After two decades of wanting to start a craft brewery, Jim Crank followed his dream with Cranker's Restaurant & Brewery. Photo by Johnny Quirin
In the 1990s, Jim Crank spent a lot of time thinking about craft beer.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, visited the breweries of Oregon where his aunt lived and even studied the early Michigan beer industry with establishments such as Big Buck Brewery popping up across the state.
Crank, however, tamped down his desire to start a brewing operation and kept his food distributing company, Choice Foods, operating in Detroit. He said he felt consumers weren’t yet ready for the type of beer offered by craft breweries.
Now, more than 20 years later, he owns three Cranker’s Restaurant & Brewery sites: in Grand Rapids, Big Rapids and Mount Pleasant.
The path the 56-year-old former hockey player took to get there was far from average.
His hockey career ended at Ferris State University when the program made the jump from Division II to Division I and “brought all the Canadians in.” He stuck it out at FSU instead of transferring and finished his degree in marketing. He kept his love for hockey alive by coaching from 1990 to 2003, including a five-year stint as youth hockey coordinator for the Troy Hockey Association.
After college, Crank worked for a year in Grand Rapids at Iowa Steak Co. before moving to West Bloomfield, and starting Choice Foods in 1983.
“We were one of the first broadline food service companies in Michigan,” Crank said, adding business was great for a couple of years. Then, he said, “basically, companies like (Gordon Food Service) came in with a lot more capital behind them.”
Crank said, looking back, he likely should have taken the opportunity to merge Choice Foods with a larger company or made some smarter moves.
“In 2003, I started thinking, ‘I have to be prepared if something happens,’ and we did the right thing and were able to make the transition out,” he said.
He sold off chunks of his company to U.S. Food Service, at which point he began looking for something else to do.
“The Coney Island business was booming in the Detroit area,” Crank said. “So we thought we’d bring the treasures of Detroit to West Michigan.”
He and an early business partner bought some land in Mount Pleasant. Property easement issues led to a six-month bureaucratic nightmare, however, stalling the venture.
Crank looked westward, toward Big Rapids. The former Harbor Stable restaurant, which had been new when he arrived on FSU’s campus, had a “Thanks for the memories” sign on it.
An offer was already in place on the building, but Crank found the Realtor, who, according to Crank, didn’t want the offer to go through. He offered $40,000 more and took possession of the property. The site came complete with a liquor license — which Crank didn’t actually want because he hoped to be able to brew his own beer some day.
By the time Cranker’s Coney Island in Big Rapids was up and running, the Mount Pleasant property problems had been resolved and the Coney Island there was ready to open.
A few years later, Crank’s son, James, was finishing his schooling at Central Michigan University and wanted to help his dad in his restaurant business — but he didn’t want to live in Big Rapids or Mount Pleasant.
So in 2007, a Cranker’s Coney Island opened in Greater Grand Rapids near the U.S. 131 and M6 interchange, at 454 68th St. SW in Byron Township.
The other Coney Island locations weren’t thriving, however, since outside of Detroit, consumers had only one association with Coney Island restaurants: hot dogs.
“People in Detroit know you can (also) get a good bowl of soup, a good salad, a good gyro,” Crank said. But that didn’t translate as well on this side of the state.
He looked back to the passion for craft brewing he had developed in the 1990s — especially as he watched the Michigan beer scene mature — and in 2011, he began thinking about opening a brewery.
Crank sought recommendations from people he met out west. Through those connections, he brought in several brewers for interviews from breweries such as Sierra Nevada, Rogue Ales and Gordon Biersch. But their logoed brewery shirts and stock answers didn’t impress him. Instead, it was a homebrewer who showed up in a suit and tie and talked about the importance of food, drink and table that won him over.
It was assured that Crank would hire schoolteacher Adam Mills as his brewer when he visited Mills’ house.
“He had three kids running and jumping around,” Crank said. “They got to the table and they were like angels. I just thought to myself, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing.’”
Crank sent Mills to brewing school and an internship at Ann Arbor’s Arbor Brewing Co. In 2012, Mills began brewing, using a 15-barrel system with 30- and 60-barrel fermenters in Big Rapids.
Cranker’s beers are especially clean and crisp, which Crank attributes to Mills being one of the best brewers in the area at finishing the brewing process.
“There are brewmasters that are better,” he said. “But a lot of it is how he finishes the beer. That’s his specialty.”
Recently, Crank decided to rebrand all his restaurants as Cranker’s Restaurant & Brewery. At the Grand Rapids location, he is changing the food concept from Coney Island to authentic TexMex.
“Coney Island never caught on there. It never established a breakfast pattern,” Crank said. “Since M-6 went through, it’s been a struggle.”
The TexMex theme will make use of the knowledge of Chef Luis Zarate, and a newly installed smoker. Each day, various meats are smoked, and tamales and empanadas are made by hand.
Meanwhile, in Big Rapids, the brew system is nearing its capacity of 4,000 barrels per year. Crank said the location can expand to a capacity of 8,000 barrels, and he hopes to be producing at a 6,000-barrel-a-year pace by the end of 2015.
A brewery has to sell about four times the product to make up the same revenue it would have if the beer was sold out of a pub owned by the brewery, Crank said, explaining the distribution model in Michigan.
Crank said he recently signed on to add 70 Meijer stores to his current 24, as well as 50 Kroger stores, to distribute his packaged lineup. Currently, Cranker’s bottles Professor IPA, Bulldog Red and Fifth Voyage Coconut Porter, and soon hopes to bottle Cherry Wheat and Propaganda Red IPA, and add a canned version of Professor IPA.
The Professor IPA has caught on well in the Metro Detroit area, he said, but still has work to do in West Michigan as it’s going up against local staples like Founders Brewing Co.’s Centennial IPA and Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale.
Crank said he wants to scale up his beer production in the future and is looking at space in Grand Rapids. He said a restaurant would be included, but the new space would primarily be for manufacturing beer, with at least a 40-barrel brew system and 120-barrel fermenters.
“We’ve got the demand for it,” he said.
Crank knows it can take a few years to establish a brand, especially in a growing segment such as craft beer, but he believes the quality of his brand will shine through in the long run.
“I’ve always wanted to create a brand that people know stands for quality,” he said. “That’s what I want our name to be good for. Anything we put our name on will be of a certain quality.”