Hancock is housed in a former service station on Wealthy Street SE in close proximity to other All-In eateries. Courtesy All-In Hospitality Group
Instead of sticking to one cuisine style, the owners of All-In Hospitality Group have spent the past decade working to create a variety of “unique” destinations full of “neighborhood charm” in the Wealthy Street business district.
Paul Lee, his wife Jessica Lee and his father Arnold Lee are co-owners of the restaurant group that so far owns or has invested in four restaurants on Wealthy Street, plus a food truck. The company employs 200 people.
The first restaurant in their portfolio was The Winchester, a gastropub they opened at 648 Wealthy St. SE in 2008, when the neighborhood was in the early stages of a 15-year revitalization that continues today.
Their venture What the Truck — a food truck serving Asian fusion tacos and burritos — began roving around the southeast side of Grand Rapids in 2010.
Donkey Taqueria was next, opening across the street from The Winchester at 665 Wealthy St. SE in late 2013.
Paul Lee told Rapid Growth Media in early 2014 after opening Donkey that he and Jessica Lee have “a passion for traveling” and have visited all over the U.S., Europe, Asia and Central America.
A few years ago, the pair took a trip down to Nashville with their director of operations at Donkey, looking for ideas for a new venture. They noticed “hot chicken” and fried chicken were trending in the local restaurant scene and felt Grand Rapids didn’t offer but could benefit from serving that cuisine style.
“Then, some personal health issues got in the way of this project, and it was kind of delayed for about a year/year and a half,” Paul Lee said. “But we decided to go forward with it anyway, just because nobody had done it.”
The resulting restaurant, Hancock, opened at 1157 Wealthy St. SE on March 11 after being in the works since 2015.
It offers hot chicken; fried chicken (either by itself or on a sandwich); a bevy of Southern-style sides; desserts; salads; and beer, sparkling wine and slush cocktails.
Since the Lees started planning Hancock, two brothers have opened Juju Bird, a fried chicken restaurant in the Grand Rapids Downtown Market with a Nashville hot sandwich on its menu; South Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon opened a location at Knapp’s Corner; Emonae Korean BBQ began serving spicy fried chicken in Kentwood; and other soul-food restaurants such as Forty Acres Soul Kitchen on Wealthy and Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen in East Grand Rapids opened with broader menus that also include fried chicken.
But Hancock is the first restaurant in the Wealthy neighborhood — and according to the Lees, the first in Grand Rapids — that is entirely built around the Nashville hot chicken concept. According to the Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition, people confuse hot chicken with buffalo chicken, but it has its own distinctive elements and is served on white bread with a pickle. The chicken seasoning recipe can vary by restaurant, but the coalition says it is always spicy and flavorful and starts with a dry rub with a base of lard or oil, not a “wet” sauce coating like buffalo chicken has.
Daryl Rector worked on the Hancock team temporarily as culinary director to create most of the restaurant’s menu, and Gabe Araujo and Chris Mathis now handle the day-to-day operations as executive kitchen manager and executive sous chef, respectively.
Hancock has about 40 employees and is hiring for all positions except management.
When it first opened, Hancock operated under a counter service model and has since switched to table service to provide a more relaxing atmosphere, Paul Lee said.
Hancock is in a former Gulf gas station, similar to Donkey Taqueria’s origins as a Sinclair service station.
“The (red) neon letters that you see on the building for Hancock are kind of a tribute to that and very similar to the original Gulf lettering,” Paul Lee said.
After its days as a service station, the Hancock building most recently housed Wealthy Street Station, a 12-seat diner that opened in 2005 serving a mix of American, Mexican and Polish food. Owners Bob and Carole Welniak retired and closed the place in 2015.
All-In Hospitality Group then bought the building and hired architect Martin Mechtenberg, of South Bend, Indiana-based EmpowerDesign Studio, Grand Rapids-based general contractor Metric Structures and Boulder, Colorado-based interior design firm Istoria Interiors to do the renovations. The project included adding 1,800 square feet to the structure’s existing 1,200 square feet and converting the aluminum garage doors with no windows into the glass-fronted doors it has now, which can be raised in warm weather to create indoor-outdoor seating. The restaurant also has a patio with outdoor seating.
Istoria owner Stephanie Waddell — a high school classmate of Paul Lee’s — also did the interior design for Donkey Taqueria.
“She has a fine arts background, so a lot of her design is more on the art end versus just interior design. Also, my wife and I like to have a different set of eyes. There’s a lot of great restaurant space in the city, but a lot of them tend to look the same,” Paul Lee said.
“We always want our spaces to feel and look unique.”
The Lees also hired Waddell for their next big project, Jonny B’z, which Jon Goad opened in 2010 at 638 Wealthy St. SE and subsequently moved to 701 Wealthy St. SE.
Paul Lee said his company partnered with Jonny B’z in December on improvements to the restaurant. He submitted plans for a site remodel in conjunction with Grand Rapids-based Architect at Large to the Grand Rapids City Commission on Feb. 28, and the city commission on April 11 approved the special land use request that included converting the parking lot into a patio with alcohol service, a beer garden and foot billiard courts surrounded by outdoor sofas and chairs.
The site changes were then approved by the Historic Preservation Commission on April 17.
A timeline still is being finalized for construction at Jonny B’z, but Paul Lee said he expects the project will start and finish in the span of a couple weeks this summer, likely in August.
When out-of-town visitors come to Grand Rapids, Paul Lee said he often gets requests to bring his restaurant concepts — especially The Winchester and Donkey Taqueria — to other cities such as Kalamazoo or Traverse City.
“My wife and I feel that (Winchester and Donkey) are unique to the neighborhood, and you kind of lose that charm if you just replicate that and move it somewhere else,” he said.
Hancock might be another story, though.
“When we created Hancock, the idea was, could we create something that could be replicated? It’s hard to replicate this space, but you can replicate the concept,” he said.
“With Winchester and Donkey, the menu changes fairly frequently, but with something like hot chicken and sides, those are the things that don’t really have to change very often, so then you can find a way of standardizing that and if you wanted to, it could be replicated.”
Paul Lee said Hancock is so new — open less than two months — that he expects to keep making tweaks in response to what works for customers, just as the family has with its other restaurants.