Feb. 11 2015 12:00 AM
Before Carl Lewis, Jeff Bezos and President Barack Obama made it to the top of their respective fields, they all worked in fast food — Olympic Gold medalist Lewis and Amazon founder Bezos worked at McDonald’s; the POTUS’ first job was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.

“People like to make fun of fast workers, but it’s an extremely challenging profession if you apply yourself,” says Tim Ellis. Ellis is owner of WOW Hospitality, a consulting company specializing in launching new restaurants.

“If you can succeed in fast food, you can succeed in any career you can imagine,” he says.

In downtown Lansing next week, Ellis will unveil his latest brainchild: Henry’s on the Square, a blend of farm-to-table restaurant, nightclub and specialty goods market that will be opening in stages over the next month. It will take over the location of recently closed nightclub the Firm, which opened in 2006. (For 30 years before that, it was the home of the Parthenon Restaurant.)

The origins of this new venture are firmly rooted in fast food. Ellis, 50, got his start working at the Lansing Burger King on Cedar Street in 1980. It was part of H&H Restaurants, owned and operated by the husbandand-wife team of Lois and LeRoy Henry.

“Mr. Henry became my mentor, teaching me his way of leading by example,” Ellis said. “It was a very tight-knit group. Even after I left, I stayed in touch with my old coworkers and the Henry family. They still have Burger King reunions.”

Ellis did more than just name the restaurant after the Henrys — one of their daughters, Jane Doty, is his business partner.

“I was going to do this myself,” Ells said. “I’ve always been close to Jane’s family and would run decisions by them. So when I proposed this idea, (Jane) said, ‘we’d love to do something like this with you, are you open?’ And I was like, heck yeah!” Ellis and Doty will spend about $75,000 to transform the building into a multi-use facility. Phase one opens next week: A retail space that will sell Michigan-made produce, beer, wine and specialty food items. A few weeks later the restaurant should be up and running, and shortly after that the bar should be open for business.

Ellis graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in secondary education, but he never left the restaurant business. He started WOW Hospitality when he was living on the East Coast. He moved the company to Traverse City three years ago, and recently made the move to downtown Lansing. But he’s never forgotten his roots — he often recruits servers and managers for his businesses from fast food workers he encounters.

“If I have an amazing (fast food) experience, I’ll give them my card,” Ellis said. “Some of my best employees come from that. There’s a regional director at a hotel company I represent who got his start in the industry because he gave me exceptional service. And he still gives exceptional service.”

So be nice to that teenager behind the counter — they may be bound for bigger things.