“I’d been running bars and restaurants in East Lansing for a decade, and I was looking to get out of the college scene,” says Sauer, 35. “Then I stumbled upon the Avenue and met with Colleen (Kelley). It all came together pretty quickly.”
That would be Kelley’s offbeat bar/performance venue, the Avenue Café on Lansing’s east side. Kelley transformed the building, a former sporting goods store, into the funky coffeehouse Gone Wired Café eight years ago. In 2012 she added a liquor license and renamed it. She had always served food, but a recent change left her without a kitchen manager. Her novel solution turned out to be Sauer’s gateway into going into launching his own business: Kelley turned the Avenue’s kitchen into an incubator.
“I thought it would be good way to get some fresh blood in here,” Kelley said. “And doing it as an incubator allows us both a lot of flexibility. I’m excited about what Rick’s doing.”
Nomad Kitchen launched three weeks ago. For at least the next six months, Sauer will rent the space from Kelley and have total control over the menu, including buying his own ingredients and hiring his own staff. He’s keeping it simple for now, limiting his menu to burgers and fries. But come on, folks, this is the bohemian Eastside — you wouldn’t really expect something timid, would you?
“I’m keeping things very experimental,” Sauer said. “I came up with a bacon jam that I use on one of the burgers. I’ve got a vegan kimchee. Bourbon-pickled jalapenos. You can get a burger anywhere, but I’m coming up with stuff to really make these stand out. Basically, I’m gunning for the best burger in town.”
Sauer buys his meat freshly ground from Mert’s Meat in Okemos, but he also includes a vegetarian options for all his burgers using a vegan patty he makes with tofu, tempeh and beets. His brioche buns come from Eastern Market in Detroit, and the cheese curds come from the MSU Dairy. The fries are prepared Belgian-style: hand cut, a quick par fry to partially cook them, then a full deep fry just before serving.
Nomad is only open in the evenings now, but Sauer said he’d like to expand to lunch hours eventually. He also plans to add flatbreads and pizzas by end of year, as well as his homemade chili when the cold weather rolls in. Also coming soon: poutine, a Quebecois dish consisting of fries covered in cheese curds and gravy. (Those Canadians know how to beat the winter blues).
“Rick’s take on (food) is very refreshing,” Kelley said. “He’s a great addition to the Eastside, and I’d be so happy if he was a success and eventually started his own restaurant. I’d hate to lose him, but that’s how incubators work. And if this works out, I’d definitely be open to trying it with someone else.”
Being an incubator is just one way an existing kitchen can enable an aspiring restaurateur to gain exposure. Another method gaining traction in big cities is the concept of the pop-up restaurant, which is typically a one-night dining adventure aimed at foodies. And there’s one on the horizon in Metro Lansing, coming from a member of the community who’s not typically associated with food: Dominic Cochran. Lansingites may know Cochran as the director of the Lansing Public Media Center and co-founder of both the Capital City Film Festival and Ahptic Film & Digital. But starting next month, he’ll introduce local taste buds to authentic Japanese ramen cuisine with Supu Sugoi, a pop-up restaurant series. Yeah, you read that right: ramen.
“This is 180 degrees away from dorm room ramen,” Cochran said. “It’s incredibly popular in other parts of the country, but there are only two in the state that are real ramen — and neither are in (mid-Michigan). It’s similar to (Vietnamese dish) pho, which is really popular here right now. But ramen is a lot more fun.”
Cochran plans to present a series of fivecourse meals to small groups of no more than 30 and is almost ready to announce locations. Stay tuned.
Nomad Kitchen (inside the Avenue Café) 2021 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing 3-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday facebook.com/lansingnomadkitchen