Johnny Brann Jr

Michigan restaurateur branches out

Johnny Brann, Jr., is taking what he learned in the family business to his own restaurant concept

After working his entire adult life in his family’s 10-unit Brann’s Sizzling Steaks & Sports Grille, Johnny Brann, Jr., knew his first restaurant concept he has opened on his own, Kitchen 67 Brann’s Café, could not be “just another restaurant.”

Before he opened the Grand Rapids, Mich., fast-casual restaurant that serves three dayparts, he worked tirelessly on the flavors and the tech-forward innovations found throughout the 100-seat dining room.

“I still enjoy being part of my family’s business, but I wanted to do something on my own that was a little more creative — more my vision for a restaurant for people my age,” Brann said.

Kitchen 67 opened on Aug. 20. The brand currently is on pace for annual sales between $1.5 million and $2 million, based on an average check that sits at $8.60, which Brann hopes to grow over time with more beer and wine sales. His years at his family’s casual-dining concept, where he did “everything from weeding parking lots and scrubbing shelves to serving and tending bar,” helped him prepare to run his own concept, Brann said, but being a first-time sole proprietor was an adjustment.

“I’m used to the surprises that come with opening restaurants, but this was interesting for me in that, typically, when we open [Brann’s Sizzling Steakhouses], there’s a large support staff from the other locations,” Brann said. “This was completely new and different, so I got to learn on the job again.”

Kitchen 67

Kitchen 67 features many tributes to Brann’s family’s chain, he noted. The “67” is an homage to 1967, the year that his grandfather’s first steakhouse “really took off” and became a staple of Western Michigan’s restaurant industry. Brann also wanted to keep the family’s “sizzling” reputation on the menu in the form of Sizzle Wrap sandwiches and the signature Sizzle Bowl, which includes a bolder flavor profile with pan-fried noodles, portabella mushrooms, sautéed peppers, onions and an Asian ginger sauce.

Brann said his success as a restaurant startup depends on such culinary experimentation.

“You’re not going to go to a lot of chains in Western Michigan where you can find the flavors we’re trying to do here,” Brann said. “Some of those flavors, like an A1 aioli or chile-lime sauce, coincide with something newer that challenges the status quo. I spent more time on the menu than anything else. It was hand in hand with the thought of innovation and challenging the industry to be different.”

Perhaps the biggest attempt to differentiate Kitchen 67 came in the brand’s embrace of new customer-facing technology, Brann said. He credits some of his tech-focused supplier partners in the area for many of the design innovations in the restaurant.

For instance, every booth has a wireless charging station embedded in the table, allowing guests to charge their Verizon smartphones just by placing them in front of them. Fulton Innovation, a division of Grand Rapids-based Amway, developed the technology and was interested in working with Brann when he sought them out, the restaurateur said.

A Verizon Wireless store opened a concept store in the building it shares with Kitchen 67, including an entrance accessible from the restaurant. When the Apple iPhone 5 launched last month, Brann opened Kitchen 67 to the Verizon customers and let them queue up in the restaurant.

Elsewhere in the restaurant, at-table iPads let guests access an iTunes digital jukebox as well as the free high-speed Wi-Fi. Kitchen 67 also was a test partner for a new multimedia digital drink fountain from Pepsi.

The technology features of Kitchen 67 are meant not only to set it apart while it is still an independent eatery in Grand Rapids, but also to be repeatable through the agreements Brann has developed with the suppliers as he looks to expand in the coming years, he said.

“It was so important for me to go big or go home,” Brann said. “The intent is to grow this brand and scale these partnerships. I’m lucky to be in this community that is so supportive. They’re also a testing ground for a lot of companies [I’m working with], so it’s not an easy market. It gives us a chance to make a new meaning to what a restaurant design and layout should be.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [6].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN [7]