Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

New restaurateur aims to offer positive atmosphere


Julie Sangster, owner of Julie Joe’s, prides herself on many things — opening a new restaurant, buying Michigan-made products, helping those in need and providing excellent customer service. But it’s the hogs around her south Lansing Italian and Mexican restaurant that first get your attention.

Decked out in Harley-Davidson paraphernalia and colors — orange paint dominates, checkered with white squares on the floor and set off against black nearly everywhere else — Julie Joe’s has the air of a good-spirited bike rally.

It’s got a working-class attitude that invites regulars to feast on food Sangster describes as "something you might whip up in the kitchen yourself.”

The menu, largely borrowed from 2fers, the restaurant that used to occupy the building and where Sangster worked for 16 years, has an identity as well. Sangster uses the same pizza and Mexican recipes (along with a few new ideas of her own) that were established 20 years ago.

“It’s all made fresh here in the store. I make dough everyday — there’s my dough machine right there," she says, pointing to a giant orange-painted mixer in the back of the kitchen. "I make pizza sauce about three times a week." She even grates her own cheese.

The deluxe nachos ($6.90) are authentically blue-collar — tortilla chips piled high with lightly seasoned ground beef, refried beans, slices of black olives and chunks of green pepper, lettuce, green onion and tomato, all capped with a gooey layer of mozzarella and cheddar cheese.

The pizza pig ($8) embodies the restaurant’s colloquial atmosphere. Cooks take the basic idea of a calzone with three items, but add some Julie Joe’s flair. Dough is folded up like pointy little ears, with air holes for eyes. The hardest part is finding the mushroom that looks like a nose.

Pizza dough is tossed by hand, and the ensuing pie ($11.20 for a 16-inch) can be topped with a choice of more than 15 items ($2.50 each on a large). Specialty pizzas abound, and a taco pizza embodies the fusion that is Julie Joe’s.

Chili ($1.99/$3.49) is made fresh daily and the baked beans ($1.75) are a prized personal recipe Sangster introduced to the menu at the urging of friends.

Sangster prefers local vendors, given the choice. “I’m a very Michigan girl," she says. "I want Michigan products, I’m a Michigan store. If we don’t help each other, nobody else will."

On the day of our interview, local food supplier salesmen made themselves at home in the kitchen, whipping samples, taking supply orders and chatting with Sangster about everything from vintage streamline trailers to hot rod magazines.

Twice Sangster’s eyes welled with tears as she talked about doing what she loves for a living, despite facing tall odds. "It’s a little scary opening a business, right now in particular," she says.

Securing funds proved difficult, but a friend offered to loan Sangster, then unemployed, the seed money she needed, and she leapt headfirst into the project, opening her business Jan. 19. Friends and strangers helped her secure equipment, provided the labor to renovate the building and offered the companionship that kept her sane as she navigated bumpy terrain. Now she wants to pay everybody back. "I want them to absorb the atmosphere, the positive atmosphere that’s here," she says,

It’s hard not to.

Julie Joe’s, 2515 E. Jolly Road, Lansing. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. (517) 977-9415.

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Early amore

Beat the crowds on Valentine’s Day by taking your sweetie out to eat a few days early. Carrabba’s restaurant, in Delta Township, offers Dal Cuore (from the heart) nights tonight and Thursday, when canoodling couples can choose from a fixed-price menu that consists of an appetizer, main dish and dessert for under $20. Select wines will also be for sale at $10 off the regular price. Dal Cuore diners will also be eligible to win any number of prizes, including an Italian holiday for two. 6540 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing. (517) 323-8055 - Joe Torok