The city of Williamston has become known for its diverse dining scene in the downtown area.
This is quite the development for the city as mayor Tammy Gilroy explained.
“Growing up here, I think we had about seven places that you could get pizza, but we didn’t really have any fine dining establishments,” Gilroy said.
There are many reasons why downtown Williamston has become a hot spot for restaurants. First and foremost, the city has folks willing to take a chance–both from the entrepreneurial standpoint and customers who are willing to try new restaurants.
“The fact that we have people that are willing to take a chance and set up a restaurant,” Gilroy said. “That is a tough business.”
With the entrepreneurial spirit fully brewing in Williamston, the downtown has seen a boom in restaurants opening and thriving. In the downtown alone, there is the River House Inn, Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro, the Williamston Pub & Grill, the Red Cedar Grill, Tavern 109 and more. Not bad for a town of less than 4,000 people.
The Williamston Theatre believes it does it’s fair share in drawing traffic to these restaurants. The theater is located in downtown Williamston and brings in over 10,000 people per year. According to a study the theater conducted, 93 percent of those people paired their show with a meal of some sort.
“If you have something that is unique and draws people from a wide geographic area, then it’s sort of a no-brainer that the restaurant development follows,” said Emily Sutton-Smith, the development director and co-founder of the Williamston Theatre.
Alyssa Harasim, the senior director of development and communications for the Michigan Restaurant Association said the correlation between the restaurants and theater definitely makes sense.
“You normally find thriving restaurants in downtown areas, especially with popular theaters,” Harasim said. “The more people in the area, the more likely they will be dining there.”
Former chairman of the board for the Michigan Restaurant Association and the original owner of the Red Cedar Grill, Craig Heath said looking at the population in the areas around Williamston is equally as crucial to determining why the restaurants in Williamston are successful.
“I don’t think you can draw a line around the population of the city,” Heath said. “Just because the lines around a town equate to 4,000, that’s not really the market for the restaurants in that town.”
Sutton-Smith said a large majority of those who visit their theater come from out of town.
“Eighty percent of our patrons do not have Williamston addresses,” Sutton-Smith said. “Half of them come from the Greater Lansing area and half of them come are from outside of the Lansing area.”
The information Sutton-Smith referred to was acquired through standard sales tracking done by the theater.
Heath said when he started the Red Cedar Grill in 1996 the restaurant scene in Williamston was basically non-existent.
“The Red Cedar Grill was the first restaurant of its kind in Williamston,” Heath said. “There really wasn’t anything else there.”
“We owned the town for about 8-10 years,” Heath said. “It wasn’t until the mid-2000s the other restaurants started joining.”
Sutton-Smith said she has seen the development of the dining scene take place right before her eyes.
“We started in 2006 and there was one restaurant in the town and that was the Red Cedar Grill,” Sutton-Smith said. “Now there are four within walking distance and also down the street within driving distance is the Old Nation Brewery, and part of the reason they chose Williamston is because they know that we bring in people not only from Williamston but from the Greater Lansing area and also Washtenaw County and Livingston County.”
John Lepard, a co-founder of the Williamston Theatre, described the Williamston visiting experience as very patron-friendly.
“Part of it is because of the proximity,” Lepard said. “They are all within a block of the theater. The Red Cedar Grill, Tavern 109 and Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro is right across the street. So it makes it really nice for us because there are all of these walkable restaurants all around us. They can just park once, go there for dinner, come to our place, go out and have a drink afterwards and drive home so it just makes it a little more convenient, a little more traffic friendly.”
Liz Bell, a server at the Red Cedar Grill on and off for 13 years, said they can definitely feel it when the Williamston Theatre has a show
“The Williamston Theatre is huge,” Bell said. “That actually brings us a ton of business. We get a lot of before and after play people.”
Bell said the people in Williamston create a great environment to work in as a server
“I think this is a really nice community of people,” Bell said. “It’s definitely expanding, there are lots of subdivisions around here that were never here when I first started working here so I definitely think that it’s growing. But also we’re just a quick shot down from Grand River from the East Lansing area.”
Emily Gray, the manager of Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro in Williamston, said the slower-paced environment in Williamston allows people to relax, catch up with friends and space out their meals.
“Williamston is a wonderful place to work,” Gray said. “The town is filled with so many caring, smiling faces.”
Bell said the restaurants draw crowds from all over, including directly from Michigan State’s campus.
“Our biggest weekend of the year, always has been, is the spring graduation,” Bell said. “The campus itself is actually one of the biggest dictators for us.”
“The average age of our clientele is definitely over 50, but even when students from MSU go on spring break we definitely feel it here,” Bell said.
Bell described the relationship between the businesses downtown as a friendly competition.
“It’s fun to act like there is a rivalry,” Bell said. “But we’re all industry workers and we respect that everyone is trying to make their money, run a good business and get people good food at the end of the day.”
“There have been times where somebody has a birthday and we don’t have candles and they’ve been told there will be candles,” Bell said. “So I will literally sprint across the street to Tavern 109 and they will say no problem and help us out.”
An important ingredient in the recipe for success for these restaurants is drawing folks from outside of the Williamston community. In a town of less than 4,000, drawing in this business is essential.
“The clientele in Williamston is very diverse,” Gray said. “You get people from the town, a lot of people from the surrounding areas of Okemos, Lansing, Haslett, Webberville, and you also get people who are passing through on their way to Detroit or Grand Rapids.”
Gray said people are attracted to the vibe of downtown Williamston.
“Williamston is a quaint little town with a very historic feel,” Gray said. “People will travel to Williamston for all of the unique shops and attractions. It makes sense to have a diverse restaurant culture to accommodate these people.”
Erin Wenk is an MSU student who is also from the city of Williamston. Wenk said there are stark contrasts between the restaurants around MSU and the ones in Williamston, but the primary difference is the atmosphere.
“The ones by MSU are all about quick service,” Wenk said. “Students don’t always have time to sit down for an hour and a half when they have a meal. Restaurants in Williamston encourage that relax and enjoy food culture. They want you to focus on the best wine or beer to go with your meal. The two food scenes run at different paces.”
Wenk said the food scene has had an effect on the entire Williamston culture.
“These restaurants have drawn attention from those in the surrounding area,” Wenk said. “People will grab a bite to eat at Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro before seeing a show at the Williamston Theatre or enjoy a local beer at Old Nation Brewery before the football games. The food scene has improved our local culture and people are starting to notice.”