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Posted 04-25-2011 at 01:19 AM by Big Rapids Chris

The Pioneer > News

Under new management: Restaurateur looks to open upscale dining in Big Rapids next month

RESTAURATEUR: Brett Alward is renovating the River Rock Food and Spirits bar with business partner Chris Mullins. They hope to open for business in late May. (Pioneer photos/Jonathan Eppley)
By Jonathan Eppley
Pioneer Staff Writer
Published: Monday, April 11, 2011 8:46 AM EDT
BIG RAPIDS — It was by chance that restaurant-owner Brett Alward learned the River Rock Food and Spirits bar was for sale.

He was talking to a real estate agent in Kalamazoo who mentioned that the Big Rapids building was listed on Craigslist. Looking to add another restaurant to the one he already owns in Grand Rapids, Alward found the listing online and inquired about the property, located at 230 Baldwin St.

The deal was “too good to be true,” he said.

“Initially, I called and was told, ‘Sorry, it’s off the market,’ but that deal fell through,” Alward said. “I was still interested and we managed to get a deal together. I love the location on the river. ... I never thought I would find a place on Craigslist.”

Alward, business partner Chris Mullins and a private investor brokered a deal to purchase the property in November. Alward and Mullins have a three-and-a-half-year lease on the building, with the option to buyout the investor at the end of the lease.

Slowly and quietly, the pair has gutted the inside of the building, doing most of the demolition and renovation work themselves. They hope to open the yet-to-be-named restaurant and bar by the end of May.

A lot of work needs to be done before the restaurant is ready to open. Alward and Mullins plan to custom-make the bar, install booths and finish work to the kitchen. Currently, they are fixing the floors — some of which were rotted through.

“None of the floors in here were level,” Alward said. “There’s actually four different layers of flooring, so we’re figuring out how to get them all the same height. It’s all been patchwork from every owner over the past — they never tore anything out, they just kept building on top.”

They’re still conceptualizing how the interior of the restaurant will look. Half of the building will be the original exposed brick, with the remainder being new drywall covering cinder block walls. Alward said the feel of the restaurant and clientele will help define how he decorates the interior.

“We don’t have a particular theme here yet, other than we just want a nice comfortable place,” Alward said. “It’s one thing to decorate and have a nice ambiance, but I’m not going to clutter the walls up with a bunch of beer mirrors — that’s a sports bar mentality and not what we are. If people are having a good time, they’re not staring at the walls anyway.”

What will really define the business is the food, said Mullins, who will run day-to-day operations at the new restaurant. The menu will feature “standard pub food,” as well as contemporary spins on popular dishes, like a goat cheese, bacon and shiitake mushroom casadia.

“We’re not going to be like any place around here,” Mullins said. “We’re going to have a bit of Asian, Latin, Italian, Cajun and vegetarian options — we’ll have a veggie pasta with noodles that we’ll make from zucchini and squash. We’ll have a lot of different things, but you’ll still be able to come here and get a steak or burger.”

Mullins also plans to buy fresh produce from the Big Rapids Farmers Market and not serve any frozen, pre-made food or appetizers. Everything will be “fresh,” he added.

Anja Wing, executive director of the Mecosta County Area Chamber of Commerce, met with Mullins earlier this week encouraging him to join the chamber. Even if Alward and Mullins do not become chamber members, Wing hopes they do well.

“If they can offer a menu that is different from what we already have in Big Rapids (with) quality and with good service, they’ll do well,” Wing said. “You can’t really see them from the road, but people will find them once the word gets out.”

Alward has been in the restaurant business for 20 years. Six years ago, he opened his first bar and grille, The Sazerac Lounge, in Grand Rapids, which has a Cajun flair to it — complete with voodoo dolls hanging on the walls.

Although some of the menu items and atmosphere at the new restaurant will be similar to his Grand Rapids location, Alward hopes to create an entirely different dining experience in Big Rapids. He is looking to attract families and diners in their late 20s through mid-40s.

“We’re here with the concept that we’re going to develop a good regular clientele for the local and surrounding communities,” Alward said. “We’ll obviously see some college students, but we really want to develop that lunch, dinner and happy hour crowd.”

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  1. Old Comment
    Order up? East-side restaurants’ openings delayed, abandoned

    RENOVATIONS: Ron Alward helps with renovations at the River Rock Food and Spirits in Big Rapids. His son, Brett Alward and business partner Chris Mullins plan to open the yet-to-be named bar and grill this summer. (Pioneer photos/Jonathan Eppley)
    BIG RAPIDS — Two restaurants on Baldwin Street that were expected to open this spring have had to put work on the back burner. One expects to open later this summer, and the other will not open at all.

    Renovations at the yet-to-be-named bar and grill opening in the River Rock Food and Spirits location have taken longer than expected. Business partners Brett Alward and Chris Mullins are doing a majority of the work to rehab the building themselves, and misjudged how long it would take to complete.

    “We’re probably looking at five to six weeks before we’re ready,” Mullins said. “We didn’t come across anything unexpected (during renovations), we just miscalculated the timeline for completion.”

    After gutting the whole inside of the building, Alward and Mullins have leveled the floors, installed drywall, built up the bar area, partially tiled the kitchen floor and started construction of new bathrooms.

    About half of the bar’s interior is the original exposed brick, with drywall covering the remaining cinder-block walls. Wood support beams in the middle of the seating area are covered in a dark stain to match the 25-foot-long bar. The bathrooms have been painted a bright yellow with brown ceramic tile flooring.

    “We’ve still got to finish the bar top, put down flooring, paint the walls, … and we have to name the bar still,” Mullins said. “It’s been very slow progress, but at the end it will all come together.”

    The two also are working to finalize the menu. They want to cater to several demographics.

    “It’s going to be an amazing balance (between college students and city residents),” Mullins said. “It’s difficult to appeal to a professor, a student and someone from the community, because they’re all going to have different needs. We want to be somewhere that everyone wants to come to.”

    WORK IN PROGRESS: Restaurateurs Brett Alward and Chris Mullins are doing most of the renovation work at the former River Rock Food and Spirits on Baldwin Street. Renovations have taken longer than anticipated, and they expect to be completed in 5 to 6 weeks.
    Mill Hill Barbecue — located inside the old M&M Deli on the corner of Baldwin Street and Fourth Avenue — will not be opening, said would-be restaurateur Mitch Totten.

    He planned to open the southern-style barbecue sandwich shop with his brother, Matthew, in March. They planned to serve homemade barbecued pulled-pork, beef and chicken sandwiches.

    After a visit from Mecosta County Building Official Dennis Burrick, the two brothers learned that the building needs extensive updates to be brought up to code. The building’s code classification also would need to be changed from mercantile to assembly, Burrick said.

    “That building is classified mercantile, even though food was served there before,” Burrick said. “If I have a party store and put in a pizza oven, the main purpose of my store is still a party store, (which is classified mercantile). They wanted food as their primary source of business, (which is classified assembly). … The code says that when you change use group, you have to bring the whole building up to code.”

    NOT OPENING: Brothers Mitch and Matthew Totten planned to open Mill Hill Barbecue in March, however learned the building needs to be brought up to code before it can be opened as a sandwich shop. They have no current plans to seek a new location.
    Burrick said the Totten brothers would have needed to update the mechanical, electrical and plumbing within the building to open. The building also needed to be hooked up to city water from its current well-water system. Mitch Totten estimated the cost to bring the building up to code would be about $50,000.

    The Totten brothers are unsure if they will seek a new location for their sandwich shop.

    “I was upset when they told us (all the updates that were needed),” Totten said. “We drained a lot of money into opening that business. … We’re not able to open up there because of the building codes.”
    Posted 06-12-2011 at 07:47 PM by Big Rapids Chris Big Rapids Chris is online now

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