Selling pizzazz on Muskegon Lake
Fricano Place has just opened another food service business: Pinchtown Market
Ted Fricano doesn’t think of his young staff behind the counter at the new Pinchtown Market as employees. “They’re my cast,” he said.
Fricano has a flair for the theatrical, and the aura of entertainment is a key ingredient at his two food-service establishments at Fricano Place on the shores of Muskegon Lake.
Pinchtown Market is a specialty ice cream and dessert parlor reminiscent of the 1930s; it’s on the ground floor of the building with windows offering a view of Muskegon Lake. One floor up is the popular Fricano’s Muskegon Lake, a large pizzeria with a full liquor bar and a kitchen capable of cranking out 90 pizzas every 25 minutes.
Fricano opened his pizzeria in May 2002, leasing space in a historic industrial building formerly known as the Hartshorn Centre. In 2009, he bought the building and started work on turning what had been a large call center into The Events Center for wedding receptions and other large groups. In another space on the same floor he built The Hideaway, a bar for special events. With its exposed wood ceiling and a bar ornately trimmed in dark wood, the scene could be a set from the “The Great Gatsby.” Elsewhere on the same floor is The Boardroom, designed for business meetings and fully licensed for alcohol service.
Pinchtown Market just opened this month and it has the look of a “smart” café from, say, Chicago in the 1930s. It is named for an old neighborhood in Muskegon called Pinchtown because long ago it was “pinched” between the village of Lakeside and the city of Muskegon.
The staff at Pinchtown Market are in costume — as is Fricano, as the maitre d’ — and are encouraged to break into song and dance and repartee if they feel like entertaining the clientele. Fricano can’t resist talking to his patrons, stopping at tables to ask if they are having a good time.
Fricano, 45, is a member of the Fricano family of Grand Haven long known for good pizza. Various members have pizzerias in Grand Haven, Grand Rapids and Holland, but Fricano’s Muskegon Lake is probably the largest pizzeria in West Michigan, seating 250. Most pizzerias, he said, have seating for less than 150.
When he launched his pizzeria, he bought 10 commercial pizza ovens from Bakers Pride, which was founded in New York in the mid-1940s and claims to have “initiated one of the most dramatic innovations in the history of American cuisine by inventing the modern production pizza oven.” Bakers Pride officials were surprised by Fricano’s order and told him they had never sold that many ovens at one time to an independent pizzeria.
Fricano said he doesn’t need that many ovens all the time, but on a busy Friday or Saturday when the pizzeria is full and The Event Center and Hideaway are also full of guests, all 10 ovens “certainly come in handy.” Some nights as many as 1,200 pizzas are served, he said, and he already has several weddings booked in 2013 that have ordered pizzas for the reception.
He estimates he has invested slightly more than $4 million, including acquisition of the 140-year-old building, doing extensive renovations, and creating the food service businesses.
One of the great assets of the building is its long-time presence in Muskegon.
“This building has a gift of nostalgia,” said Fricano. Many older people who come into the pizzeria and Pinchtown Market say, “I remember …” and then launch into a story about the building’s connection with life in Muskegon during their parents’ or grandparents’ lives.
The upper floors of Fricano Place are leased by about 15 commercial tenants with another two or three suites vacant. The fourth floor is fully occupied by the corporate offices and 100 employees of Harbor Hospice, which serves the lakeshore from Ludington to Grand Haven.
Fricano said his original lease was a good deal on 11,500 square feet. He said the building owners had hoped a successful food service business would make the building more marketable to tenants for the upper floors. Fricano believes his claim to fame is in making the pizzeria a success despite the fact that the building had been largely stagnant, business-wise, for decades before he moved in.
He said his business is sound and profitable and now employs about 80, counting Fricano’s Muskegon Lake and Pinchtown Market. “We have not leveraged ourselves to death. In fact, always, always, always — my first goal is to pay down my loans.”
Fricano said he could not have bought the Hartshorn building in 2009 without financing from Fifth Third Bank. He appreciated the bank’s help and noted it appreciated his practice of paying down debt as soon as possible.
“Building Pinchtown showed me that the city respects me,” he said, adding that the various departments in City Hall are “wonderful. We have a great reputation and I have sensational rapport with all the departments in the city of Muskegon. I consider them all my friends.”
Steve Wisneski, whose Creative Benefit Systems Inc. occupies a suite in Fricano Place, was having a bowl of ice cream at Pinchtown Market when a Business Journal reporter and Fricano wandered by. Wisneski immediately offered high praise of Fricano’s businesses.
“What gets me is the creativity that goes into this place and the interior design,” said Wisneski. “It’s really becoming a Muskegon landmark. Everybody knows where Fricano’s on the lake is,” he added. “He puts in a lot of his time here, a lot of late nights. A typical restaurateur.”
Wisneski was impressed that Fricano has “done it all with private resources” and not by relying on government grants or incentives.
Muskegon was a lumber industry boomtown in the 19th century, replaced decades later with manufacturing that was a notable part of the war effort during World War II. The city suffered business declines again beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, like many industrial areas in the Midwest. While some manufacturing is picking up again in the wake of the Great Recession, Muskegon civic leaders are still searching for ways to bring in more customers for the hospitality and retail businesses hanging on in the downtown area. Annual events such as Bike Time do successfully bring in thousands of people with money to spend, and the Lake Michigan high-speed ferry service from Muskegon to Milwaukee also brings a steady stream of tourist traffic each summer.
“Downtown Muskegon gets beat up a lot, but people are excited to patronize success in Muskegon,” said Fricano. He points to the success of The Cheese Lady wine-and-cheese shop on Terrace Street downtown; owner Kathleen Riegler started the business 10 years ago and has franchised two other stores in the last two years in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.
In Fricano’s opinion, however, more could be happening to make downtown Muskegon more viable. He said he and his employees are putting a lot of work and determination into Fricano Place to make it a showcase that demonstrates “you can do it in downtown Muskegon.”
Despite all the time, effort and passion he has put into it for almost 11 years, Fricano isn’t tired of it. “I still have a spring in my step.”