Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Tameez Osman hasn’t eaten a hamburger in more than 20 years, but he and his staff of 12 serve them up every day at Speed’s restaurant in Battle Creek's Urbandale.
Osman, an Indian by birth and a Muslim, says he bought the Speed’s location in Urbandale and another one in Lakeview in 2000 after noticing how successful the family-owned eateries were.
Patrons of Speed’s and other Urbandale mainstays such as Ritzee Hamburgers and Speedy Chick aren’t looking for kale salads or vegetarian wraps when they walk through the doors. What brings them in are hamburgers, french fries, milkshakes, and fried chicken that are made from scratch and served with a side of personality by waitstaff who know them by name.
These are among the ingredients in their recipes for success that has kept them in business for a collective total of more than 100 years between the three restaurants.
“People call it a greasy spoon and I’m OK with that,” Osman says of Speed’s. “That’s what it is.”
While fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have added healthier options to their menus to attract a new customer base, the food options at Speed’s, Ritzee and Speedy Chick have remained unchanged. This consistency continues to build a loyal following that today includes the children and grandchildren of some of the first customers.
“For generations, people have been going to these places. It may have started out with grandpa going there for a burger or a shake and when the kids or grandkids come home for Thanksgiving. He may take them there,” says John Hart, Small Business Development Director for the City of Battle Creek. “That’s how it becomes part of the fabric of the community.”
Hart says it helps that the owners of these establishments are remaining true to the original concept. “It’s comfort food, not healthy food,” he says. “What you order is exactly what you get. The milkshakes, the fries, and the pancakes are done as you expect them to be done.”
Lunch is served at Speed's in Urbandale.
Together these restaurants are adding to the overall economic health of the neighborhood, Hart says.
“These businesses are stabilizers,” he says. “A neighborhood has to be stable in order for other businesses to stick around. If you want to attract other businesses to that area you can’t have a neighborhood that’s falling down or a business district that’s failing.”
The longevity of the restaurants has proven that other enterprises may come and go, but anchor businesses remain as long as they continue to remain true to their core mission and give people what they want – not what they think people want.
Osman says he had no intention of making wholesale changes when he purchased the two restaurants. The interior looks pretty much the same as it did 18 years ago when he walked in as the new owner. The original stools remain at a counter-style soda fountain that provides a clear view of cooks flipping burgers, frying eggs, and assembling sandwiches and some customers have their own mugs that are kept there and used by them when they come in.
The improvements he’s made to the 70-year-old, 2,000-square-foot building have been a day-to-day challenge and done largely behind-the-scenes to keep the restaurant functioning properly.
“It may not look all spiffy and all that, but we wanted to maintain the style,” Osman says.
Despite this intention to maintain the status quo, there were challenges and a healthy amount of skepticism from customers and neighborhood residents about the new ownership.
“It was difficult to break into Urbandale because the customer-base was predominantly blue-collar workers and they looked at you as an outsider, but I made myself blend in,” Osman says. “I was new in the area and I was very apprehensive about how I would be accepted. But, we are all people and I think if you have an open mind people will accept you.”
People from outside of Battle Creek don’t realize that the city is home to growing ethnic populations including Indians, Burmese, Latino, and Japanese, most of whom followed family members who relocated to the city or came for job opportunities at Fort Custer Industrial Park.
“To the outside world people may not think of Battle Creek as a melting pot, but when you have minority-owned establishments like this, it really points to the fact that we are a melting pot and immigrants are an important part of our workforce, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, Calhoun County’s economic development arm.
“I was looking for opportunities and thought this had a good name because of the fact that it was family-owned before and it had a good following of customers and I knew it was a Battle Creek landmark,” Osman says of the restaurants started by Richard "Speed" Eddinger.
The foundation for Osman’s career as a restaurateur began in 1973 when he traveled from his native India to Kalamazoo where he enrolled at Western Michigan University. He majored in Small Business with a Marketing minor and took a job at a local Burger King working the counter while taking classes. Within six months, he was promoted to assistant manager and later general manager.
There was a twist of irony to that first job because he was a vegetarian by choice and had never developed a taste for meat. But he admits to preparing the occasional well-done burger for himself while working at Burger King.
He went on to work for Howard Johnson’s and soon thereafter a new concept restaurant they started called the Ground Round where he was a district manager. He also opened a more upscale restaurant in Parchment called Osman’s which could seat 300 people who dined on food at a higher price point. The venture failed and he made up his mind to focus on working with establishments where people could come and be taken care of.
The demise of the Ground Round chain and subsequently the Parchment restaurant re-directed his career path to business ventures in Urbandale and Lakeview.
The Lakeview location closed eight years ago when Osman’s wife, who had been managing it, was diagnosed with cancer.
Hart says he thinks Osman was readily accepted because being an individual new to the Urbandale community he didn’t change a business model that was working. He said the ownership of a business matters when it changes hands and if it is run much like the original owners envisioned it, the acceptance rate will be greater.
The sight of Speed's that is welcome to its many regular customers.
“We cater to the same people and when they come in, they know we’re going to take care of them,” Osman says. “If I put a $20 dinner plate and $15 dollar lunch plates on the menu, I couldn’t bring people in. If I jack up the prices and create a more sophisticated area, I don’t think I could draw people from this area.”
“Stability comes with loyalty,” Sobieralski says. In Battle Creek, we’re specifically a working-class community, but we’re also loyal to our roots.”
While it may seem unique to have this number of locally-owned restaurants concentrated in one area of the city, Hart says businesses like these are an important part of the identity of any community.
“Every district has an identity and the most successful are attached to neighborhoods that also have identities and people who are willing to invest in their own,” he says.
The money Osman makes goes back into the community through his employees.
“If you go to other Indian-owned businesses, you’ll see their own families working there,” Osman says. “You don’t see that here. I provide jobs for people in the area and I’ve got some employees who have been working here for 25 years.”
This loyalty is unusual in a time when the emphasis is on the bottom line and so many independently owned businesses are going out of business because of competition from national brands and businesses.
“I think it is an anomaly, but it speaks to the uniqueness as well,” Sobieralski says. “Businesses that are unique have a loyal following because they provide something that sets them apart.”
Besides the stability and comfort level created by neighborhood businesses in Urbandale, Sobieralski says there is a social aspect. Even the name brings to mind a little town of its own.
“These are gathering spots and places for people to connect within the neighborhood. It provides some foot traffic and visible traffic like that is better than having a neighborhood with nothing there,” Sobieralski says.
Osman says he wants to continue to contribute to what makes Urbandale, Urbandale and has no plans to change his own secret sauce.
“To sum this place up a little better, this kind of reminds me of that place where everyone knows everyone, and everybody knows everyone’s business, and you hear about all of the drama going on in their lives,” he says. “This is really Cheers without the booze.”
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Battle Creek” series amplifies the voices of Battle Creek residents. In coming months, Second Wave journalists will be in Battle Creek neighborhoods to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Jane Simons, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.