Restaurant Partners Inc. owner hits his stride


New owner Jeff Lobdell said he appreciates the “integrity” of Rockwell Republic and will incorporate very few changes into his latest acquisition. Courtesy Restaurant Partners

Restaurant Partners Inc.’s growth hasn’t always been easy, but Jeff Lobdell feels like he is hitting his stride.

Lobdell started his restaurant company in 1995 with the launch of Bagel Beanery on Michigan Street NE and has grown it to include 19 restaurants and nearly 1,000 employees in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, including the most recent acquisition of the downtown restaurant and bar, Rockwell Republic, 45 S. Division Ave.

Most of Lobdell’s restaurants have joined the company via acquisitions, including Beltline Bar in 2000, two Sundance Grille locations in 2001 and two Traverse City Omelette Shoppe locations in 2007. He expanded some brands with new locations, such as two Grand Rapids Omelette Shoppes and two Grand Coneys, a brand he acquired fully in 2015.

He admitted some failures, such as Muskegon’s Alley Ways, which he attempted to re-launch in an effort to turn around a struggling acquisition.

“What’s worked best for me is keeping the integrity of a concept and not trying to change it,” Lobdell said. “People go there for a reason, like it for a reason and they want to keep going there. I’d rather pay more for a well-established restaurant than get a bargain and work to turn something around that might not work.”

His long-time industry friends, Dave and Paul Reinert, owned Rockwell Republic but wanted to focus on their Bridge Street properties, O’Toole’s Public House and the former Monte’s location, which is in the process of being re-launched as Butcher’s Union.

The Reinerts approached Lobdell about taking over Rockwell Republic so they could concentrate on the new concept, Lobdell said. While Lobdell’s eyes are always open to great opportunities, he said, he’s “not out knocking on doors.”

Rockwell Republic was an entity Lobdell always respected.

“I always have a good time here, and there’s always a good vibe with a great staff having fun,” Lobdell said. “The client base is really loyal to this place.”

Lobdell believes the beverage program at Rockwell Republic, along with its American-Asian fusion menu, can help add some life to his other restaurants offerings, most of which cater to the breakfast crowd. It also provides Restaurant Partners with a “special occasion” restaurant, as Lobdell said most of his current operations are “everyday restaurants to attract the masses.”

A larger company taking over Rockwell Republic will provide the establishment with more buying power, cross marketing and branding and administrative back ends to help analyze information and help make it more profitable, Lobdell said.

“Profits provide possibilities,” Lobdell said. “It helps us grow and acquire, give promotions and raises. If it’s not profitable, you’re less apt to do those things.”

The acquisition of Rockwell Republic comes on the heels of Lobdell’s sale of the former Forest Hills Inn property, 4609 Cascade Road SE, earlier this year. He had operated the restaurant since 2008, “paying the bills” and had plans to re-launch in a new concept but decided the effort would be too much and take away focus from the overall company.

Instead, he shifted to a buyer, who has yet remained anonymous.

The sale allowed Restaurant Partners to concentrate on growing the Grand Coney brand with two restaurants, 401 28th St. SE and 5121 28th St. SE.

Lobdell said the new locations help market and advertise the concept, which he likes because customers range from suited business meetings to backward cap, post-lawn mow lunches. Although many customers see Coney and think hot dogs, Lobdell said less than 15 percent of sales are hot dogs, and the focus is all-day breakfast and Greek specialties.

“I’m very happy with how it’s going and looking to add another location or two next year,” he said.

Aside from his Michigan Street trio of Grand Coney, Omelette Shoppe and Bagel Beanery, Lobdell said he doesn’t think any of his restaurants have cannibalized his own business, nor does he think his recent expansions of Grand Coney hinder any of his “local restaurateur friends.”

While he did express concern with kitchen talent supply, he said his method of growing by acquisitions isn’t adding too much strain to the overall industry. Still, the number of restaurants opening in Grand Rapids has provided a challenge.

Lobdell said he intends to keep Rockwell Republic much the same, just as he’s treated Beltline Bar the past 16 years. Otherwise, he plans to grow Restaurant Partners for the foreseeable future.

“We’ll continue to grow over the next several years,” he said.  “Either with turnkey acquisitions that are high volume, successful with great reputations or continue to grow the Grand Coney brand or another breakfast brand where opportunities present themselves.”

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