EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR: If Not Them, Then Who? Uniting to craft the ultimate experience
Sometimes, things just fall into place and they do so for a reason. On occasion the universe aligns the stars just perfectly to create magic — and that’s been exactly the case at hand for the owners of The Potent Potables Project, recipients of the 2017 Greater Lansing Entrepreneurial Award’s Emerging Entrepreneur.
Forming in 2013, owners Aaron Matthews, Alan Hooper and Samuel Short have crafted an alliance that’s changing the food and beverage landscape of the Capital region. Birthed on an agreement that everything from beer, wine, food and atmosphere have the potential to culminate into the definitive dining experience, the trio has crafted some of the hottest spots in Lansing: Zoobie’s Tavern, The Creole and The Cosmos. For partners Matthews and Hooper, these endeavors were never intentional, but sometimes destiny rears its head towards you.
“Sure, everyone says it would be cool to own a bar — but beyond that, no. I never had any ideas of getting involved with this industry. Alan [Hooper] was the same way; we both worked in fast food and kitchens as kids but nothing gourmet,” explained Matthews. “Sam is the real expert on food and beverage. With that being said, we all work together and bring different perspectives to the table. I’ve always enjoyed the industry as a customer, and when I travel I’m always bringing back new ideas, but we never had a plan – sometimes that’s the best way things work out.”
Just over three years later the trio is stronger than ever and the idea of stopping now likely seems unfathomable. With two new locations set to open in the coming year, The Dolson in Charlotte and Punk Taco, the group is leading the way of the emerging restaurant scene in Lansing. They’ve got a finger on the pulse and are working diligently to change an aging food and beverage landscape that’s been dormant and stale over the past few decades.
“Trends you’re seeing in other local markets will be coming to Lansing faster. Lansing won’t be on the tail end of those trends as they were in the past,” explained Short. “Restaurants are coming back to their urban core. In the 90s there were these chains pushing out to suburbia and malls, but local dining experiences are changing that dynamic.”
Embracing the densely urban metropolis that is modern day Lansing has been a key component of the group’s undertakings thus far. With each having ties to the area, it seems a no brainer to invest in the people around them. While becoming business owners wasn’t always on the docket, the three realized that a call must be answered and that opportunity existed in the region.
“When you start to see density in an urban core you can’t get that same energy in areas where people are only willing to travel so far. [Density] gives us a better chance for success,” explained Hooper. “There is this dynamic with urban cores because people work, eat and play there. It’s not as easy to just pull up and park, but when you go out of your way to be there you get more choices. It’s going against what you experience when you travel down the road — where you pull off the highway and see the same handful of options. You start to get an appreciation for what’s in a neighborhood and that local flavor — things you can’t get at home”
With the each of its brands being firmly focused on providing a well-rounded selection of both food and beverages, it’s no wonder that each of these brainchildren maintains its uniqueness. Surely, with such bold brands and concepts, inspiration and the ability to keep each distinctive must be no easy feat. Each of the brands that fall under the Potent Potables umbrella is its own experience and the attention to detail in each is a driving factor that helps to define them as local staples. The group brings the unexpected to the table by digging deep into each location’s history.
“It can be difficult — Zoobies, our first opening, was convenience and circumstances. We already owned the building and we went in not knowing what to do,” recalled Matthews. “We thought, ‘how can we reopen it and make it new?’ The building had been a bar forever, since prohibition as a speakeasy, so there was a lot of history there. We started peeling back tile and carpets, etc. — and found cool hardwood floor, several layers of wallpaper and more. So, we eventually said ‘hey, let’s keep as much of this history as possible and that’s kind of been an ethos which continues to play into what we’ve done since. It’s part of Old Town to pay homage to what’s happened before while still taking it to the next level.”
While a lot of things seemed to just fall into place, it isn’t to say that the success of the group was solely luck. Even with good fortune, hurdles do exist. Doing your homework is an essential part of ensuring that your passions and dreams are also viable business solutions. You never know what it’s going to take exactly, but rolling with the punches and having a strong team on your side makes the load a little lighter.
“We all knew the pitfalls and that it’d be capital intensive. Opening restaurants the right way and building a good reputation as people that work well with others is hard – we did it by our boot straps,” mentioned Short. “Realistically when we first opened Zoobies – we gave it our blood, sweat, tears and money. You don’t realize how much it’s going to take of you and it’s going to take everything. I know that when things get tough, Alan, Aaron and I will link together and push through it. I can’t think of a more important aspect than that.”
As the three partners continue to expand outward, their impact on the immediate area is still being felt. For many, seeing The Potent Potables Project take the podium came as no surprise – but to them, it’s an unexpected affirmation and symbol of their hard work.
“It was very surprising to be perfectly honest in a wonderful way,” said Short. “We like to think we do some great things internally – we have a great time from an ownership standpoint. Us three work great as a team because we trust each other, because we have mastery over each given discipline and are constantly learning from one another. Everyone involved has the company’s best interest in mind. That idea and ethos trickles down to the operations team. We keep a pretty good eye on what’s happening in the business and reflect that ‘team oriented, not blame oriented’ attitude. We’re all racing to the same finish line.”
As the group continues to hurl its brands toward the finish line, it’s obvious that in the years to come there will be many races to be had for these rising stars. When asked what advice they’d give to the next generation of entrepreneurs, they responded with smiles:
“I don’t think I’d encourage anyone to be an entrepreneur. It’s a disease,” laughed Hooper. “Of course we want to make money but to me, being an entrepreneur means seeing things that are lacking. We have a lot of people that we love here in Lansing and want to spend time with them, but there didn’t seem to be a great place to do that. From our end, we saw something that was missing and thought; if not us, then who?”