Jeff Samson is going native with his new restaurant in downtown Battle Creek.
Native to Michigan, that is. Menu selections at the new Malia restaurant will change with the season and with what's being grown by local farmers, says Samson, head chef and owner of the restaurant at 34 W. Michigan Ave.
Malia is scheduled for a late-September to early-October opening in the space that previously housed BiCi Bistro.
Samson's found sources to supply him with tomatoes, basil and micro-greens, so he doesn't have to go without fresh produce when the snow flies.
"Micro-greens are small young shoots of different plants like radishes, peas and soybeans which are loaded with enzymes and minerals," Samson says. "They're grown either in the soil or hydroponically."
Fresh fish, grains, and pastas will be among the mainstays on the menu. So will locally grown vegetables and produce, cheeses and meats.
"We are going to serve healthy foods with flavors people like," Samson says. "My roots are Italian, but we're also going to incorporate Mediterranean cuisine."
Local foodies will remember Samson for a restaurant he opened in Marshall in 1993 also called Malia. Both eateries are named for his daughter, who begins her sophomore year at Western Michigan University this fall. That restaurant, which specialized in Italian cuisine using fresh, local ingredients closed in 2003 after a successful 10-year run.
Downtown leaders see Samson's choice of cuisine and location as a recipe for success in a central business district on the cusp of a major turnaround.
Karl Dehn, president and chief executive officer of the local economic development organization Battle Creek Unlimited, says anyone familiar with the transformation of the downtown would see how ideally Samson's venture fits in.
"His timing was perfect to come into the downtown," Dehn says. "We're very excited that Jeff's moving forward with his new restaurant plan. His concept was one we envisioned when we set forth with the downtown vision."
Samson says he has a "gut feeling" that the time is right to open a restaurant unlike any other in the Battle Creek area.
"You hear from people in Battle Creek complaining about not having dining options and how they'll go to restaurants in Kalamazoo, Jackson, Ann Arbor and Chicago," Samson says. "They come back here (to Battle Creek) wishing they had a restaurant which offered those things you find in larger cities."
Anmar Atchu, vice president of marketing and leasing for the Kalamazoo-based developers the Hinman Company which also has major holdings in downtown Battle Creek, says Samson's restaurant adds another dimension to the food choices downtown.
"I think there can be successful restaurants downtown," Atchu says. "Especially ones that provide more than the same old, same old."
Much like the smaller neighborhood restaurants and bistros found in places like New York or Chicago, Malia's will be designed with a contemporary European feel to it which will be casual and comfortable, Samson says.
Samson also plans an open kitchen in keeping with his desire to be more intimately involved with the creative process of cooking.
"I think people want to see who's making their food," Samson says. "They want a place where they can ask questions and interact with who's doing the cooking."
He says expanding the local choices in dining options all makes sense given Battle Creek's historical ties to the food industry.
The continued growth of the Kellogg Company and the establishment of the International Food Protection and Training Institute are behind Samson's optimism for the future of the downtown area.
"The landscape of the downtown is going to change in the next 60 to 90 days," says Atchu. "They're talking about doing some things with the streetscape and there are going to be 600 plus jobs coming into the downtown area."
Samson says he hopes these improvements and additional jobs will benefit not only his restaurant, but also encourage others to open up restaurants in the city's urban core to create multiple dining experience destinations.
"More food establishments would be a plus," Samson says.
Dehn says Samson's restaurant will support eateries already downtown such as Arcadia Brewing Co. and Griffin's Pub.
"I know Battle Creek is really pushing to have people living downtown and I see a lot of people walking around downtown during the lunch hour," Samson says. "We have already had discussions about a second location to offer just lunches."
Getting the new restaurant up and running, however, is Samson's primary focus for now. He says he's already ordered dishware and chairs and done some demolition work.
He plans to hire about 10 people and will also be receiving some help from second-year students enrolled in a culinary arts program through the Calhoun County Vocational Technical Center.
Steve Deal, former head chef at the Battle Creek Country Club, is the new director of that program. He will be using a training kitchen to be installed on the second floor of the building housing Malia's to teach students. They also will get hands-on experience working with Samson.
Those who have followed Samson's culinary career are well aware of his passion for food and his willingness to share it with others. He says he's always looked for new opportunities to use the knowledge he has gained since opening the first Malia restaurant.
Samson closed the original Malia because of an intriguing offer from the Feldpausch family to open Zucca's, an in-store restaurant that specialized in prepared meals, in addition to a wide variety of imported cheeses, meats and freshly-baked breads.
Zucca's was located in the former Felpausch store just off of Beckley Road.
When the Feldpausch family sold their stores to Spartan in 2008, Samson took over as head chef at a restaurant in St. Joseph.
When the former BiCi Bistro space became available, Samson says he knew what he had to do. And though he knows opening a new restaurant won't be a cakewalk, he says, the payoff will be worth the effort.
"I love the food business and the foundation of food and where it comes from," Samson says. "I'm very confident given the business atmosphere and what the future holds." Jane Parikh is a freelance writer living and working in Battle Creek. She is the owner of In So Many Words.
Photos by Erik Holladay
Malia Mediterranean Bistro will be opening soon in Downtown Battle
The restaurant will be in the space where the BiCi
Bistro was located.