GRAND RAPIDS — The defining moment in Restaurant Partner Inc. President Jeff Lobdell’s career came 26 years ago, in, of all places, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in his hometown of Traverse City.
Before Michigan State University and a five-year management stint at the now defunct Cooker Bar and Grill — and long before launching the Bagel Beanery concept and his $18 million, 340-employee company, or earning a spot on the board of directors of the Michigan Restaurant Association — Lobdell was a greasy, ball-cap wearing cook and cashier.
His father, Wayne, now CEO of the $50 million Hospitality Restaurant Group, owned the eight-employee chicken shack, and introduced him to the family business at age 12. It wasn’t Lobdell’s success over the next four years that kick-started his career, however, but his lack of.
“The manager thought I was just the cocky owner’s son, and I probably was,” Lobdell recalled.
Looking to prove himself, he quit KFC for a job at the Waterfront Inn, a 320-employee hotel and conference center. In his third month, he was named Employee of the Month.
“I got this big plaque and I paraded it through KFC,” Lobdell said. “I wasn’t just the owner’s son, I was a good worker.”
Today, Lobdell still works the occasional drive-thru. He’s not afraid to bus a table, clean a toilet or jump on the line in the kitchen, he said. In the beginning, he did so on a daily basis, but now, with 10 operations, his time is at a premium.
“I’m more of a motivator,” he said. “I go in and thank them for working hard as a company, get to know as many of the servers and cooks as I can.”
For each of his four concepts — Bagel Beanery, Beltline Bar, Omelet Shoppe & Bakery, and Sundance Grill — there is a unique culture that Lobdell is proud to be a part of.
Of the Beltline Bar’s 100 employees, 20 have worked there for a decade, and 10 were peddling wet burritos at the 50-year old Grand Rapids institution when Lobdell was still working at KFC.
The majority of Bagel Beanery employees are students, with aspirations beyond the coffee and bagel shop. Sundance Grill is a mix of students and restaurant professionals, slowly becoming a family of its own.
His newest acquisition, the Omelet Shoppe, was one of his family’s favorite restaurants as a child. With this 30-year-old institution, he has renewed hopes to build a regional chain that began a decade ago with Bagel Beanery.
Lobdell left the Cooker in 1992 to pursue franchise opportunities with his father. They acquired the Grand Rapids territory of the Checkers Drive-In Restaurant franchise, bringing Lobdell to West Michigan and the busy thoroughfare on which he’d launch his career.
Blocks away from his 1131 Michigan St. NE Checkers, Lobdell noticed an abandoned Mobil gas station at 455 Michigan Street NE. He forged a plan to position a restaurant to serve the intense medical, residential, industrial, and highway traffic that crossed through the Michigan and College Avenue intersection.
With an investment of $500,000 in 1995, he refurbished the site into the Bagel Beanery, offering gourmet coffee, sandwiches, baked goods and bagels to sit-down and drive-thru customers.
“It was a big risk, but I believed in the neighborhood,” he said. “I thought Michigan (Street) was a great place for a restaurant business. … I felt it would grow and continue to grow, but it more than exceeded my wildest imagination.
“It’s become a crown jewel of the Grand Rapids area.”
That first location was such a success that a year later he opened a second at 2845 Breton Road SE at 28th Street, another of the region’s busiest intersections. The following year he opened a third location at 5319 Clyde Park Ave. SW in Wyoming.
“It went over so well that I thought I’d be able to open a couple Bagel Beaneries per year,” Lobdell said. “My initial hopes was for Bagel Beanery to be a regional chain, but then all of a sudden bagel shops were opening all over the place.”
To name a few, Panera Bread, Big Apple Bagels and Barry’s Bagels all flooded the West Michigan marketplace. In short time, the competition had saturated the market, and Lobdell abandoned his expansion plans.
He still had the opportunity to follow his father into the franchise business, but decided he’d found his calling.
“I like the independent restaurants, things that were started here locally,” he said. “Not just the fact that you don’t have to pay franchise fees and royalties, but you’re allowed your own creativity, a flexibility of design and menu.”
He sold his stake in the Checkers operations and began building his company through acquisition. He purchased the Beltline Bar at 16 28th St. SE, and later the two Sundance Grill locations, at 40 Pearl St. NW in downtown Grand Rapids and at 5755 28th St. SE in Cascade.
“It makes more sense to me to take an existing restaurant and try to improve and grow it then to come up with a whole new idea and start from scratch,” Lobdell explained. “I’ve found my niche in doing that. … There’s a lot of history here. These are institutions.”
Last year, he acquired another institution with the Omelet Shoppe’s three Traverse City locations. Unlike the Beltline Bar, which he sees as a one-of-a-kind operation, and the Sundance Grill, with an eclectic menu that makes mass marketing difficult, Omelet Shoppe has a simple, unique concept with no direct chain competition.
Its omelet-focused menu is self-explanatory and should be easily marketed, similar in fashion to the International House of Pancakes. Plus, like the Bagel Beanery a decade ago, he believes he is on the ground floor of another trend, with a growing portion of the nation eating out for breakfast.
He is testing the concept this fall with a new location at the Breton Village Mall.
“Here I am, 10 years later, and I think I have another concept that could become a growth vehicle,” Lobdell said. “A lot depends on what happens at Breton Village.”
Lobdell also sees potential growth from opening up his business model to others. Hence the name, Restaurant Partners. Lobdell has taken on partners in a handful of his established restaurants, including the Omelet Shoppe’s Traverse City locations and the Breton Road Bagel Beanery. The general managers at all of his stores have a small equity stake, and he is looking for other partners.
“If you can give the person operating the restaurant a vested interest in its profitable operation, you’ll provide better service,” he said.