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RapidChat: Paul Lee

Ten years ago Paul Lee was working a desk job and moonlighting as a bartender. Then the potential of the Wealthy Street business district and desire for a neighborhood bar like he’d observed in other cities (and in a British zombie comedy film) beckoned. Paul and his wife, Jess, opened The Winchester in 2008, and Donkey Taqueria just a few weeks ago. Read on to learn about the intriguing life of a restaurateur who is actively involved in creating the late-night bar scene and raising two small boys.
Paul Lee with his son Oscar.

This week's RapidGrowth Q&A series features Paul Lee, owner of The Winchester and the new Donkey Taqueria. With Molly Crist wielding the pen, this piece features two local food truck early adopters talking about anything but mobile cuisine. Paul has played an important role in reviving the Wealthy Street business district, and here he chats about neighborhoods, ethnic food, city-living, and fatherhood.
RG: So you own two restaurants; where do you like to eat?

PL: Since we run restaurants, it’s hard to turn it off. We’re always thinking about every little detail that goes into running, designing, analyzing, everything it takes to run a restaurant. I often go out solo. It’s usually at obscure times; I’m sitting by myself at the bar.

We love to go to some of the authentic, ethnic places like Taqueria San Jose. Or we head down Division Ave. near 44th St. and go to Wei Wei Palace and Pho Soc Trang. Dim sum at Wei Wei is great on the weekend.

RG: What attracted you to open The Winchester on Wealthy Street? What was the Wealthy Street business district like then?

PL: I opened The Winchester in 2008. At that time you had Wealthy St. Bakery, Art of the Table, Wealthy at Charles, Fusion Salon - there was a growing business community but there wasn't connectivity between businesses. At 5:30 p.m. there was no traffic. The businesses were daytime operating and the street became desolate.

I saw the potential. Wealthy Street used to be a business district; at one time it was thriving. You could count cars and see people driving to and from work. Wealthy was a thoroughfare with people heading downtown and back home again in the evening. There were a lot of rentals filled with college students north and south of Wealthy, plus single family homes.

The Winchester was a good complement to the businesses that were already invested in the area. It provided a place for people to stop after 5 p.m. It brought more eyes to the street, which helps deter crime. It is a walkable destination for people who live in the area.

RG: What were you doing before you opened The Winchester?

PL: I used to work for my father who had a software and book publishing company. The first day I started working for him I knew I could not sit at a desk for the rest of my life so I started bartending, so working two full-time jobs. Bartending then turned into assistant managing and I got an opportunity to be a general manager. I realized the service industry was where I wanted to have my career.

RG: What inspired The Winchester’s concept?

PL: My wife and I share a passion for travelling. When we worked in the service industry, we agreed we wouldn’t buy each other gifts. We were going to use the time and money normally spent on meaningless gifts to travel.  We travelled around the US, Europe, Thailand, Costa Rica... that is one of our big loves.

We always try to stay away from the tourist places. We try to do what the locals would do and go where they go. Some of these places we visited were major cities and we observed what helps make a city vibrant is its neighborhoods.

Chicago and New York are great because of their neighborhoods. There are some great places in downtown Grand Rapids but we wanted to create a neighborhood spot. A bar that could be in any major city in one of the neighborhoods. That was our vision behind what we wanted to create with The Winchester.

We both enjoyed the Shaun of the Dead movie and that is where we got the name for the bar. Shaun goes to “the everything pub” - hanging with mates, getting away from zombies, a date, it was the neighborhood spot. The pub was called The Winchester.

RG: What is your life like, living in one of Grand Rapid’s neighborhoods with your family?

PL: We lived above The Winchester until four months before our first son was born. We loved living in the area we worked in, but when Jess became pregnant, all of a sudden we had to get real lives. We would spend all of our time at the business. Once we were parents,  we had to start grocery shopping, going to bed at regular times, we needed privacy. We couldn’t live above the bar anymore so we started looking at houses.

We live in the Baxter neighborhood, one block from Ottawa Hills. We can easily walk to Eastown, to Gaslight Village. I can hop on the No 5 Wealthy bus, picks up on Fuller Ave. and drops off right at The Winchester. It’s also a nice walk to the bar -- the best of both worlds: close to work and still with that neighborhood feel.

But, we miss it. It was hard when we moved away from work. The first few weeks, I would just stand in the driveway and I couldn't believe how quiet it was. The silence was deafening. Now we are at the point where we miss that. In the summertime we are always walking to Eastown and Wealthy Street. We are thinking about moving back above The Winchester or looking at houses back in the neighborhood.

RG: You’ve seen a ton of change in Wealthy Street. What’s that like?

PL: I’ve seen a lot of positives in the neighborhood, there's no question. There are a lot of rentals around here and the landlords, once a week, thank me for investing and helping the neighborhood.Their properties are more valuable and they get more rent, and the area is safer.

You see a lot more walking, jogging, bike riding. I've tried to be cognizant of the fact that there are people that are being displaced. It is our responsibility as a business to make sure that we are a positive addition to the neighborhood, to everyone.

We did three years of Thanksgiving meals for the students at MLK Leadership Academy. We got a list of names of students that would benefit from this and delivered meals and canned goods to their houses. The last day of school we did ice cream for all of the students. It’s important to us to avoid being a business that changes and takes from the community. We want to give back.

RG: Right, like having the garden across from The Winchester?

PL: We took that overgrown lot and reinvested with the garden. We have a great relationship with that property owner. I’m in the 2014 Leadership Grand Rapids class, which has really opened my eyes not just to some of the issues in this neighborhood but Grand Rapids at large. It has allowed me to take a different role than just a restaurateur; now I have an opportunity to be more involved with the community, to use my role as a business person to help in other ways.

RG: What is it like raising a young family in Grand Rapids?

PL: We have two sons, 8 months and 2 ½ years old. The 2 ½ year-old goes to Montessori school. Our routine is that I pick him up from school and we go somewhere: the Children’s Museum, Public Museum, Meijer Gardens, or I often take him to Spoonlickers for a treat.

We don’t like being cooped up in the house. We go somewhere daily. This winter the weather has been a challenge, especially this year. I have to challenge myself to experience the city-- there is a ton it has to offer, we just have to go for it. I wish he liked the outdoors more. I would put him on a sled and pull it around with a rope all afternoon. I tried that and he fell off a couple times and was upset.

The businesses are open late but it is important to us to have a life outside of work. Every day we try to eat dinner as a family. We leave the bar around 5-5:30 p.m., go home and make dinner, sit down as a family and I’ll stay until we put the kids to bed, then Jess or I will go back to work.

Once you have kids, a lot of your attention goes to the kids and you have to find that balance between family and work. And then the balance between kids and your spouse.

Right now we are trying to set up a regular babysitting schedule so we can go out together regularly. We always pop into work and say hi, then we might go to Grove, Vivant or Founders - the pillars of GR establishments.

RG: Your new restaurant, Donkey Taqueria, is definitely a hot spot. Did you anticipate that?

PL: Absolutely. I don’t know if you believe in fate but it is fate the way the restaurant took form and became as popular as it is right now. A lot of it has to do with our Chef, Craig Svozil. Our Chef was born and raised in Chicago. He was the sous chef at a Michelin starred restaurant, and was on Iron Chef America and went up against Morimoto. He was the Chef de Cuisine at Big Star for three years.

We were just wrapping up construction for the taqueria when Joel Wabeke, former Executive Chef at Terra, introduced Craig and I. Craig wrapped stuff up, moved here, hired staff, created menus, found vendors, and got the new restaurant open.

The food is authentic. There is a little flack that white people can't make Mexican food, but Craig is the only gringo in the kitchen. It’s a kitchen staff of 25 people, all Hispanic, and they love the food. They’re so glad they can get authentic food here. For us it’s all about cooking for them and providing a place where they’re proud to work.

Craig’s fiance is from Grand Rapids and is an up-and-coming Pastry Chef. She wants to open up her own place and felt Grand Rapids was a better opportunity for that versus Chicago. She saw GR as an opportunity to do something great, and that is why they moved here. It was amazing timing with the taqueria poised to open.

I really feel like we are just scratching the surface on how great this city can become. Entrepreneurs are seeing the opportunity and coming here to thrive.

Molly Crist is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.

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