Craig Dotson had dreamed of owning a restaurant for much of his life. This aspiration started back in high school when he spent summers working at his uncle’s Sterling Heights restaurant.
“He would take me there and teach me how to cook,” Dotson says. His uncle was a professionally trained chef.
During those summers, Dotson discovered two things he loved about the restaurant business: interacting with people and being creative. After spending 40 years as a general manager in the corporate restaurant world, an arena that Dotson says “doesn’t allow for deviation,” he finally realized his dream in 2010, opening Studio Grill at 312 W. Michigan Ave., in downtown Kalamazoo.
“I love to play with food — different flavors, combining, and all of that,” Dotson says. “Life gets boring if you’re serving the same thing every day.”
At Studio Grill, nonconformity is the norm. Dotson changes up the menu every few months and dreams up unconventional stuffed burgers, such as the Autumn Burger, stuffed with cinnamon apples and topped with bacon and peanut butter, or the Canyon Burger — the restaurant’s top-selling burger, he says — which is stuffed with jalapenos and topped off with cheddar, bacon, a fried egg and grape jelly.
“I lay in bed and I will think about stupid ideas and crazy concoctions,” Dotson says. “And then I will wake up, come in here, make them, and, if I like them, then we run them as specials.”
If a special goes over well, it appears on the menu. Same thing if a customer suggests a recipe and it passes muster. And Dotson does give credit where credit is due, naming menu items for whoever recommended them. The menu currently includes some of those items — such as Ryan’s Grilled Cheese, which has options of tomatoes, honey ham or bacon, and Kyle’s Chicken Tender Wrap, which includes Southern-style chicken, lettuce, diced tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, cheddar cheese and chipotle ranch dressing.
Studio Grill’s menu also features a regular item that Dotson says “customers rant and rave about” — pancakes made with a special recipe.
“It’s my wife’s grandmother’s recipe that she used years and years ago that I tweaked just a little bit,” he says.
Studio Grill’s patrons also gravitate toward the eatery’s omelets because the ingredients are fresh, Dotson says. For the Saturday morning college crowd, Dotson and his crew invented a hamburger topped with peanut butter and bacon sandwiched between two chocolate chip pancakes.
“It’s been a big hit,” he says, noting that he hasn’t added it to the regular menu simply because it takes up a great deal of grill space.
Dotson says his decades of restaurant experience taught him “what to do and what not to do” when he opened his own establishment. Ninety percent of the food at Studio Grill, he says, is made in-house. Dotson uses fresh ground beef, breads and buns delivered daily from Renzema’s Bakery, in Parchment, and fresh produce from Van Eerden Foodservice, in Grand Rapids, and the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market.
“Every corporate restaurant that I worked at uses processed food,” he says. “They don’t make anything in-store. Everything is premade. Nothing is fresh — that’s what I learned not to do.”
A hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of business owner, Dotson can routinely be seen maneuvering about his restaurant, coming out of the kitchen to welcome and talk with customers and check on them at their tables.
Cooking up relationships
Dotson’s wife, Daphney, will occasionally work at Studio Grill on Sundays when she’s not busy with her own business — Yoga for Kids Kalamazoo, which offers private in-home yoga sessions for children and works with Portage Public Schools. Daphney creates the vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu.
The first face customers might encounter, however, is that of the Dotsons’ daughter, 27-year old Ashley, who has worked at Studio Grill for the past five years. Their 18-year old son, Kyle, washes dishes at the restaurant on weekends when it’s not football season.
The Dotsons’ restaurant has not only drawn a following of regulars, but also built relationships for the family.
“We’ve made a lot of friends from the restaurant,” Dotson says.
These relationships extend to the restaurant’s staff — known by first name to regulars. Dotson says he makes a point of hiring caring people and instills in them an appreciation of every person who walks through the door.
“I hire on personality,” Dotson says. “If you came in and you had a super personality, beautiful smile, but you didn’t have experience, I would hire you. Because I can teach you how to serve, but I can’t teach you personality — and that’s huge. People comment on our servers and how friendly they are.”
Studio Grill, at just 1,700 square feet, has 12 tables and four seats at the counter and can accommodate up to 50 people. The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch and is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Dotson clocks around 80 hours per week, he says — and that’s OK with him. This is his passion, he explains, and, unlike the corporate restaurant world, it allows him to be home at night with his family.
Plus, Dotson says, owning his own business has many rewards. The one that tops the list? “If something goes right it’s my fault, and if something goes wrong it’s my fault. And I love it.”