Entrepreneurship is in full swing in the capital city. It seems like a new business opens somewhere in Greater Lansing every week lately. Restaurants. Comedy clubs. Electronics stores. Specialty clothes shops. And the newest breed of watering hole: distilleries — so popular that they got their own category this year.

Although Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale isn’t a brick-andmortar tasting room (yet?), you can find their suds on tap at the Allen Market Place every Wednesday and Friday.

The name’s a little misleading, however, since Sleepwalker is focused on beer for now. But there’s plenty of hooch to go around in Lansing lately. Red Cedar Spirits in East Lansing has actually been distilling for two years, but it was only last April that the tasting room was completed. And last month, American Fifth became the first distillery to open within Lansing city limits. Its signature item, Hue Vodka, can be found behind local bars and on some shelves. Coming soon: white whiskey (aka moonshine) and gin.

Sam Aburashed opened Zaytoon Mediterranean Grill at the end of 2013, but it’s already secured a place at the top of the list for many Middle Eastern cuisine fans. In only its second year of eligibility, it came in number two … just ahead of Sultan’s, which is owned by Abrushed’s uncle, Bassam Mahmoud. (Hopefully it doesn’t make the next family function too awkward.)

“I feel proud to be recognized,” Abrushed said. “It’s great to be able to watch it grow and succeed. Since we opened, it’s just taken off. Our first year numbers were double what I originally projected.”

Abrushed said it’s way too soon for him to start thinking of expanding, but he hasn’t ruled it out.

“I would rather be bursting at the seams than be big and look empty,” he said. “But eventually I’d like to create something new: A higher-end Middle Eastern restaurant. I think diners would really respond to that. And I have some very good chefs I’d like to challenge.”

Fact: Starbucks will put stores on opposite sides of the same street because of a quirk of human psychology that makes us creatures of hopeless habit. And of all things, people are particularly fanatic about their coffee selections. Which is what makes it so wonderfully … strange … that the brand spanking new café, Strange Matter Coffee Co., beat out all other java joints in town to take the top prize.

“When I found out I was in the Top Five, that’s all I could talk about,” says owner/“chief coffee engineer” Cara Nader. “I am so honored that people voted for me. It’s the coolest thing ever.”

Each drink is brewed to order, which takes a few minutes. There are no free refills, and the coffee beans are sourced from specialty farms, making for a slightly pricier cup. So it ain’t fast, cheap or plentiful. How did this win Best Coffee Shop again?

“I think Lansing was really ready for quality coffee,” Nader said. “People here really seem to be into coffee, but it didn’t exist like this yet.”

A café is only as good as its baristas, and Nader is quick to share the spotlight with her employees.

“They work hard every day and are so dedicated to quality,” Nader said. “They’re in here on their day off, they volunteer to work (special events) when they know they’re not getting paid. It just shows how much they care, and I really appreciate that.”

She also gives a huge shout-out to her passionate customer base, who propelled her to the head of the class. And in answer to repeated requests to open another store:

“People have been asking me that since the first day, and all I can say is, ‘possibly,’” she says. “But right now I’m just trying to meet the growing demand of our customers. I could see that in the future. Also, I’d like to have donuts.”

Pizza is another one of those food items that engenders loyalty, but this year the wood-fired pizzas at newcomer Cosmos put it ahead of many fan favorites.

“It reinforces what we thought when we were opening,” says co-owner Sam Short, who opened the sci-fi-themed pizzeria. “It’s one thing to think of something you and your friends think of as a good idea, and it’s so rewarding when it takes off the way you hope it would.”

Short also gives a tip of the hat to his staff (“The place doesn’t run without them”) and promises big things ahead for the fledgling Potent Potables restaurant group, which includes Cosmos, Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern and the upcoming Creole.

For years, specialty clothing stores have been going the way of the mall, and even then the mall has been going the way of the Internet. Curvaceous Lingerie bucked that trend last year when it opened in Old Town adjacent to Grace Boutique. And this year it finished in the top three just after a national chain and … Grace Boutique.

“It’s pretty darn incredible,” says Curvaceous owner/operator Lauren Long. “It’s heartwarming that people feel strong enough to vote for us. Our mission is to empower people to feel better with themselves. Hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.”

Guess we’ll find out in next year’s Top of the Town awards.


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