Daydream believer

Despite the odds, George Lyles maintains his inner-city eatery with fresh food and homespun recipes

George Lyles inside his Turkey Grill restaurant. - PHOTO: DETROITBLOGGER JOHN
Photo: Detroitblogger John
George Lyles inside his Turkey Grill restaurant.

A man walks into the Turkey Grill on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on a cold afternoon. He's old, with gray whiskers and a black cap. It's obvious most of his time is spent on the street.

He quickly finds his first target.

"Can you help me out with something to eat?" he says to a bundled older woman waiting in line for her carry-out order.

"What?" she replies, incredulously. She's clearly not used to a panhandler with the nerve to come inside a restaurant to beg. "No," the woman says.

So the man sits down in one of the empty booths, a mere few feet from her, and starts mumbling to himself. They're the mutterings of a disturbed man, the private language spoken by street people all over the city.

Food takes time to cook here because everything is prepared fresh, and now everyone in line has to stand there awkwardly as the man continues talking under his breath and staring at them.

Another customer comes in, this time a middle-aged man, and waits his turn. The panhandler asks him the same question and gets the same answer. "Think it over," the mumbler presses. But no free meal is coming from anyone here today, and he finally leaves.

This moment of freedom for these customers is fleeting. Another vagrant comes in, much younger this time, and announces to the room, "I'm trying to buy something to eat. I'm walking around trying to survive." But in this neighborhood, most people are trying to survive. He gets no sympathy and sulks out the door.

Panhandlers beg for money outside the doors of many Detroit places. It's the nature of life in a city where a whole lot of poor people live. For whatever reason, though, some of them like to work their hustle right in the Turkey Grill's lobby, much to the owner's quiet dismay.

"They're basically harmless," says George Lyles, the mild-mannered 58-year-old founder of the restaurant. "They don't really bother anybody, but it's just more or less the principle of when you're trying to enjoy yourself, go out grab a meal or grab a snack and then you got someone running around begging you for money, it's kind of annoying. We just kind of gently tell them to leave."

Owning a business in Detroit brings challenges that aren't as common outside the city limits. Burglaries. Erratic city services. A customer base without much money to spend. And those days when someone from the street winds up inside your door, chipping away at your livelihood. Lyles has had 15 years of such challenges here. Yet he's stayed. All because of a belief he won't let go of.

Few things
are as risky or scary as quitting a solid career to chase a dream. Lyles was a successful accountant when he first got the idea of opening his own restaurant. He and his friends would complain they couldn't find worthy lunch options near their office downtown, and would daydream aloud what they'd do if they had their own restaurant, how it would be decorated, what kind of food they'd serve.

But Lyles never let go of the idea. He eventually worked up the courage to quit his career, found an available building in the city's North End neighborhood, and opened the Turkey Grill in 1996. "It took a lot of guts and a lot of money," he says. "But here we are."

The real thrill of having your own restaurant is serving whatever you like and hoping others like it too. Lyles reached back into his childhood in the Deep South for the country foods he grew up with and gambled they'd sell in inner-city Detroit.

He went to South Carolina to get a recipe for fried turkey wings. In New Orleans he learned how to make turkey neck stew, with a whole turkey neck immersed in its thick rice and vegetable mix. He brought back a beans-and-rice recipe from Beale Street in Memphis, found a way to make turkey salad in south Mississippi, and in Texas he discovered how to smoke an already-fried turkey. "I said, 'How you gonna fry a turkey and it's smoked too?' But I got their recipe so I'm able to do it now."

You can get turkey meat into almost any dish, it turns out. So the Turkey Grill offers a Mexican turkey pita roll, a turkey pastrami sandwich, turkey sausage and turkey bacon for breakfast, turkey chili, turkey soup, turkey burgers and turkey meatloaf.

The dining area is small, decorated with drawings and paintings from New Orleans and Memphis. The seating is hard plastic cafeteria booths. Bulletproof glass separates the public from the smoky kitchen at the back.

Lyles toiled to get established his first year here. His sister worked the kitchen, he worked the books. Days were 14 hours long.

�"You're everything," he says. "You're the bookkeeper, you're the janitor, you're the inventory person, and it's much more of a responsibility than working for someone else."

He promoted the Turkey Grill through glossy flyers, through menus left around town, through funny TV commercials on WYMD-20 featuring a cartoon turkey interacting with a toddler. It took time, but soon a following developed for his unique menu.

"I wasn't making any money but I was kind of determined to do it," he says, standing in the kitchen next to an old blackened stove. "Maybe one day it might be slow, the next day we'd have a heavy sales volume, and that kind of encouraged me."

There are lines
at the counter just about all day, every day. The meals are cheap and country cooking has always been popular in the city. And every year, Thanksgiving brings orders for 600 whole fried turkeys.

But Lyles knows that a few miles away there are restaurants whose customers have more money than his do, places that don't need bulletproof glass at the counter or don't have the homeless hounding their patrons.

"I do find challenges in that we have a lot of people as you know that kind of walk the street around here, people that they let out of the mental institutions during the day, or the health care homes, and they're walking the street. And sometimes it becomes annoying to my customers."

There are several shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries nearby, but evidently the food at the Turkey Grill is so tasty that beggars can indeed be choosers. So they come here and take a chance on getting someone to buy them their preferred meal.

Burglars seem to favor it too. The security camera once caught a man breaking in, but then taking his time to sit on the counter and enjoy a piece of homemade cake before tearing up the register and leaving out the back door.

Good food speaks for itself, apparently.

The freedom being in Detroit offers comes with a price, and the wildcard atmosphere here that allows someone to successfully sell something as unusual as turkey neck stew can also bring panhandlers in the dining room, or a cake-eating burglar, or make bulletproof glass regretfully necessary. And when you're trying to draw new customers to your place, those little things can be disheartening obstacles.

"In a way, I can understand when a suburbanite comes in and they're not used to the rough edges and a few other things," he says. "They see the glass and I think the inner-city people are sometimes a little rough around the edges. But it's not really as bad as a lot of people seem to think it is."

After 15 years, he's learned to deal with the bad things the same way anyone who stays in the city deals with the bad things — holding to the belief that it won't always be this way. Detroit, he's convinced, will someday, somehow get better. Because for every panhandler he patiently endures, there are still dozens of regular folks lining up for all things turkey. And so he stays, waiting for the change he's convinced will come.

"I do like this location. I think it's on the rebound, and that's because of a lot of things I see going on around me here," he says. "That's just my feeling. It's on its way back."

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