaurant industry. “I’ve always had an interest in business, in general, and I’ve always had an interest in many other things,” he said.

Brann admitted he wasn’t the best of students as a youngster, even though he came home with good grades. He didn’t earn a college degree, but said he enjoyed learning and still does. One of his biggest personal goals is to continue his pursuit to educate himself. He still reads textbooks and has hired instructors when he has wanted to learn more about a specific subject. His on-the-job learning also has taught him valuable lessons.

“I’ve always enjoyed the restaurant business. I think it’s one of the best forms of education, as well, because if you like to learn then everything comes down to people,” he said. “It gives you an education on what everything is all about because you meet and learn from every type of person that is out there.”

Johnny married Michelle four years ago, and they live in Ada Township. She is a dental hygienist, was valedictorian of her graduating class at Union High School on the city’s West Side and earned her degree from the University of Michigan. “She is pretty amazing and a really smart girl,” he said.

What brought them together is a “weighty” issue.

Brann takes pride in keeping himself in good physical and mental shape, and one way he achieves that is through body building. But he doesn’t lift weights to pose for magazines and sports cable networks. “I do it more for the overall health effect. I’ve worked with doctors from all over the country, and I’ve put together supplement programs. I take about 70 supplements a day,” he said.

Brann, though, has appeared at a few body-building shows. But the one he did in April 2007 stands out from the rest because that’s where he caught his first glimpse of Michelle. After the event, they separately went to a post-show party at a restaurant owned by his uncle, Tommy Brann, in Wyoming.

“When I walked into the room, I saw her across the way, and I just went straight over to her and started talking. But she was a tough one, and it took me about four or five months before she let me hold her hand. I think one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do was to get Michelle to like me,” he said with a laugh.

Getting Brann to become involved in the community wasn’t tough. He is about as active as one person can be. He is president of the West Leonard Business Association and vice president of the West Grand Neighborhood Association. He serves on the city’s Transformation Advisory Council and the Safe Streets Task Force. And he is on the board of directors for Step Up Youth Productions and the advisory council for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation Challenge Scholars Program.

“I love doing this,” he said.

The scholars program is the foundation’s answer to the Kalamazoo Promise, which provides scholarships to almost all of the students of Kalamazoo schools. Diana Sieger’s crew at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has targeted students at Harrison Park and Westside Middle schools as recipients of college scholarships once they graduate from Union High School. The first scholarships are set to be awarded in 2020. The program is instilling in young students a sense of the value and excitement that can accompany a college education.

“We want to show them what it’s like to graduate. They’re only in grade school or middle school, but we’re trying to give them the idea of what it feels like to graduate and continue on through school,” he said.

Step Up is a nonprofit founded in 2007, and its goal is to promote creativity in at-risk youth 13 to 19 years old through theatrical arts. Kathy Russo of Chemical Bank got Brann involved with the organization about 18 months ago, and he has found the productions Step Up stages to be more than satisfying.

“It’s a great organization. These kids are really talented. They’ll perform, and we’ll do fundraisers. We actually had them down at Brann’s on Leonard Street. To watch them actually perform is emotional because they’re just so talented, and it’s great to see them use that talent,” he said.

With all his community volunteering, along with running one restaurant while building another, it’s not surprising Brann has little free time. He spends as much of it as he can with Michelle and his niece and nephew. He knows he needs to begin thinking about slowing down, but not now — which isn’t an unusual choice for a 32-year-old who is moving forward.

“I almost feel like I’m hurrying or rushing to learn and do as much as I can before it’s all over. Right now, I really have a desire to be involved in as much as I possibly can,” he said. “So that’s an area that I have to work on to balance things out a little bit better because I really love to make things happen and be involved with things.”

As for his immediate future, Brann sees himself staying involved with the family business, one that his grandfather, John, and his great uncle, Tom, started in 1946 with the Stag Bar. He also plans to enhance the family’s name throughout the industry with his new business concept.

“I’m really working hard not to just open a restaurant, because that’s the last thing I want to do. I want to challenge the entire industry and kind of shake up the restaurant world. I think with the team of people and the partnerships that have been forming with the other companies involved in Kitchen 67, I think we’re going to be able to do that with the layout as well as with the food,” he said.

“I really want to continue working hard in the community. I think there are a lot of great things that are happening in Grand Rapids and West Michigan, and even the state. And I want … to be a part of that as much as I can.”

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