Battle Creek

Battle Creek restaurant scene keeps up with trends diners prefer: Local and sustainable

 Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Alberto Guerrero’s search for fresh, healthy lunch alternatives led him to open a restaurant five years ago that now has three locations and a loyal following of customers who have embraced the concept behind his Mango Healthy Fruit and Food.

Guerrero is among a number of local restaurateurs in the Battle Creek area who have opened up eateries in the last 10 years that are changing the dining landscape to reflect the community’s growing diversity. Experts say the growth of these small, independently owned restaurants is due to a younger population who craves authenticity and businesses that share their values.

And Michael McFarlen, vice president of Food and Beverage for FireKeepers Casino in Emmet Township, says there “seems to be a very strong community presence in Battle Creek that is very supportive of small business and diverse cuisine, more than most communities I’ve lived in."

Schwe Mandalay, a Burmese restaurant; Umami Ramen, which specializes in Asian noodle dishes; Rafaynee, a soul food restaurant; and TortiTaco, which specializes in Mexican fare, are examples of the city’s diverse, ethnic populations. They co-exist alongside other independently-owned restaurants such as Clara’s on the River and Kitchen Proper.

“There’s a forward momentum with these independents and they all carry strong support in the community," McFarlen says. "Schwe Mandalay, TortiTaco and Umami Ramen, all three have a very fierce following which is a testament to our community and the support given to food entrepreneurs.”

Having a great number of diverse restaurants in the Battle Creek area is a good thing, McFarlen says, because it creates a critical mass that will bring in people from communities such as Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and Lansing. He says the goal is to have people come in and try not just one restaurant, but come back and try all of the others.

“The more attractions and restaurants we can add is better for all retailers,” McFarlen says, while also acknowledging that it’s hard to be the first at anything.

“Some days are lean and some days you’re just inundated. But, the more we have to offer in terms of diversity, the better in the long run it is for all of the operators of these businesses.”

Maria Alcantar, Alberto Guerrero, and Erika Hurtado of Mango Healthy Fruit and Food.Those who are Millennials or Generation X, Y, or Z are really the drivers of the emergence of restaurants like Guerrero’s Mango Healthy Fruit and Food -- those that are locally owned and offer food produced and sourced with a focus on sustainability and good stewardship of the environment, says Ken Fischang, a Hospitality Industry expert and interim director of Business Development, Business Development Strategist Association Forum headquartered in Chicago.

“Members of these generations don’t want to cook, they want to eat out and they want authenticity,” says Fischang, who lives in Delton. “We’re seeing the same thing happening in the hotel industry. Gen X, Y, and Zers don’t want to stay in chain hotels, they want something unique.”

While many hotel chains are adapting to these changing tastes, Fischang says restaurant chains are trying to offer more locally sourced food to satisfy the appetites of an evolving customer base. But, he says locally owned restaurants are more nimble and adept at developing relationships with local growers and showcasing that food on their menus with more immediacy.

“Chains are run from a corporate office and it doesn’t represent the people of a specific region,” Fischang says. “Smaller, independent restaurants are able to be at the pulse of the local foodie market. That whole foodie thing has been a huge trend that has kicked in in the last decade, even more so now because of the focus on being environmentally correct, sourcing local food, and getting that fresh menu.”

The foodie movement has transformed the “from farm stand to independent restaurant table” surge, Fischang says.

“There are those of us in other generations that really appreciate the quality and flavor of food sourced locally. Some chains try, but you don’t get that same authenticity and flavor,” he says. “It won’t necessarily cost less to eat at a restaurant that sources locally, but the flavor and knowing you’re buying a product that is environmentally friendly and reduces global warming, is meaningful for people now. That trend is going to continue.”

And this trend is one of the things eating into the profits of the bigger chain restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory, Outback, Carrabba’s, and Applebee’s. All of them have seen declining profits and the planned closure of some of their locations throughout the United States, according to The Cheat Sheet, an online publication which focuses on issues impacting a number of different sectors including the food and drink industry.

“With declining sales and customers opting for delivery, many restaurants are hitting the skids,” the article says. “When customers do sit down to a meal, many prefer local spots. Some chains, like Red Lobster, are winning the fight, while the following American restaurants are on the brink of collapse…”

In addition to the restaurants already mentioned, others on the Cheat Sheet’s watchlist include: Red Robin, IHOP, and Noodles & Company.

The collapse of so many chain restaurants comes as no surprise to Battle Creek's Guerrero who says that lots of his customers are young people who recognize the importance of a healthy diet to their long-term health. This is particularly true of his female customers between the ages of 15 and 20, he says.

Among his top-selling products are the taco salad, super burrito, Mango Tango beverage, and the cheese quesadilla. Every entree and drink is prepared on-site from scratch with fresh ingredients.

Originally from Mexico City, Guerrero says, “That’s the way we eat. We know what we need to eat. We need fruits, greens, seeds, and protein so that’s why everything I do here uses fruits, greens, seeds, and protein.”

While his satellite location inside the Battle Creek YMCA offers a more limited menu, Mango locations on Riverside Drive and at the corner of Helmer Road and Columbia Avenue offer a full menu and seating.

The ingredients for each menu item are based on Guerrero’s own eating experiences. “Even now, I don’t cook but my wife does,” he says. “What we do is something simple, but everything is in it. With the taco salad, you could have beans, rice, ground turkey, and lettuce. We don’t fry anything. Everything is made fresh.”

Oftentimes, independents aren’t always the most inexpensive because they don’t purchase by volume, Fischang says, but they offer authenticity that chain restaurants never will.

“One of the trends I’ve seen is moving to alternative foods beyond meat and towards meat substitutes,” he says. “Burger King is coming out with a Whopper that is not meat-based because they recognized that there is this need.

“People understand how much water and energy it takes to raise a cow. If you care about the environment, you’re going to go with a non-meat product.”

Burger King rolls out its meatless burger, known as the Impossible Burger, next week at locations throughout the United States. The online publication, TechSpot, which reports on trends in various industries, says, “Plant-based burgers may not sound all that appealing for meat lovers but it’s one of those things that is tough to knock until you try. If nothing else, the Impossible Whopper may be a bit healthier than the traditional version as it has roughly 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol.”

Burger King isn’t the only fast-food chain to experiment with plant-based alternatives. Early this year, Carl’s Jr. partnered with Beyond Meat to bring its animal-free creation to more than 1,000 locations across the country. Impossible Burgers can also be found at select Red Robin, White Castle, Hopdoddy and Fatburger locations.

Mango Healthy Fruit and Food store front at the YMCA.Guerrero says he thinks this non-meat burger trend is being driven by a greater awareness about the number of diseases out there and how making better food choices can prevent them from happening. He says it saddens him when he sees little children whose parents don’t give them a choice about where they could eat.

“The parents bring them to McDonald’s and the child doesn’t say, 'No, dad, I don’t want this because it’s bad’ so when they grow up and are teenagers, it’s really hard to change those habits,” Guerrero says. “I think people are finally starting to be more conscious about the way they want to live. Children and younger people are the ones who are being a big influence because their parents a lot of times don’t know, so they’re opening their parent’s eyes.”

Many of these parents were raised as part of the “microwave generation” and weren’t exposed to fresh foods, says Jeremy Andrews, chief excitement officer for Sprout and a pioneer in the area’s local food movement that is connecting people to local food and advocates and raising awareness about its importance to the community.

As part of that microwave generation as a child, Andrews says it was not until he got older that he realized that there was a world of amazing food he hadn’t been exposed to earlier. 

“We have some amazing immigrant populations in Battle Creek that make amazing food,” he says.

“I think that we live in the kind of place where the opportunity is right,” Andrews says. “Maybe for some of these chains that make rents high and create gentrification, it isn’t appealing to them yet. This allows a level playing field for small businesses.”

These businesses, especially the restaurants, symbolize the culturally diverse makeup of Battle Creek that those outside of the city may not see, says Linda Freybler, chief executive officer of the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau.

“The broad spectrum of restaurants here locally provide some really unique choices,” she says. “Tourists are looking for ways to live or visit like a local, so having these unique offerings that are not in other communities gives them a reason to stop here as opposed to somewhere else.”

Fischang, who has eaten in thousands of restaurants throughout his career, which began in the food and beverage industry, says the secret sauce for any good restaurant includes consistently good food and service, and a menu that appeals to diners.

“It’s service and quality of food and offering something that might be a little different from what you’d normally find in chain restaurants,” he says. “It’s value, taste, and environment too. Many local restaurants don’t have much of an environment, but it’s that service, product, value, and taste, and that investment in the local community.

Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.