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West Michigan Restaurateurs Take Innovative Approach to Financing

by Dianna Stampfler

Chef Matthew Millar gestures animatedly toward the countryside outside his window when asked why he and his business partner decided to open their ambitious new restaurant St. Anthony in a sleepy tourist town in Michigan.

“There is so much to feel good about here: artists, musicians, farmers, winemakers, brewers, cider-makers...every year that goes by brings more and more great stuff to this community,” he says. 
 
With national attention coming his way recently as the results of back-to-back semi-finalist nominations from the James Beard Awards, Millar could have directed his attention to larger markets, but “this is my home,” he says, “and trust me, the tide is slowly turning. West Michigan is about to pop. In a few years, I believe this will be the region of the Midwest every foodie will be talking about. It just takes that first step.”
 
“St. Anthony will be like nothing the region has seen before,” says business partner Brandon Joldersma.
 
The restaurant will focus on producing the foods in house that most restaurants don’t in an attempt to celebrate the agricultural heritage of the surrounding region. They plan to dry-cure, preserve and pickle, make cheese and churn butter, all with ingredients sourced from area farms. But before any of that can happen, they need to get the project financed.
 
“So far, we’ve had some good conversations with potential investors,” Joldersma says, “but not the right one.”
 
Millar admits restaurants are notoriously risky. “It can be hard to get them financed, especially by the right people.”
 
Finding the “right” financing can be tricky in an industry that sometimes attracts investors who get into the business for the wrong reasons. Some get swept up in the romance, others might expect too much too fast in terms of return, pushing restaurants to make sacrifices to quality that damage the brand.
 
The right investor for St. Anthony, Millar believes, “shares our passion for the region and wants to stand with us as we take things to the next level.”
 
Joldersma agrees. “We are looking for people who want to have a long lasting financial relationship with St. Anthony, who will share in its success for years to come.”
 
The kind of investor that helps a restaurant find real and lasting success is an unusual and sometimes rare bird, so Joldersma and Millar have taken a unique approach to sharing their business plan with potential investors.
 
“It was a strange initial idea. Neither of us had seen it done before. But it really came down to us asking ourselves, if we’re potentially able to reach more people this way — why not?” says Joldersma.
 
“There was nothing in our plan that was particularly proprietary,” Millar admits. “We weren’t trying to protect trade secrets or anything, so why exclude anyone from the conversation?”
 
This, of course, is a departure from the way fundraising is usually done. For a little while, Millar and Joldersma had been sharing their business plan in a few face-to-face conversations with personal contacts, but to them, this seemed at odds with the restaurants’ mission.
 
“Any good restaurant, but especially this one, is about community,” Millar says. “It lives and dies on the strength of its word of mouth, so why not include the public in the conversation from the very beginning? You never know who you are missing out on meeting when you keep your world small.”
 
The two decided to depart from the traditional format and build their business plan online, using the web address (www.restaurantstanthony.com) they had already purchased for marketing the restaurant once open. In addition to hosting the particulars for potential investors, the site serves as a kind of kiosk for updates about the project for anyone who is interested in learning more.
 
“It has already gotten people talking and that alone makes it worthwhile,” Joldersma says.
 
What kind of fruit this innovative approach yields remains to be seen, but the two partners are optimistic.
 
“We will be as public as possible throughout the whole process,” Millar says. “We very much want St. Anthony to feel like it belongs to the community, like our little corner of the world wouldn’t feel right without it. I can’t think of a better way to do that than to include them at every available opportunity.” 

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