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Economic Evolution in the Great Lake State
Mon December 12, 2011
reWorking Michigan: Lansing Diner Answers Demand for Local Food
reWorking Michigan visits a new restaurant on Lansing's west side that's attracting customers with locally-sourced food. It's a trend that's catching on across Michigan.
Jesse Hahn has worked as a chef in some pricey restaurants around the state, but he says it was always his dream to come back to Lansing and open his own restaurant. So, he came up with a plan to make it that happen.
"If I was going to open my own business, I needed to be somewhere where I had a network of family and friends to help support me, because I'm pretty engulfed in my work," says Hahn. "So, I moved home and actually moved into my mother's house and opened Trailer Park'd."
Trailer Park'd is a kitchen on wheels that became very popular with what Hahn calls "slow fast food" in Old Town Lansing and at the East Lansing Farmer's Market. Hahn saved as much money as possible and at the same time, built up a clientele. Then he found the right place, a small diner on West Saginaw where Saginaw and Oakland meet. It's called Fork in the Road.
Hahn gets his food from local farmers, bakers and cheese makers, like Spartan Country Meats in Webberville, Stone Circle Bakehouse in Holt, and Ten Hens Farm in Bath. The meat is free range, the produce as organic as possible.
"We just try to support everybody in the community," says Hahn. "We think that by supporting them, they help support us. They say try our beef there, try our chicken there. So, it's kind of a good business plan to have."
Kristin Dougherty moved from Traverse City to work here. She handles the dining room and chats a lot with customers about the food.
"Especially in Lansing, it's definitely a need," says Dougherty. "They don't really get it at first, but I think that most people embrace it, and they're really happy that we're here."
Justin Winslow is with the Michigan Restaurant Association. He says serving local food is the number one trend in restaurants across the country.
"You know when something's coming right from your back yard," says Winslow. "Not only are you helping your local community and economy, but you have a sense that it's fresher than something that had to be shipped from across the country or across the ocean from another country."
Because of that demand, Winslow says some restaurants are starting to put local products on the menu. He says local and organic food is often more expensive, but customers are willing to pay for it.
At Fork in the Road, not only is the food local, it's also prepared with pizazz. Co-owner Ben Ackerman is cooking during a busy lunch rush, putting his unique spin on diner food.
"This is our American Dip. It's smoked beef with a little bit of seared mushroom, and we top it with some asiago and rosemary, with a nice dipping sauce," says Ackerman.
He gets his ideas by playing around with different flavor combinations. The customers apparently like it. Mary Wickens of East Lansing was a fan of Trailer Park'd and says she was first in line when the restaurant opened last month.
"These fellows seem to take a lot of care putting it together," says Wickens. "It is locally grown, so I like the freshness of it, and they put together unusual things that you don't get when you go to a commercial place. You know you're getting good food, and you know you're supporting something that didn't get rolled in on a Sysco truck."
Wickens is having tater tots made with rosemary, garlic and asiago cheese. Jesse Hahn says he loves cooking for customers like Wickens.
"I've worked in really high-end restaurants all over the state, and I just can't connect with those people, because I'm not from that place," says Hahn. "So, I want to cook for people like me, and the people who work here and come in here. These ingredients are used in some of the best restaurants across the state, but why can't we eat well, too and have really good food?"
Hahn hasn't done any advertising yet. He communicates through Facebook with about 2,600 fans of the Trailor Park'd operation. For those who are worried about Trailer Park'd, Hahn says the food truck will be up and running again in the spring.