June 24 2009 12:00 AM

East Lansing cafe, venue closes

Greater Lansing lost its second vegetarian-friendly restaurant and live performance venue in three weeks last week, when East Lansing’s Green River Café closed shop after three years in business.

Jim Jabara, who owned the restaurant with his wife, Josephine, said the rising costs of labor, utilities and materials made it unaffordable to renew the restaurant’s lease at 211 MAC Ave., East Lansing. “It’s quite complicated, but at the same time, it’s pretty simple,” Jabara said. “The cost of services is going up, the big corporations are charging less. They’re killing small business.”

The news comes just a few weeks after Magdalena’s Teahouse, the Lansing area’s only all-vegan restaurant, closed its doors.

Grace O’Connor, a manager at Green River who worked at the café since it opened in August 2006, said she didn’t think East Lansing was ready for restaurant with a commitment to sustainability. “We really needed more students to be willing to pay for good food, and I don’t know if the students are ready to do that yet,” she said. “I don’t think consumer awareness was what it needed to be.”

In April 2008, Green River opened a second location in the Lansing City Market. That location is still open, and O’Connor said she expects it to thrive, as well as Green River’s catering business. But Jabara said the City Market location is under review.

Green River prided itself on serving locally produced natural and organic foods and promoting sustainability. In 2007, the restaurant received the Tri- County WRAP award, a distinction given to mid-Michigan businesses and organizations active in recycling and reducing their waste.

Jabara said many ingredients were purchased from farmers in Eaton Rapids, if not grown at his own home. “We grew things organically on our 10 acres, all our eggplant, all our tomatoes, all the peppers,” Jabara said. “It was vertical integration, like American Apparel. The whole concept was to try to start locally.”

The café was more than a health-food restaurant, though. Green River hosted live music, poetry readings and book signings by local authors. Several student organizations used the café as a meeting place, and the Michigan State University Jazz Studies program held regular events and jams there, including a regular class. In August 2007, superstar jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis played an impromptu gig with the MSU Professors of Jazz at Green River, while he was in town to visit friend and professor Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson. Other big-name acts stopping in for an intimate setting with fans include piano man Ben Folds and alternative rock band Guster.

Jabara, a documentary filmmaker, said he has several films in the works and is teaching courses at MSU and Grand Valley State University.

“It’s been a good run; we’ve enjoyed it,” Jabara said. “We’ve formed life-long relationships with interesting people who came into the café.

Jabara said he plans to continue organic farming at home, as well as supporting Capital Area Local First, a local collaboration aimed at encouraging people to support small businesses.

“I think Michigan’s got a great future with agriculture and local business, and I’m going to do what I can to be an active member of society here. I’m not dropping out.”