Michigan-born businesses don't have to wander far from home to find more success

To outsiders, Michigan's economy is tightly bound up with the fate of the American auto industry. To be fair, it's hard not to make that assumption when national media outlets harp on the woes--and, lately, resurgence--of the state's automakers and automotive suppliers.

But resident Michiganders--from the snowy heights of the Keweenaw Peninsula to the bustle of metro Detroit--know their beloved state's economy doesn't live and die by the trilling of the shift-change whistle anymore.

Michigan is home to a lively cohort of driven entrepreneurs who don't need to know the difference between a socket wrench and a soldering iron. They're often in the business of crafting sensory experiences, whether that's in the effervescent glow of a full pint glass or the tart aroma wafting from a piping-hot pie tin. Some are in the process of building wildly successful businesses with footholds in multiple Michigan markets.

That includes these four homegrown classics, all of which are on their way (some most of the way) to becoming household names across the Great Lakes State--no small feat in a land as expansive and diverse as ours.

HopCat Sets Its Sights on Michigan-wide (and Nationwide?) Domination

From local craft beer to...local craft beer. Grand Rapids-based Barfly Ventures subsidiary HopCat isn't a brewery or brewpub, but that doesn't stop it from serving up lots and lots of beer, much of it local.

HopCat's origins are familiar to anyone who follows the restaurant industry. "Our founder, Mark Sellers...wanted to build a bar where you could hang out with a great selection of craft beer and high-quality food," says Chris Knape, Barfly Ventures' vice president of marketing and communications.

The biggest difference between Sellers and 99 percent of aspiring restaurateurs: As a former hedge fund manager, Sellers had pockets deep enough to create a pitch-perfect concept and hire talented, experienced industry hands to run it. HopCat has the same basic feel as your neighborhood Buffalo Wild Wings, only with the emphasis on great beer and burgers instead of sports and wings.

HopCat has long outgrown its original Grand Rapids location, which opened in 2008. Its East Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit outposts have even larger beer lists than the original--upwards of 100 taps in East Lansing and 130 in the recently opened Detroit location.

All three Michigan expansion locations occupy prime real estate near major university campuses (MSU, U of M, and Wayne State, respectively). But HopCat isn't a typical college-town bar. "We do like college towns because they tend to have a solid base of craft beer drinkers, but they are also underserved by places that cater to locals, faculty and grad students," as opposed to undergrads, says Knape. "We value funky neighborhoods and cool downtown settings that are walkable, bikeable and have access to transit."

HopCat also eschews the cookie-cutter franchise model of some competitors, opting for destination-level amenities. "Every HopCat is unique in terms of its design," says Knape, "so if you've been to one HopCat, you definitely haven't been to them all."

HopCat's three Michigan expansion locations are just the beginning for the ambitious brand. HopCat just christened a 130-tap spot in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis, and two more non-Michigan restaurants are on tap for the second half of 2015: Madison, Wisconsin, and Lexington, Kentucky. True to form, both are within a stone's throw of major university campuses: UW in Madison and the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

And, according to Knape, the expansion party is about to kick into another gear. "For 2016, we are working hard to open six new HopCat locations, with a continued focus on the Midwest," says Knape, adding the region's craft beer culture and growth opportunities are second to none.

Slows Bar-B-Q Targets Rapid Growth

Beer isn't the main attraction at Detroit-based Slows Bar-B-Q. Meat is--lots and lots of expertly seasoned, slow-cooked meat. The original Corktown location opened in 2005, transforming two 1880s buildings into Detroit's premier barbecue destination. Once the company's owners perfected their processes, they followed with a SlowsToGo catering outpost in Detroit's Midtown neighborhood.

But why should Detroit hog--no pun intended--all the slow-roasted glory? Keen to spread the good barbecue word to other parts of the state, Slows tapped Grand Rapids' Downtown Market for its first location outside southeast Michigan. "We've looked to expand into Grand Rapids for several years, and the Downtown Market is just the type of community-centered, neighborhood location that fits who we are," said Brian Perrone, executive chef and co-founder, in a press release issued last year. "We are completely devoted to barbecue--studying it, making it and teaching customers about the process."

Slows is currently building out the new location, which will employ at least a dozen Grand Rapids locals when open. (An active Facebook page lets hungry Slows-watchers track progress.) It's not the only new location on the map for Slows, though: In December, the restaurant announced a fourth location at Pontiac's soon-to-be-completed Strand Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Like Grand Rapids' Downtown Market, the Strand Theatre is a bona fide destination in the heart of a resurgent Michigan population center. With just over 800 seats, the theater will be an intimate performance venue that anchors an increasingly busy stretch of downtown Pontiac--and aside from the performances themselves, Slows will be its signature attraction.

"The theater will be the only venue of its kind in our area that offers barbecue-joint-style fare and experience," said Bill Lee, president and CEO of Strand parent company Encore Performing Arts Center, in a recent release. "Slows' creativity, delicious food and successful business model has shone a spotlight on the best of Detroit."

True to its name, Slows is going about its expansion a bit less quickly than HopCat. But if all goes according to plan, it will have two non-Detroit outposts open by the end of 2015. And there's no reason a well-thought-out barbecue concept can't gain traction in Lansing, Kalamazoo or the Tri-Cities--or anywhere else in Michigan, for that matter. Though the owners stress there are no firm plans beyond Grand Rapids and Pontiac, it's safe to bet that we'll see more Slows restaurants in the relatively near future--maybe in your neck of the woods.

Bell's Brewery Comes Home (Sort of) to the Upper Peninsula

Bell's Brewery can't take all the credit for Michigan's emergence as the undisputed "Great Beer State." But the state's largest homegrown craft brewery can claim more than its fair share. Now in its 30th year of operation, Bell's distributes to most states east of the Mississippi and a few pockets to the west, including the populous southern California market. In the Midwest, its Oberon wheat ale competes with Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy as the official "beer of summer." And its Eccentric Cafe taproom/brewpub is a must-see for anyone visiting (or passing through) Kalamazoo.

According to founder and owner Larry Bell, Bell's Kalamazoo facility can produce about 850,000 barrels per year--nearly double what it's currently putting out. Unlike Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada or any of the other up-and-coming craft brewers that have recently announced expansions or second locations, Bell's doesn't need to expand.

But it has--sort of. In late 2014, the company unveiled Upper Hand Brewing, a wholly owned, Escanaba-based subsidiary that brews and bottles beer for distribution exclusively in the Upper Peninsula. There's no Bell's branding on the bottles or taps, but one sip of the finished product tells you exactly where it came from. 

"We specialize in good quality, everyday drinking beers," says Bell. Indeed, Upper Peninsula Ale (U.P.A.) is basically a lower-alcohol, less-hoppy version of Two Hearted.

With so many large, lucrative beer markets in Michigan and beyond, the Upper Peninsula seems like an odd choice for Bell's first expansion. But a combination of sentimentality and old-fashioned supply-and-demand sealed the deal.

"The U.P. has a great homegrown craft beer scene," says Bell, citing local favorites like KBC, Blackrocks and Ore Dock, "but it's often overlooked by out-of-state craft brewers" who don't understand the region or think it's worthwhile to distribute there. Bell notes the U.P.'s per-capita craft beer consumption is off the charts, and local palates are surprisingly sophisticated. Despite that, the region's craft beer market is less saturated than the downstate market, pointing to a clear opportunity for a (sort of) homegrown, peninsula-wide distributor.

Like many downstaters, Bell also has a deep personal connection to the Upper Peninsula. His family has owned property there for at least a century, and he formed some of his fondest childhood memories during summer visits to their camp. Bell even named Two Hearted, his flagship ale, after a U.P. river popular with fishermen. Opening a brewery by and for U.P. locals was the best way Bell knew how to give back to his second home.

And give back he has. At opening, Upper Hand had a capacity of about 5,000 barrels per year and employed six locals. The brewery is already straining: In May, Bell's announced an expansion that would triple the brewery's capacity and facilitate distribution to the northern parts of neighboring states Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Grand Traverse Pie Company Shows What's Possible

Grand Traverse Pie Company isn't the largest or most widely known business profiled here. That honor goes to Bell's, with its three-decade pedigree and (nearly) coast-to-coast distribution network. But in terms of touching the most in-state markets, Grand Traverse Pie Company is the clear winner, a shining example of what's possible for driven Michigan entrepreneurs focused on expanding around the Mitten and/or U.P.

Why? Nearly two decades ago, Grand Traverse Pie Company opened in a single Traverse City storefront, inspired by the founders' transcendent experience with a small-town California bakery. Thanks to Traverse City's booming tourism economy, the store quickly developed a statewide reputation for its signature sweet and savory pies. It has since diversified into high-end sandwiches, salads, and American classics.

Today, the franchise has eight locations in virtually every major Michigan market. Some, like Lansing (three), Traverse City (two) and Metro Detroit (three), have multiple GTPC outposts. The company's newest Michigan location, in Portage, is a "Certified Environmentally Responsible" facility.

GTPC isn't a rip-roaring franchise in the mold of Domino's or Jet's Pizza--other Michigan food shops that have long since outgrown their home state and, at least in Domino's case, become synonymous with quick-service food. Like HopCat, it's driven by detail-oriented founders who believe getting it right is more important than growth at all costs. And it's supported by a network of trusted franchisees who truly respect the brand.

In other words, Grand Traverse Pie Company is an inspirational model for other homegrown businesses that genuinely care about making every customer's experience as memorable as can be. The best part? There are still plenty of Michiganders who don't live within walking or driving distance of a GTPC--and that means plenty of potential for aspiring franchisees.

Brian Martucci writes about business, finance, food, drink, and anything else that catches his fancy. You can find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci
 
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