-The 3rd Blog Entry In Our Grand Rapids, Michigan Emerging Concept Tour Series

Move over BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, pack it in Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and watch the wine club memberships deplete like the 1929 stock market Coopers Hawk Winery!  The Barstillery has arrived!  Let's all give a warm welcome to  Flatlanders micro-distillery restaurant.  The latest to join the micro-brewery, micro-winery, micro-roaster, micro-juicing restaurant trend.  

During our recent tour of emerging Michigan restaurant concepts, an old high school friend turned us on to this self proclaimed "Hillbilly Chic" hipster magnet.  Built in a former lumber yard, there is no lack of texture and symbolism to get you in the mood to toss back some fine hooch, shine, specialty cocktails, bourbon aged brews and even flights of spirits for the adventurous with a DD in tow we hope.

That all being said (Yes, we will get to the part about whether the shine was fine...), Flatlanders gets it mostly right with truly tasty vittles even hill folk with a partial set would tell their spouse/cousin about.  Lots of local, of course, including a selection of sausages from the micro-butcher next door, beer cheese poutine on hand punched fries, expected/welcomed Flatlanders BBQ Bourbon pulled pork and Sweet Potato Hobo Pie for dessert to name a few.  

A number of our picks are shown below.  A must have are the Devil's Eggs served over sriracha and garnished individually with a jalapeno slice.  Tasty, with a nice sharp heat balanced by the creamy egg yolk.  Next up, Sweet Potato & Apple Hush Pups.  Of course they are healthy, they have sweet potatoes in them right?  They are even extra heart friendly with the accompanying brown butter sage dip.  Continuing the hillbilly fusion menu flow was their apparently seasonal fall favorite Fried Chicken & Pumpkin Waffles with bourbon syrup.  Not sure if the chicken and waffles were the best, but you could pour that bourbon syrup on a carburetor your eyes would still roll back in your head from the savory, sweet, liquory (That's a word right?) wonderful coating of your taste buds.

Opportunities?  Possibly off track from the hillbilly fusion theme were Mahi-Mahi fish tacos?  What's up with that?  Buffalo shrimp?  Then there is the uninspiring salad section and glaring lack of theme appropriate sausages like Cajun, Andouille, wild boar, we could probably think a few more up if we took 10 seconds...I mean work with us here Flatlanders you have to nail this sausage thing.

How were the spirits?  It is a Barstillery after all.  They are locally distilled using Flatlander recipes, but not distilled on-site.  Who cares.  4 our of 5 were amazing!  Especially, the bourbon.  It is clearly their signature product being featured first on the menu in a non-alphabetical top to bottom list.  Gin is at the bottom of the list, as it should be, after tasting a flight and a few cocktails.  With the surging popularity in botanical gin, they may want to work on this one.  We were thinking of  continuing with the Michigan theme on the Gin with one called "Ole White Pine" (A nod to the great indigenous conifer that is also the state tree of the mitten shaped state and the pleasing pine needle aroma that some gins can bring to the party.) which has been a proven road driven by Rogue with their popular Oregon made Pink Spruce Gin.  The bourbon on the other hand, don't touch the recipe!  

As expected, a signature Flatlanders spirits cocktail selection rounds out the menu.  In particular, the Mayberry Manhattan, Mississippi Mule and the Oh Canada with maple syrup, cream liqueur, fresh cream and a maple sugar rim made for a comfortable fall evening experience.  

Additional revenue is driven through off-premise sales at local retailers where the liquor line-up can also be found helping prove the promise, drive trial, solidify fans and grow the higher level brand.

Finally, nice work on broadening the concept with a week of barrel aged beers during Whisky Fest.  The Saugatuck BA Bonfire Brown beer was exceptional after being aged in Flatlanders bourbon barrels for a limited run.  

So foodie friends, restaurant experts and stumblers upon this rambling blog does a Barstillery restaurant have more speed to market than a three legged hillbilly hound?  Can it play in Austin, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco metros and still find room to play in the burbs for scale?  Should BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, Yardhouse, Old Chicago and others strike now with their own self-stilled shines before these micro-newbies like FlatlandersPark Distillery and Bardenay (Who now has three locations and claims to be the nations first restaurant distillery.) steal their mash and customer base?

Uncle Cheetah's Vs. The Melt - Industry Innovation Irony

-The 2nd Blog Entry In Our Grand Rapids, Michigan Emerging Concept Tour Series

As we coveted the last drops of our Guatamalan grounds pour over from the coffee gods at Rowster Coffee (See 1st series blog entry The Starbucks Killer? - Real Coffee Cred?”.) it became clearly apparent, through our front window view at the roastery of java dreams, we were in the middle of a street of revitalization.  Across this original brick paved street stood a repurposed gas station turned sit-down Mexican mash-up-aurant.  Next to our parking space the haute dog place that looked very wienerlicious.  Glancing further to the East the emerging foodieville seemed to continue with another chef driven, passion livin’, locally givin’ corner of cool cusine in every third or fourth building between long ago boarded up abandoned brick locales and businesses that somehow survived the last fifty years of tough times.  A street ironically called Wealthy Street.

Buzzed from the beans at Rowster, the metabolism had now reached the point where significant sustenance was needed.  The free wi-fi blazing through the brushed steel laptops confirmed via google maps that tough choices lie ahead of us down this street of mystery menus in our search for nourishment, and culinary enlightenment.  Too soon to blow our dinner calorie chits, we opted for a more lunch directed choice which will now go down in history as the Cheetah choice.  There were not just one, but two places with the name Cheetah in them only a block apart.  The Electric Cheetah and Uncle Cheetah’s Soup Shop.  We could only assume that one was so successful the other became a creative real estate expansion to handle the demand.  With this notion of Cheetah prowess, and our need to be of service to the ever expanding chain bakery café/grilled cheese/soup categories, we made our decision to visit the annex first and soup it up at the soup shop.

With limited time, and considerable caloric big game ahead of us already targeted for dinner (See 3rd series blog entry Welcome The Barstillery - Trend or Micro-Niche Fad?”.), we opted for a single sandwich and soup safari at Uncle Cheetah’s Soup Shop.  Like a big cat at a crowded Wildebeest watering hole, the choice was not easy.  Uncle Cheetah has some serious stew and sammie chops.  Listed daily, only on their facebook page, here were our October 19th choices.

The sandwiches weren’t any easier (see menu below).  In fact, upon closer observation, we had entered an evil grilled cheese vortex featuring eight melty wonders and a daily special called “Creole On A Roll” made with shaved Cajun turkey, pepper jack cheese, sautéed peppers & onions, & Cajun ranch on a fresh Nantucket Bakery challah slider bun. The menu (see below) continued with recipes including delectable melted dairy choices including smoked gouda, goat cheese cream, house boursin and fresh mozz just to name a few.  Spreads and toppings like corn cabbage slaw, jalapeno tomato jam and a raspberry chipotle sauce made our single sandwich selection even more confounding.

Our sammie of choice….The Pig Newton!  We always love a good sandwich on the border of trademark infringement.  So good, it must be worth the legal risk!  Thick cut smoked bacon slabs, a healthy layer of melted brie cheese and caramelized onions slathered with an orange-fig jam on grilled sourdough.  Our soup of choice….it was fall, so Pumpkin Chorizo called to us with a haunting tone that couldn’t be squashed. 

The Pig Newton (see below) was a definite shut the front door grilled sammie moment. Sweet, savory, smoky, crunchy, melty….mmmmm.  Hope you don’t need more of a review than that.  Pumpkin Chorizo soup?  Shut the garage door too people!  The need for the Uncle annex was obvious. Even more obvious was the need to visit the mother Cheetah to see where this one got it’s spots.  If this was the limited sampling of what was back at the den, we couldn't wait to see what was powering the larger Electric Cheetah.  

Additionally obvious was the irony of our industry obsession to talk about the topic of flavor innovation to capture those experimental Millennials back from local concepts like this.  These big flavors were not hard recipes to execute.  The menu was small enough for operations to pump out the significant volume to the throngs coming in and out of the door.  Yet, when you look at chain concepts in Bakery Cafe, and the smaller grilled cheese segment, the innovation seems to be lost back in the test kitchen somewhere along the way.  

As an example, a quick internet search showed the big buzz concept, Silicon Valley funded, The Melt now has only four very basic grilled cheese sandwiches.  They have virtually abandoned their category niche. Instead of innovating like a Cheetah, The Melt has instead taken a strategy of adding equally boring/expected burgers to ostensibly "pivot," as they would say in the tech world, and find a way to survive by offering a an even longer list of non-differentiating recipes.  

Alternatively, Shark Tank featured grilled cheesers Tom+Chee has stayed on point with unique flavors, breads and alternative cheeses making their menu a signature destination concept including Grilled Cheese Donuts that take the buzz up another level on the food chain.

With that long diatribe on the state of melted cheese menus, and marketing mumble, the question is now posed to the reader:  You are walking down the street seeking your noon nourishment and you have the choice of Uncle Cheetah's Soup Shop or The Melt.  Which grilled which-aurant steals your hard earned cheese?  BrandTrippin' peeps are curious as a cat on Wealthy Street.