Sam Short, Aaron Matthews, and Al Hooper seem like they've grown up together. They sound alike. They laugh simultaneously. And they complete each other's thoughts in polite conversation.
But those nearly telepathic tendencies, they'll tell you, only developed within the last few years after they met through a common quest to bring unique food and beverage options to Lansing.
Today, Short, Matthews and Hooper are fueling the momentum of a vibrant food district in Lansing through a business venture they've dubbed the Potent Potables Project. Each brings unique talents to the table—Short as a seasoned leader in the food and beverage industry, Matthews as an attorney experienced in liquor licensing, and Hooper as a re-developer of brownfield properties.
"It was a perfect storm of abilities and appetite for a project," says Hooper.
Short dives in.
"We all looked at each other and thought we're not alone in wanting to have something local and unique," he says. "We want someplace we can take friends when they come in from out of town, or just go to ourselves."
"We all thought, wait a minute, we could help make Lansing a place where people want to be," he says. "We knew it was not simply that you can a big impact on this community, it's more like you have to."
Since 2013, the restaurant development group that took it's name from a Jeopardy! category has opened four food and beverage operations in Lansing. Another is in the works, as well as plans for upcoming venues.
Zoobie's Old Town Tavern, The Cosmos, The Creole and The Creole Coffee Company are among the Potent Potables Projects instilling new life into Old Town through chef-driven menus, craft beer, boutique wine and cocktails, and customer service. The fifth—Punk Taco—will bring progressive-minded south-of-the-border selections and craft beverages to Lansing's eastern edge.
And while each operation is new to Lansing, all step into familiar footprints as Short, Matthews and Hooper carefully repurpose existing structures, reflecting Lansing's can-do history.
"It makes things a little more complicated, but it's within our wheelhouse," remarks Hooper. "There have been many uses and businesses in these locations before us. But that's Old Town."
Matthews agrees that the adaptive reuse and environmental cleanup of abandoned buildings, storefronts and mid-century or newer gas station sites strengthens their sense of purpose.
"It ties into the word authentic," he says. "We do our best to honor and keep the mission of those who came before us. That's basically our business model: progressive dining, authentic business and adaptive reuse."
Short sums it up.
"And then, we'll open the doors and bring something here that Lansing hasn't seen before," he says. "Something they may have seen in Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans or another major market, but not here."
A leisurely browse on the Web confirms the creative mix of Potent Potables Projects, with menus masterminded by executive head chef Dan Konopnicki.
- From Zoobie's Old Town Tavern: a list of 14 craft brews; five unique cocktails; 17 boutique wines by the glass; and sea-salt, peppered popcorn on request.
- From The Cosmos—a "co-joined" restaurant with Zoobie's: Wood-fired pizza with 14 out-of-this world variations, bruschetta and appetizers, served in an intergalactic space, decked out with sci-fi nostalgia.
- From The Creole: New Orleans inspired fine dining featuring shrimp, oysters, mussels, gumbo, blackened fish, and selections like duck, pork, lamb and chicken.
- From The Creole Coffee Company—a "sister" coffee house next door to The Creole: A bistro-style menu featuring gourmet coffee, as well as Cajun-infused breakfasts and lunches.
- From the upcoming Punk Taco: A taqueria and tamale joint with inspired combinations as well as selections of craft beer, wine and cocktails.
"Chef-driven, progressive dining is a key concept of all our restaurants," Short says. "None of the items on our menus are things you're not familiar with or haven't seen before. You're not going to see a word that's difficult to read, or come across a massively esoteric herb. You're going to see things that are approachable and that you've had in other places—just done in a different way."
Answers then questions
Owners of the Potent Potables Project admit that strengthening Lansing's appeal as a vibrant, livable city is the force behind creating destination restaurants and bars.
"Part of it is motivated by self-interest," Matthews admits. "When my wife and I first moved here from Indianapolis, we'd go, 'Hey, let's go out to dinner tonight,' but then go, 'Hmm, where?'"
To spark change, Matthews and his wife, Emily, volunteered for neighborhood associations where they met Hooper through his spouse Jamie Schriner-Hooper, then director of the Old Town Commercial Association. In time, the Matthews, the Hooper-Schriners, joined others who looked to renovate the defunct Old Town Temple Building. Nearly simultaneously, the two met Short who had moved to Lansing with his wife Meghan and was working with BarFly Ventures—the company behind the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and HopCat.
Initially, the three set their sights on the Temple Building, but scaled back when resources got tight. It was then that a smaller shuttered facility with a Sputnik-style neon sign captured their attention, providing the flickers of hope for their first redevelopment.
"The Temple Building became such a large project that we decided to start with Zoobie's," says Hooper. "We thought it would be a way to prove our chops and eventually be able to obtain the resources we needed for the Temple Building."
Matthews describes how the vision for Zoobie's started on a cocktail napkin over lunch. They figured out cost, he says. They diagrammed physical improvements and rehab. And they looked at how they could pool their own dollars, purchase the property outright, and invest their sweat equity in reviving the neighborhood icon.
"We thought we could make a great little place to meet after work," Matthews says.
"We all had day jobs and thought this would be a great side project," Short adds.
Hooper thought so too, but admits he had initial doubts.
"Sam had the idea that we'd open a bar that only had craft beer," he says. "And I questioned that—not having Bud or Miller Lite—but I realized from the very first day we opened what that did, how that made us unique."
Deferring their dreams for the Temple Building, Matthews, Short and Hooper got to work on Zoobie's—a neighborhood mainstay for 50 or so years. They refinished floors, built tables, upgraded lighting and fixtures, and sought critical help and support from their wives. Then in early 2013, after hiring and training the best Lansing staff they could find, they flipped the switch and opened the doors.
"The initial universal embrace of what we were doing in Zoobie's took us by surprise," Matthews says.
"We opened it as a true pub, a local bar, a watering hole," he says. "We wanted it to be a great place, a good option. And we expected people would like it, but not to say it was the best cocktail and beer place in town."
Hooper pauses, and then begins.
"I don't think we thought we were doing anything super remarkable," Hooper says. "We opened a bar, and we cared about doing the best we could. I guess it demonstrates to us that if you want to do something well and you treat people well, Lansing will respond."
The success of Zoobie's encouraged Matthews, Short and Hooper to undertake other projects through Potent Potables, and to continue envisioning a plan for the Temple Building. Today, the four operational restaurants employ 80 people, with Punk Taco expected to add another 25 to 30 full- and part-time staff. And just recently, Short became the first official employee of the Potent Potables Project, enabling the restaurant development group to broaden its reach and effectiveness.
"I keep thinking back to that day when we were just about a month in with Zoobie's," says Matthews. "I stopped in on a Saturday night—and it was elbow to elbow with people, and I realized I didn't know a single one of them except for Al who was at the end of the bar. We toasted our glasses because we knew it wasn't just our friends in here. And that, we thought, meant we really had something."
"We're really part of the third wave of Old Town," he says, acknowledging "second wave" pioneers like the late Robert Busby who inspired the rebirth of Old Town starting in the late 1970s. "And we're glad to be part of it."
Ann Kammerer is the News Editor for Capital Gains and writes occasional features.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.