Darren Drew said he expects “organized chaos” when his new restaurant opens today in the heart of downtown Vassar on the corner of Huron Avenue and Main Street.
But the former culinary arts instructor at the Genesee Career Institute – who retired a few weeks ago after a 32-year teaching career – said he’s mentally prepared for the rush inside Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Deli/Café at 100 N. Main St.
“This was a leap of faith, though I don’t want to sound cliché-ish,” said Drew, 51, who with his sister, Robin Darley, own the new eatery.
“The decision to keep teaching at the tech center or work here full-time was one that caused me many sleepless nights trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” Drew said. “I just made the decision that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to go in with both feet.”
The restaurant menu includes sandwiches, soups and desserts, though employee Tom Walstad, 58, of Vassar figures customer demand will challenge the staff today and during the opening weeks of business.
For several years, word has circulated around Vassar that a food establishment would open inside the empty building constructed in the late 1800s and characterized by its tall windows that are part of two walls.
“I think people are anxious to come and try it out in here,” Walstad said. “I see everybody drive by and everybody’s heads turn and look in here. It’s like they’re asking ‘Are they doing anything in there yet?’ It’s funny how many heads turn when they go around this corner.”
The business is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. It is the sixth new business this year in a one-block stretch of downtown Vassar. The others are Rebel Soul women’s clothing store, SweetCakes Cakery, Candyland Ice Cream & Gifts, Sambuca Café and Riverside Grill.
Drew said workers will bake cinnamon rolls for the morning crowd, and make egg sandwiches to go with coffee. The eatery features a panini press, flat press, sandwich presses, countertop convection ovens and two bakery ovens.
“The menu is kind of a cross between a bistro and a New York-style deli,” Drew said. “We have menu boards that will be up that will have the full menu on them, plus there will be items on the boards that will rotate every day – such as our soups and daily specials.
“We’ll try to do fresh farm-to-table items in addition to the base items that we have. We’ll make fresh desserts. Some restaurants will get stuck in that mentality where … they think if they run out of something, it’s a bad thing.
“It’s not a bad thing. You do what you can do, and you keep food as fresh as you can, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Some salads – such as the Michigan cherry chicken walnut salad or barbecue chicken salad – can be ordered as wraps.
The eatery offers “torpedo” cold submarine sandwiches at $7.59 each. Drew said one torpedo, dubbed “Certified G,” is “my spin on a cold Italian sub, all the way from Genoa salami to capocollo.” That sub also includes ham, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and Italian dressing.
A “Chi Town Sausage” torpedo is “my take on a Chicago-style hot dog, except we did it with Italian sausage,” said Drew, adding that he orders all of the restaurant’s corned beef from E.W. Grobbel Sons Inc. in Detroit.
Drew said his son, 12-year-old Vassar Public Schools student Kaleb Drew, is “a macaroni and cheese freak,” so the chef offers “Kaleb’s 3 Cheese Mac N Cheese” for $2.59. The item contains cavatappi pasta covered in a three-cheese sauce.
Drew’s mother, Patricia Adams of Genesee County, is from Arkansas, “so we came up with the ‘Razorback Reuben’ with the cooked pork,” Drew said. That sandwich includes sliced slow-cooked pork, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand island dressing.
Drew said the restaurant draws its name from his late grandparents, Sam and Ruby Welch, Arkansas natives who moved to Michigan and “had very strong Pentecostal roots.”
“When I stayed with my grandma, when I was younger, there was no TV but just a radio, and she had Gospel music on the radio,” Drew said.
Inside the eatery, a cluster of artworks – featuring philosophical and spiritual sayings – adorn one wall, bearing advice such as “Let Your Faith Be Bigger Than Your Fears,” and “Say Your Prayers,” and “Your Words Have Power – Use Them Wisely.”
The business offers Wi-Fi and about 36 seats, including four living-room-style chairs near a fireplace insert in a corner. Workers painted the tin ceiling in a copper color about 14 feet above the floor, and tore out artificial walls to expose original brick in places.
The tops of several coffee tables inside the eatery, along with a number of framed artworks on one wall featuring photographs and historic memorabilia, bear the artistic touch of Linda Barnum, who helped create the décor.
Through the decades, the building has housed several clothing stores, several drug stores and a fitness club. If some Vassarites questioned whether Drew and Darley would bring an eatery to that location, Drew said the siblings stayed positive.
“There was never a doubt in our minds, during this whole process, that it would work,” Drew said. “We knew going into it that it was going to take time, and we knew there was a certain feel, a certain look, certain things we wanted to do, and if it took a little longer, we’re good with that.
“As far as doubters and critics, not to sound harsh, but my attitude is ‘You can’t please everybody all the time.’”
It helped that Mark Cooper, owner of the building and of Cooper Electric, aided the vision and buffered any criticism, Drew said. Jake Darley, Robin’s son, works for Cooper Electric.
“Mark is the very first one who will say ‘Quit right now, don’t listen to it and keep your goal in mind,’” Drew said. “He said ‘You guys have a solid plan, just stick to it. When it happens, it will happen.’”
Drew said he and Darley have hired four workers for their business, and continue taking job applications. Drew is “a nice Gordon Ramsay,” said Walstad, making a reference to Ramsay, star of television shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen” and “MasterChef.”
New workers – and customers – will be visible through the building’s tall windows on “the corner” in downtown Vassar, Walstad said.
“It’s a nice view,” Walstad said. “It’s a good spot in town to sit and watch Vassar. And you can see if anyone’s hanging out in here, just by driving by.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org