It won’t take long after meeting Sam Short to realize that his effusive personality makes a stranger feel like a long-time friend in minutes.
And his Potent Potables restaurants – Punk Taco, Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, The Cosmos and The Creole – were created with the same spirit, providing an engaging look at food, people and the life around them.
Sam, who is one of three partners in the Lansing gathering spots with Aaron Matthews and Alan Hooper, recently sat down with MLive’s John Gonzalez and Amy Sherman to talk about what makes the restaurants hum, how they’ve connected with employees and made a difference in the lives of others.
“There’s a movement toward locally owned restaurants, but that only goes so far if you’re not doing something that sets you apart and makes an impact, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Sam said off-camera.
“If I’m going out and spending my money at a restaurant, I’m going for an experience. It should be a bit nostalgic, fun-filled, a bit geeky. So, our focus is on delivering happiness. We just sell food. The thing that differentiates us is our people. That’s why we focus on them and helping them grow and give the community what it wants.”
The entrepreneurs have created establishments with a neighborhood vibe and a focus on chef-driven, fresh food. The teams at each restaurant curate menus to challenge their skills and extend the palate of guests. The parameters, Sam said, are: “We want (the chefs) to make it interesting.”
Everything at the restaurants is hand-made, Sam said. That includes dressings, cheeses, breads and more.
“We do it because we’re geeked about food,” he said. “To us, it’s important that the food doesn’t come out of a can or a box, that it’s not the same as you get everywhere else. We ask ourselves ‘how can we make this better,’ whether that’s a sausage that goes on a pizza or a tortilla for a taco.”
Sam and his partners want the food to stand-out in the same manner they seek to create a work environment that cultivates and incentivizes employees to be their best. They offer benefits, such as a wellness program, 401k match and flexible spending accounts, not often available in the food industry. There are also opportunities to reward and recognize fellow employees – with financial bonuses – by noting how they’ve pitched in to help their colleagues.
“We try to think as holistically as possible,” Sam said, adding they also have reciprocal discounts at a yoga studio and other local establishments. “We want to motivate and reward people. If you want to learn something and grow as a person, we’ll help you. We have kitchen managers that started as dishwashers, but they wanted to do more than that. That’s exciting, and we encourage that.
“The thing people need is a passion about food. That’s number one. We can teach you other things, but people need to be engaged and interested.”
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