Kalamazoo connections create Principle Food & Drink

A team with lots of Kalamazoo connections is betting the success of Salt of the Earth can be repeated by following their principles. That's the theory behind Principle Food & Beverage. 
They’ve been plotting it for years, eyes on Kalamazoo.

"The day after Salt of the Earth opened, I was thinking about where we would go next, what happens next," Matthew Pietsch says. "It’s how my brain works."

When Salt of the Earth, a rustic eatery and bakery at 114 East Main Street of small town Fennville opened in 2009, Pietsch was the new executive chef. It happened this way. Walking down Main Street, he slipped his resume into the mail slot of what appeared to be the door of an empty building. But one can dream, and dream he did.

On the other side of the mail slot, a building owner looked over the resume. Pietsch had impressive culinary experience. A graduate of the Grand Rapids Community College culinary arts program, he apprenticed with the U.S. National Pastry Team in 2004 and later worked as an executive pastry chef. In Dearborn, he ran the Opus One kitchen and managed their corporate food service for Ford Advertising. He worked alongside Michael Symon, the well-known chef from the television shows The Chew and Iron Chef, at Symon’s upscale steakhouse, Roast, in Detroit.

Pietsch soon became one of the owners of Salt of the Earth. The eatery quickly gained attention, drawing in hungry guests from all over West Michigan and beyond.

Always fresh, minimally handled but expertly prepared, the Salt menu drew in guests with an appreciation for a quality dining experience. Ingredients are, whenever possible, locally sourced and sustainably produced, if not indeed just harvested from the garden outside the back door of the restaurant.

It wasn’t so much that the owners chose Kalamazoo for a second eatery, Pietsch says. "Kalamazoo chose us. We all have close connections to Kalamazoo, and we were really excited when this space opened up."

The owners, now a group including, along with Pietsch, Robert Nicol, Mark Schrock, and Casey Longton, welcomed new shareholders Nancy and Doug Knobloch, former owners of Garden Gate Cafe, a sandwich and cupcake shop that had occupied 230 South Kalamazoo Mall since 2012. The Knoblochs closed the Garden Gate Cafe in January. Their son is Casey Langton, general manager at Salt of the Earth and one of the owners.

"It’s exciting to come back to my roots," Longton says. He stops for a moment in what is an almost finished kitchen at the new space. The sign on the doors of 230 South Kalamazoo Mall now reads: Principle Food & Drink. Coming soon.

The long, narrow room smells of freshly cut wood, varnish, paint. Where there was a glass case of cupcakes now stands a handsome wooden bar with embossed tin plates, mirrors in back. Along the opposite wall, a wooden bench lines the entire wall with tables lined up against it. A community table seats 12. Table tops are rough-cut, shipped from a sawmill in northern Michigan. From under the plaster, brick walls have been exposed, and toward the front, a partially faded sign has reappeared that dates from many decades ago: "Cream … Flavoring …"

"We’ve all been swinging hammers here," Pietsch says. "Ninety percent of the work we did ourselves. Mark Schrock has been our designer, Bob Allison our builder. Food and history," he muses. "It was fortuitous to find that sign, to celebrate this space."

Principal Food & Drink won’t be another Salt of the Earth, Pietsch says. And he is even handing over the kitchen to another, Jeff Bailey, Chef de Cuisine.

"We do have different cooking styles," Pietsch says about Bailey, who has been working alongside him at Salt for two years as executive sous chef. "I’ll create the initial menu, but Jeff will have control, he’ll take it from there. He’s very talented."

Pietsch will come down to Principle Food & Drink two days a week, he says, but Bailey will be there five days, overseeing production and staff, ordering food. Bailey is a Vicksburg native, an alumnus of the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College in Livonia.

"I’ve been in the kitchen from an early age," Bailey says. "Mom was always giving me tasks, snapping beans, and Dad loved grilling. My grandmother was a baker, and the other grandmother was a gardener, so you could say my whole growing up was around food."

Bailey talks of stints cooking in Detroit, in Chicago, applying to cooking school in Paris, but he’d always had a goal of returning to Kalamazoo. With his wife whom he met in culinary school, and three children, he’s happy to settle in Vicksburg, a short drive away from his new workplace.

"We’re going to be working with local farmers as much as possible," he says. "Working with local purveyors is part of our core values. The same reason our guests and staff love Salt, that’s the same good relationship we will build here. It will be a seamless transition."

This will be the place to get high-quality food that’s value-oriented, no entree over $20, Bailey says. And, in an area known for microbreweries, the bar at Principle Food & Drink will specialize in craft cocktails. That means the cocktails will be handmade, from house-made syrups and small batches of bitters, with the same artisan approach that these chefs bring to their food.

"Our beverage manager, Matt Campbell, loves to delve into local history, and he found an old cocktail recipe book that used the measurement called 'principle,'" Bailey says.

"But the name Principle keyed into our values," says Pietsch. "We went through some 200 names, then took a step back and asked, what do we have in common? Local sourcing, seasonality, genuine hospitality, good ingredients--it’s the Principle."

Sticking with their principles and having fun. That’s what Pietsch and the team of owners wants to bring to Principle Food & Drink.

"We’re driving toward medium plates rather than small plates," he says. "Not the traditional coursing system; we will not have daily soups, but we do want people to be able to try two or three different dishes. And we’ll be exploring classic American desserts--but with a twist. We’ll celebrate the food everyone knows, then add the unexpected. Our greatest dishes are usually driven by emotion. We call it cooking in the moment. Surprise is fun."

Principle Food & Drink, with a capacity for 80, will open this August for dinner service only. Visit Principle Food & Drink on Facebook for updates.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.

Photos by Susan Andress.

The forthcoming restaurant recently got a mention in the Washington Post: here