A consuming passion

Restaurateur Matt Prentice has his hands in so many pies that he would seem unable to keep track of them all. "Seem" is the operative word. He does know what is going on at Coach Insignia, Morels, Shiraz, Flying Fish, Milk and Honey, Plaza Deli, two Deli Uniques, Northern Lakes Seafood Company, Etouffée, Thunder Bay Brewing Company, the No. VI Chophouse, a bakery that provides for his operations, and his catering operations. Walking to a table at Shiraz in Bingham Farms where we could chat, Matt began describing his week.

Matt Prentice: ... and, among other things, I'm loading a truck for a three-day party in Pennsylvania that has to leave here on Friday morning with a crew of 25. I have two major parties on Friday night — for 300 and 200 respectively — plus the Morel Feast [a special restaurant dinner], which is sold out Friday and Saturday, and I have three separate weddings and bar mitzvahs coming out of that one kitchen, and Sunday I have two giant weddings coming out of it as well. My two top banquet chefs have had one day off in the last 25. That's not good when you're already out of gas. But we are in an all-or-nothing economy, so we are lean right now.

Metro Times: You are everywhere. I've seen you a few times at Plaza Deli making sandwiches at lunchtime and once at two different catered parties at different locations on the same night, serving at food stations. You've taught at Schoolcraft College. Are you cloned?

Prentice: It's all I know. I cook because I like to cook. I do not like to push paper. At lunchtime the Plaza Deli is the busiest restaurant I own. For 10 hours at week, we're really busy, and whenever I can, I go there to help out. It gets me out of my office. To unwind, some people run, some people do yoga, some people drink too much. I go to the deli and put my head down and work.

MT: Why do cities like Chicago have so many more restaurant selections than we do?

Prentice: Chicago is a true city. You never hear people in Chicago say that they are going to catch a plane to go to Detroit to shop. Chicago has a huge downtown that attracts people who are there to shop or to engage in all sorts of commerce. There are people in town for trade shows and conventions and conferences every week of the year. Chicago restaurants are busier on weeknights than on weekends. Our busiest time is the week of the Auto Show. You can only have so many great restaurants that can survive on Saturday night. My family recently celebrated my mother's birthday on a Tuesday night at a restaurant that had recently won a restaurant of the year award, a pretty big deal. We were one of only two tables being served the entire night. Detroit is the hardest major city to operate a successful high-end restaurant because there just is not enough demand.

MT: How is the Michigan economy affecting business?

Prentice: There are zones that are more cosmopolitan that are doing quite well. Ann Arbor has the college, which provides money for the area, which is not so much affected by the auto industry. You have downtown Birmingham which is very affluent, but their retail has suffered. Birmingham is now trying to make more liquor licenses available which could make it even more of a restaurant destination town, which would help everyone. Restaurateurs cannot afford to spend $600,000 on a license, so they are starting to allow megaplexes, which is something that I actually started in Michigan at Somerset, that is, operating more than one restaurant on one license. There is a restaurant and a bar on separate levels in the Palladium, and Cameron Mitchell's has a seafood operation and a steakhouse side by side. Royal Oak and Troy are also doing well. That said, there are plenty of places that are hanging on for dear life. When you drive down Northwestern and see Chili's and the Macaroni Grill shuttered, it tells you that the market is oversaturated. There needs to be some shakeout.

MT: The Orchard Lake Road corridor is notorious for turnover. What has your experience been there?

Prentice: Deli Unique has been there for nearly 20 years, which speaks to its success. We also opened a tavern that failed. We were in the midst of a mega-expansion. Nothing was working. I blew it. We had a limited corporate staff that couldn't support it. But Orchard Lake is tough. Expectations are high. The guests want great food and service, priced fairly. The solution is to make sure that they leave happy. Guests who tell us how we messed up enable us to correct our errors. Guests who leave unhappy will never return. Never fight with an angry customer. Fight fire with fire and you will end up with ashes.

MT: Many of us dislike chain — cookie-cutter — food. How do you avoid that perception?

Prentice: I have managing partners who are food people, not just passive investors. So-called cookie-cutter food is definitely the easiest way to get rich. Come up with a concept, rubber stamp it over and over. There are some great ones like Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang's. I have to do what I like to do. I like new challenges. When I hit, it's a lot of fun.

Jeff Broder writes this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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