The Dream Team * Paul Jr, Paul and Pete Barrera Bring 60 Years of Combined Experience to Jake\'s Old City Grill

Posted In: Culture, Restaurants,   From Issue 628   By: Robert E Martin

21st December, 2006     0

Since it first opened a few short months ago, Jake's Old City Grill has proven to be a success story that works on many levels. Located at 100 S. Hamilton at Court Street in Old Saginaw City, Jake's has quickly developed a reputation not only for fine dining, but also as a magnet that draws movers & shakers from all walks of life, be they financial kingpins or poets & artists, into its renovated embrace.

Jake's is the manifestation of a dream, but it is not a fairytale story that happened overnight.  Born from the commitment and vision of Paul Barrera, it serves as a blueprint that goes beyond providing fine food, drinks, and atmosphere and reaches into the realm of community restoration and the rebirth of one of the tri-cities most unique and varied entertainment districts, as it is easily one of the most sizable renovation investments witnessed within the city limits in years.

The standard it has set is not surprising, considering that the Barrera family has invested in the City of Saginaw continuously for over 60 years. Paul's father Pete Barrera started a nightclub on North Washington in 1947 known as The Cabana Lounge  - the famous jazz club where legendary jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt got his start.

In 1973, Pete purchased the Fortress (now the Panda House restaurant), which is when Paul left his position as a wholesale men's apparel representative in Detroit to join his Dad in the new endeavor. Two years later Paul opened the Fortress North in Bay City, which became the first nightclub north of Detroit called 'Disco'. "I was visiting Chicago and saw this new musical concept where you danced to records and a DJ," laughs Paul, as reminisces about the 'road to Jake's.'

When 1977 rolled around, Paul wrote a comprehensive business plan for a restaurant in an old bank on Hamilton Street, which never got off the ground for him, but one year later was used closely for the opening of The West Bank Restaurant. Then in 1980, when interest rates were over 20%, The Fortress North closed its doors, a casualty along with virtually all the other 20 nightclubs that once populated the Tri-Cities during the late '70s.

After taking a hiatus from the restaurant, club, and entertainment business for the next 15 years, when he developed a cabinet shop and home design center, Paul found a vacant old fire station at Bay & court and designed it into what is now Nine's - The Firehouse Pub, joining his father Pete in business once again.

But as the new millennium rolled around in the year 2000, so did the birth of the new baby known as Jake's. "After five years, I was looking to do another place," explains Paul. "There was a gaping hole in the marketplace. Treasure Island, Roy's Steak House, and Holly's Landing had all closed and what was left were chain restaurants in the township where you were programmed to be out of your seat in 47.5 minutes or less."

"There was no locally-owned restaurant to go for a business lunch or a special dinner in the entire City of Saginaw and very few outside," he reflects.

When the 140-year old structure formerly known as The Carter Shop came up for sale, Paul narrowed (or expanded) his sites, depending upon one's perspective. "Although the building looked poor, it was solid," he notes. "Once I was in the 3rd floor ballroom where you could view an awesome cityscape for miles afar, I was hooked. This is the place where I knew my future was going to be."

Real estate experts always talk about 'location, location, location', so why did Paul decide to commit such a huge financial stake in the Old Town area as opposed to other areas in the tri-cities?

"I've always liked unique concepts, but more than anything, I guess I'm just a 'city boy'. I prefer a vibrant urban district, which is the only place you typically find museums, galleries, performing arts, and the kinds of clubs, pubs, restaurants, and loft housing I like was only found in the city."

"Old Town presents a unique opportunity," he continues. "The amenities are awesome - beautiful historic architecture, close proximity to governmental and retail properties, central to the financial, legal and medical communities, and a riverfront that is waiting and begging to be utilized."

Initially Paul intended to call his new venture 'The Old City Grill', but while doing research at the library, he soon discovered it was nearly impossible to read any publication about historic Saginaw without continuous references to Jacob Seligman. Seligman was four feet-eleven inches tall and 110 pounds. He traded on his size and marketed himself and his stores as "Little Jake.'

"He truly was the consummate entrepreneur of the lumbering heydays in Saginaw," relates Paul. "Apart from being a pioneer of the department store concept, he started a bank, a livery, owned a show and furniture store, and founded the first electric trolley system in Saginaw. He was a marketing genius. After reading a hardcover book of his exploits, I felt his persona depicted the era and energy I wanted for my restaurant, and I appropriated his image and re-named the restaurant 'Jake's Old City Grill.'

Infected by Jake Seligman's ambition, Paul purchased two additional adjacent properties and envisioned developing two restaurants and a separate banquet facility all topped with mixed-use office space and loft condominiums. However, reality set in shortly after when his father was diagnosed with cancer, followed by the September 11th tragedy and the aftermath of business slumps caused by a fragile economy.

"Banks are typically not fond of restaurants even in good times," reflects Paul, "and potential private investors saw my concept as too great a risk. Perception became reality and reality became fact and nobody wanted to touch the project."

"I started down-sizing and did whatever demolition, abatement and preparation that I was able to with limited resources, and heard lots of comments like 'Are you F'n Nuts?' The delays created even more conversation as to whether I ever would, or could, open a restaurant at this location. Timing is everything and in early 2005, bank financing was finalized to start construction."

With financing secured, Paul convinced his oldest son, Paul, Jr. to join the venture as a partner, which completed what he refers to as his 'Dream Team'. "I had the rare pleasure and honor of working with my father and my son," he notes. "Three generations spanning 60 years of continuous business in the City of Saginaw!"

"During the construction process, I made a concerted effort to do business with independently owned and small businesses wherever I could. Over 75 percent of our contract vendors, construction workers and equipment suppliers fell into this category, which means that well over $500,000 spent on this project stayed in the City of Saginaw."

"One of the great challenges of working with a 140 year old building is not discovering surprises, but the limitations imposed by the existing structure, adds Paul. "We found there was no such thing as a level, plumb, square, or parallel wall or smooth floor in the entire structure, so we had to compensate for compound issues at every point while still maintaining workflow and integrity to the concept. It became a design-by-the-day project, subject to what looked and felt right."

"The exterior paint scheme was intended to show off the landmark structure with subtle, classic colors and mahogany woodwork, the first clue of its future as a fine dining facility. The interior was designed to be casual - upscale elegant, but not stuffy. I wanted to utilize all the assets of the building to give the sense this was a restaurant in Saginaw like you would typically see in Chicago or Toronto. I envisioned future customers being just as comfortable walking in wearing jeans as they would in a formal dress or tuxedo."

To add further consternation into the mix, Hurricane Katrina hit, so construction costs for everything went up 50 to 60 percent. "Suddenly this became a million dollar project," states Paul. "Ultimately we were $250,000 over budget and well over six months behind in construction."

The delays encountered gave Paul time to think about what he really wanted to be as dining establishment, and he says, the opportunity to "do it right the first time."

"I had been referred to David Steffan, who was at that time executive chef at Germania Country Club. I explained my vision to him and after several meetings he joined our team. That was over a year before we ultimately opened, but I felt he had the qualities and disposition I was looking for, and so we utilized his abilities at Nines until Jake's was ready to launch. He soon contacted several other key individuals and assembled a qualified and enthusiastic opening staff."

The essence of any successful restaurant is based upon good and service, so how did Paul approach the evolution of his menu items?

"We wanted a dinner menu to present classic steakhouse fare such as chops, prime rib and filet mignon, but also include contemporary offerings of seafood, chicken and pasta. We were pleasantly surprised by the substantial quality of seafood we sold and increased our menu to reflect that by constantly trying different species of fresh fish each week in addition to the basics we did so well."

"In fact, we ultimately chose to change several items on our menu weekly to give customers a constantly evolving selection to try. This minimizes the high potential of the kitchen staff or consumer getting tired of SSDD: Same S�t, different day."

"The luncheon menu needed to appeal to the substantial business community that we are surrounded by, but also required the ability to 'get it out' in the short window of time allowed for that venue. Mainly, I had to consider that we did a substantial lunch business at Nines and didn't want to damage that franchise by replicating its offerings. Considering that Nine's menu has about 50 selections, it was challenging to assemble the attractive, tasty and competitive menu we have."

Through persistence, commitment, and hard work, it is obvious that Paul's vision for Jake's goes well beyond simply offering a successful landmark restaurant in Old Town Saginaw.  And he is obviously proud of what he has accomplished.

"Jake's not employs nearly 50 people and I am very proud of this group of individuals. ON a typical Friday or Saturday evening we have 25 working at one time. We have a beautiful building with wonderful food and a great staff, but I really felt we had succeeded when on a Friday evening our customer profile was all over the map. One table had 12 Red Hat Society ladies and another had two African-American couples. The next people obviously came from the Country Club set and adjacent to them a couple of people in jeans and sweaters. The last table was full of a half-dozen early 20 year olds with multiple piercings, massive tattoos and one with a red Mohawk haircut. All happy!"

In discussing all these areas - from food to restoration - it all comes down to one's regard within the community. What niche is Paul striving to serve with Jake's that sums up his vision for it in terms of placement within the community?

"Every day someone tells me that Jake's is just what the city needed," reflects Paul. "I believe that we need even more destination restaurants and shops. A lot more. We have seen people who haven't been on Hamilton Street in 25 years now coming back into 'Downtown Saginaw' from their suburban enclaves, from Bay City and Midland. It's a wonderful thing. Build it and they will come," he laughs.

"Jakes Old City Grill is a dream that came true. But its really a microcosm of what I believe will happen in Old Saginaw City. My long-term goal is to be part of that and develop loft condos in the rest of the property. Once more housing and commercial projects start, ancillary support businesses will start to flesh out the area and soon we'll have a thriving, living, breathing 24-hour urban neighborhood where people live, work and play, further spurring the rebirth, ultimately, of the city as a whole."

"As I reflect back on the decisions made in this venture, there is little I would change. In the big picture, this whole project is the result of family, friends and my fianc�'. Some loaned me money and some offered their assistance in getting through red tape. Most valuably, though, many just offered the daily enthusiasm and moral support I needed to get through the six-year journey to Jake's."

"It never would have happened without them. "


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