MASTERMINDS: Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell

When childhood friends Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell decided to go into real estate development together, they thought putting an agreement on paper would be the responsible thing to do.

So they had their lawyers draft a standard operating agreement – nothing fancy, nothing contested – but a legal document. Lobdell sent a copy of the agreement to his father, an entrepreneur and investor, asking him for some fatherly feedback.

Lobdell's father answered with a note reminding them that an agreement is only as good as the people who sign it. He predicted Carlson and Lobdell would succeed on the strength of their friendship and mutual respect.

"A few simple words will be more important than all the documents and legal advice you can obtain," he wrote. "Fairness, flexibility, and always sharing credit for success and failures. The fact that your commitment to your friendship, loyalty, and fairness takes priority over money will lead you to solve any unexpected development."

The letter from Dad is posted on
2Mission Design and Development's website on a page title "Words of wisdom." The operating agreement? Well, it must be around their Ann Arbor office somewhere... Maybe they'll find it if they ever move.

Carlson and Lobdell, meanwhile, are busy building an empire of distinctive Michigan restaurants, transforming underutilized (and often historic) buildings into venues where the food is hot (and often made from local ingredients) and the beer is cold (and most likely brewed on-site).
Cafe Habana and the Blue Tractor Brewery and BBQ are the latest Ann Arbor additions to their portfolio.

"A great project for us is in a place where either there's a vitality and energy, or we've found something that's underutilized," Lobdell said. " For some reason we like the extraordinarily challenging projects that the big national developers won't do because they're too small or too complicated, or both."

Their story starts back in 1974, when Lobdell moved to Old Mission, a tiny town at the end of the 22-mile long peninsula that splits northern Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. They met as kindergarten classmates at Old Mission Elementary and have been best friends ever since.

Both migrated south to attend the University of Michigan. Lobdell studied architecture, went on to work for an architecture firm in San Francisco, and then earned a masters degree in real estate development at Columbia University.

Carlson studied sociology, and after graduation started developing real estate – including the property that now houses
Grizzly Peak Brewing Company and Cafe Zola in Ann Arbor as well as Bastone, Café Habana, Vinotecca and Commune in Royal Oak.

But the melding of their respective skills has made Carlson and Lobdell much more productive as a team. Lobdell is the designer, the one who sees the details and minds the little things that give each restaurant a unique, authentic personality.

"Even when we were in fourth grade, Greg would come out of art class with things that were art," Carlson says. "The rest of us would come out with the things we gave our parents.

Carlson is the big-picture optimist, at his best when he's forging partnerships and assembling the people who can make it all work.

"Jon was always the most generous kid – he was always a good sharer. And I see this with Jon and (his wife) Fran and the way they raise their kids, too. I know he's always going to look out for my best interest as much as his own, if not more so."

Yeah, they disagree sometimes, but the sense of ease between them is the kind that grows out of a long, genuine, appreciative and well-worn relationship.

After launching 2Mission in 2004, they restored and developed the old office supply store on Ann Arbor's Main St. into a mixed-use project with residential and office space above
Vinology Wine Bar and Restaurant. They developed and own Cafe Habana and the Blue Tractor Brewery and BBQ, plus half a dozen restaurants, breweries and pubs in northern Michigan. In the past three years their restaurants have gone from doing $9 million in business to topping $25 million.

Carlson and Lobdell run the company out of a 300-square-foot office above Grizzly Peak, and they know enough to recognize their own weaknesses and partner with people who excel in those areas.

They contract a Grand Rapids firm, Mission Management Services, to run all their restaurants, letting specialists handle the restaurant finances, training, administration and food. They've developed relationships with contractors, kitchen designers, bar designers, artists.

"To be a control freak makes no sense." Carlson says.

The Blue Tractor Brewery and BBQ opened Nov.10 at 207 E. Washington St. in what used to be a Buddhist temple. They say its their best – and without question their most personal - project to date. The restaurant's earthy, agrarian details and its commitment to serving locally grown products are a tribute to their families' mid-Michigan farming roots. The walls are clad in reclaimed barn wood, the bar top is concrete and has an ice rail along the top so you can set your beer down on a strip of ice when you're not drinking it. Slightly rusty fixtures cast light low in the room.

"We wanted to create an environment of rustic comfort," Lobdell said. "It feels like it's been here a while."

With the Tractor running, Carlson and Lobdell are looking for the right location for their next project, a microbrewery, distillery and winery. (If nothing else, they'll have a lot of fun doing the research.) They'd like to build it in Michigan, but are looking at Indiana and Ohio, too, having figured out that both are closer than Northern Michigan.

Though sleepy corners are getting harder and harder to come by in Ann Arbor, neither Lobdell nor Carlson think the city has hit critical mass for restaurants. People come a long way to Ann Arbor for the restaurants, Lobdell points out, and they expect the food, drink, atmosphere and value to be exceptional. Having a lot of choices just raises the bar.

"It makes us better," Carlson said. "If we're not performing, we'd better get on it."

Amy Whitesall  is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Concentrate article was Mastermind: Richard Murphy.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski


Greg Lobdell and Jon Carlson at The NEWLY Opened Blue Tractor in Ann Arbor

Interior of the Blue Tractor Ann Arbor

Interior of Cafe Habana in Ann Arbor

Kilkennys in Traverse City

Jon and Greg "Hard at Work" in the Basement of Habana/Blue Tractor-Ann Arbor

Microbrewed Beer at the Blue Tractor-Ann Arbor

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He has eaten at the Blue Tractor in Ann Arbor and loves it.  And as he is writing this, he is eating at the Blue Tractor in Traverse City.  Seriously.  He is. No joke.  For real.

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