Fulfilling a need in the Michigan Avenue corridor
Nick Gavrilides chose Michigan Avenue as the location for The Soup Spoon Café to appeal to business people seeking a lunch option besides bar food.
Many perceived the independent Lansing restaurant located at 1419 E. Michigan Ave. as a breath of fresh air when it arrived seven years ago.
“It was filling a need that was necessary here on Michigan Avenue,” general manager Keith Buchele said.
According to Buchele, owner Gavrilides lived in Lansing his entire life except for his time in culinary school. Sensing a need, Gavrilides originally opened The Soup Spoon simply to serve breakfast and lunch – without the bar it features today – in the hopes of “providing something for the Sparrow Hospital nurses and people like that to go to,” Buchele said.
The café had to overcome several obstacles before opening. “In order to act in a commercial sense, there are a lot of ducks to get in a row, and those ducks like to meander off and some of them get shot on the way in,” Buchele said.
He said that obstacles are “the name of the game” and that “there’s a lot of bureaucracy” such as the health department code and fire marshal regulations.
One of the biggest challenges was acquiring a liquor license. “There’s only a certain amount available in any given area based on population, so that was a few years’ process to get that in place,” said Buchele.
“Nick had the tricks of the trade under his belt, and he has gathered around him a pretty veteran service team,” Buchele said.
He described The Soup Spoon’s service team as “very eclectic.” Because the hiring team looks for certain qualities and a suitable attitude in their employees, rather than assessing their backgrounds, they have a staff with a vast array of experience. This ranges from long-time service at El Azteco’s East Lansing location to work with fine-dining establishments.
Buchele said that they look for employees who are professionals looking to make a career in the restaurant industry – not just earn a few extra bucks. For example, at least one staff member is willing to commute about an hour from Grand Rapids. What is important, he said, is that they all have “different backgrounds, but the same goal.”
The Soup Spoon’s goal?
Buchele said they want to stay “contemporary” and “relevant by constantly evolving with [their] guests” as their tastes and requests change.
He cited this as one of the major benefits of being locally owned. Unlike a franchise, The Soup Spoon is at liberty to operate in a trial-and-error manner.
“You have to just go by feeling a lot more, and sometimes those feelings are wrong,” said Buchele. “This is a place where things have been right, because it’s been seven years and we have only gotten busier and busier. It’s kind of a testament to the instinct of our individuals.”
“You’re building everything from the ground up,” he said. “Everything we do we…create ourselves.”
Buchele said recently a patron asked for rice pudding – a dessert they have never made. Because he was a regular, they concocted one and featured it as a special that week.
Angela Voss, a barkeeper and catering manager, enjoys the freedom to transform to fit the customers’ desires. She said what she likes most about working at The Soup Spoon is undeniably “the people.”
She appreciates that The Soup Spoon is “always willing to give back,” donating food and gift cards to various causes in the community.
This service, combined with “word of mouth advertisement” and a reputation for being consistent, professional and “an independent place that’s not sloppy,” garnered The Soup Spoon’s success.
Spicing things up
To remain unique, The Soup Spoon hosts special events such as Firkin Fridays, wine and beer dinners and friendly competitions with other restaurants. Just recently, the café hosted an Israeli wine dinner and a “beer-pairing dinner competition” with the Wrought Iron Grill in Owosso, in which consumers blindly chose which plate they preferred, Buchele said.
Such events attract a diverse customer base. “We pull from every walk of life,” Buchele said.
They regularly serve Michigan State students and professors looking for a break from the MSU scene, families of patients who need to “get away from Sparrow cafeteria,” local neighborhood citizens, company conference groups and even international visitors who barely speak English.
Relationships and memories
One loyal customer is just steps down the road. Madeline Blair, co-owner of Fabiano’s Candies, said that they have a “friendly, friendly relationship” as business neighbors. She said that Fabiano’s Candies certainly benefits from The Soup Spoon’s business, as many patrons stop in afterwards for dessert.
Blair can’t choose just one favorite menu item from her frequent visits to The Soup Spoon. She said she likes “everything. Their food is excellent. I’ve never had a meal I disliked.”
Buchele said that memorable interactions with customers include a woman going into labor during a lunch break from Sparrow and a 6-year-old tapping a firkin. The most memorable, however, is that he “got to witness the birth of a family.” The Soup Spoon hosted the couple’s first date and many meals as they progressed through engagement and marriage.
“Just recently, they got to bring their daughter in for her first time to a restaurant,” Buchele said.
Fostering these relationships gives The Soup Spoon “an aspect of Lansing…that you don’t get going to a more major restaurant,” Buchele said. “We have local flavor for sure – we’re a part of Michigan Avenue in every way, shape and form.”
— Colleen Otte