Matt Prentice Restaurant Group History
Bingham Farms, Michigan 48025
Telephone: (248) 646-0370
Fax: (248) 646-0379
Incorporated: 1980 as Deli Unique
Sales: $42 million (2004)
NAIC: 722110 Full-Service Restaurants; 722320 Caterers; 722211 Limited-Service Restaurants; 311812 Commercial Bakeries
Matt Prentice Restaurant Group (MPRG) offers fine dining, unique atmosphere and impeccable service within an array of fine dining, casual and deli restaurants located in southeastern Michigan. MPRG is also Michigan's largest privately owned caterer, with a variety of facilities accommodating events for several hundred guests.
- Matt Prentice founds Deli Unique in Royal Oak, Michigan.
- Prentice opens Café Jardin in Somerset Mall with help from owner Sam Frankel.
- Sebastian's opens at Somerset; the company forms a wholesale produce operation.
- Morels: A Michigan Bistro opens in Bingham Farms.
- Sourdough Bread Factory opens in Pontiac.
- New restaurant openings include Portabella, No. VI Chop House, Duet, Flying Fish Tavern.
- The firm begins catering auto shows for the Ford Motor Company.
- Kosher restaurant Milk & Honey opens.
- Coach Insignia, located atop Detroit's Renaissance Center, opens.
- The company becomes known as Matt Prentice Restaurant Group.
The Matt Prentice Restaurant Group runs more than a dozen eateries in the metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan, and also operates one of the largest catering businesses in the state. The firm's concepts range from the low-key Deli Unique and Flying Fish Tavern to the upscale Morels: A Michigan Bistro, Shiraz, and Coach Insignia, located on the 71st floor of Detroit's landmark Renaissance Center. The company's catering business serves a number of hotels, temples, and senior citizen residences, as well as special events throughout the area.
The namesake and founder of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, where he set his sights on becoming a professional chef. He entered the Culinary Institute of America to learn the trade but quit one year into the two-year program because of financial difficulties and family health problems, returning home to take a job with a local restaurant.
Prentice's cooking and management skills soon impressed his boss, and he was given the job of running a grungy delicatessen in nearby Oak Park. He worked hard to improve it, spending many nights painting and repairing equipment, but after a year the owner announced it would be closed. Rather than let his hard work go to waste, the 20-year old Prentice decided to buy it, and after securing funds from investors and settling the former owner's debts, he reopened it as Deli Unique. The reasonably priced menu featured gourmet dishes like Beef Wellington and Flaming Duck, which Prentice would cook tableside with the lights lowered for effect.
The revived restaurant soon proved a success, and its business grew with the addition of carryout deli trays and a catering service. One assignment, for a lawyer in the wealthy suburb of West Bloomfield, led to Prentice's recommendation to Sam Frankel, owner of Somerset Mall, who was seeking to replace a failing restaurant in the middle of his shopping center.
In 1984, with funding from Frankel, Prentice opened Le Café Jardin and a gourmet take-out operation, La Cuisine Jardin, in the mall. It did well, and two years later he convinced the developer to let him open another restaurant, Sebastian's, in the space where a now-closed competitor had stood. Prentice's first attempt at a formal dining establishment was a relative disappointment, however, and he subsequently worked at improving his ability to manage multiple businesses at once. In 1986, the company formed a wholesale produce unit, GW Produce, and 1987 saw the opening of a second Deli Unique in West Bloomfield. In 1989, Prentice took over management of the Plaza Deli in Southfield, Michigan, which he later bought.
Morels Debuts in 1990
In 1990, Prentice took another shot at fine dining, and this time he hit a home run. Morels: A Michigan Bistro, located in the Detroit suburb of Bingham Farms, featured regional cuisine, and it garnered rave reviews from local restaurant critics. Prentice also opened a Deli Unique next door and Unique Restaurant Corporation (URC), as the firm was now known, installed its headquarters there.
The year 1991 saw Sebastian's reworked into the more casual Sebastian's Grill, and the opening of Tavern on 13 in Birmingham, which took the place of a failed restaurant in the same space. By now the firm had 500 employees.
In 1992, URC sold the original Deli Unique in Oak Park, and in 1993 the company opened an 11,000-square-foot bakery called the Sourdough Bread Factory in Pontiac and bought a 20,000-square-foot plant for its growing produce unit. That same year, the family-oriented Table Tavern debuted in Sterling Heights, but it was not a hit and closed after less than a year. Also in 1993, Bruschetta Café opened in Oakland Mall, and the upscale Italian restaurant Trattoria Bruschetta debuted in the Hotel Baronette in Novi. Like Prentice's other restaurants, they had been acquired after failing under different management, and he was able to take control with minimal investment.
In mid-1994, URC's bakery began selling its bread through retail outlets, having already begun supplying the firm's restaurants and Northwest Airlines dinner flights originating in Detroit. The company's Unique Catering unit was growing at this time as well. It serviced banquet facilities at Morel's (120 seats), Hotel Baronette (300 seats), Temple Israel in West Bloomfield (600 seats), and was preparing to add Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. For 1994, the company's restaurants and catering division took in $18.8 million, the produce unit $4.4 million, and the bakery $1 million.
In February 1995, the firm opened a new restaurant called America, which replaced a failed diner in Royal Oak. Located on Woodward Avenue, it was URC's highest-profile site to date. A few months later, Relish was opened in Farmington Hills, and in December the Sourdough Café, featuring bread and rolls from the firm's bakery, debuted in the Summit Place Mall. The company also scored a coup during the year when it hired wine expert Madeline Triffon away from rival restaurateur Jimmy Schmidt. Triffon was the first American woman certified as a Master Sommelier by the British Court of Master Sommeliers and one of fewer than 50 people so designated in the United States.
The combination of a less-than-ideal location and a too-progressive menu led to the closing of America in November 1996, and its staff members were transferred to Relish. Early the next year, URC opened Northern Lakes Seafood Co. and a new Deli Unique in the upscale Detroit suburb of Birmingham. Both were located in a renovated hotel, the Kingsley Inn. Northern Lakes seated 260 and included an oyster and vodka bar, while the delicatessen seated 80, with most of its business consisting of takeout and catering tray orders. Also during 1996, the firm spent $500,000 renovating the banquet rooms of Relish and creating an atrium and garden there. By this time, URC had a full-time horticulturalist on staff to tend this and several other plant-filled spaces in its restaurants.
The company's ongoing expansion left it chronically short of qualified staff, and to attract new employees and reduce turnover the firm provided numerous perks, including paid vacations, health insurance, and a 401(k) pension plan. In September 1997, URC added a $2 per hour day-care supplement payment for full-time employees with children. Prentice also gave ownership stakes in his restaurants to their top managers, increasing their commitment to the success of each operation.
Multiple Restaurants Opened in 1998
The year 1998 was a busy one for URC. In January, the firm paid $205,000 for a West Bloomfield restaurant called Memphis Smoke, which became the casual seafood restaurant Flying Fish Tavern several months later. Tavern on 13 was soon converted into a second Flying Fish Tavern as well. In the spring, Sebastian's Grill was moved to a new location in Somerset Mall and reopened as Portabella, serving Italian fare. The company's first location in downtown Detroit, Duet, opened in late May near historic Orchestra Hall. Its menu offered pairings ("duets") of dishes such as seafood and steak. A new Deli Unique was later opened next door.
Also in 1998, URC converted Trattoria Bruschetta at the Hotel Baronette into the No. VI Chop House and Lobster Bar. It was soon a popular destination for business executives, many of whom were in town for meetings related to the auto industry. Within a short period, the restaurant was averaging $4 million in annual sales, four times what the previous concept had done.
In December 1998, the company opened an Asian-style noodle restaurant, Fusion, to replace the unsuccessful Relish. URC also sued the owners of the Summit Place Mall over their unfulfilled promise to perform renovations. The firm's Sourdough Café, which had been losing money there since opening, had closed. For 1998, the company had $38 million in revenues, and its employee ranks stood at 1,000.
In August 1999, URC licensed the Deli Unique name to the MotorCity Casino, which would open a round-the-clock delicatessen that seated 150. Fall saw the sale of the underperforming Flying Fish Tavern in West Bloomfield and the conversion of Fusion into an all-catering operation.
In January 2000, the company ordered all 250 of its cooks and dishwashers to be vaccinated against the Hepatitis A virus, with new hires to be vaccinated in the future. Matt Prentice had had the illness as a child, and it was a recurring problem in the foodservice business, especially in the Detroit area, where one person had recently died from a food-borne infection. The move, which would cost the company $30,000, was made to protect both the workers and the firm's clientele.
In March 2000, URC took over management of four restaurants at the Star Southfield movie theater complex from Ark Restaurant Corp. of New York, which had spent $14 million on renovations before pulling out. In May, the Mexican restaurant Volcano Grill was reopened, but business was slow, and the debut of Mash, which would feature only potato-based dishes, was delayed. A brewpub that would make beer on-site and a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant were slated to round out the offerings, but in late February 2001 Prentice abandoned these projects along with Mash, which never opened.
In 2001, URC was chosen by Ford Motor Company as a branding consultant for its auto shows throughout the United States. During the year, the firm catered the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and the New York Auto Show.
The year 2001 also saw a lobbying effort spearheaded by Prentice to cause the state of Michigan to change an archaic law prohibiting staff from sampling wine on the job. He had prompted the state restaurant association to take action after learning that it was illegal for his employees to sample wine at work, which he considered essential for them to properly advise their customers. The bill was signed in July by Michigan Governor John Engler.
In addition to running his restaurants, Prentice also found time to work with several charitable organizations. In October 2000, he had formed the Variety Produce Resource Program, which distributed surplus food to the hungry, and had also worked with Share our Strength, Forgotten Harvest, the Food Bank of Oakland County, and Gleaners.
In the weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the company's business fell off dramatically as fearful Americans stayed home. Sales had already been declining due to a recent economic downturn, which hit the firm's catering business particularly hard. Due to the rising unemployment rate, URC was able for the first time in its history to have all of its restaurants fully staffed with qualified personnel.
Dairy Restaurant Added in 2002
In February 2002, the company opened a kosher dairy restaurant, Milk & Honey, in the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Township, where it had been providing catering services since 2000. The restaurant's kitchen followed strict Jewish dietary laws, and a special inspector was employed to certify compliance. Milk & Honey was pitched partly at vegetarians, and half of its business was estimated to come from outside the Jewish community. Later, the restaurant began catering meals to the Meer and Hecht apartments for senior citizens.
In July 2002, the firm closed the Deli Unique next door to Morel's. It was replaced in October by an upscale steakhouse called Shiraz, which featured wines made from the grape the restaurant was named after.
In early 2003, URC, still hurting from the economic downturn, cut its employees' health benefits. Both dental and prescription drug coverage were cancelled, and hourly workers were asked to pay a third of their healthcare premiums. The move would affect only about 200 of the company's now 800 employees, as many already had coverage from their spouse's employers, had not worked long enough to earn these benefits, or did not work full time. Despite the cuts, URC's benefits program was still more generous than the industry average.
May 2003 saw the closure of both of the firm's downtown Detroit restaurants, the Deli Unique and Duet. They had been doomed by the lack of foot traffic in the city, with business largely tied to special events in the area like concerts and ball games. A massive power outage in August also caused the firm to lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of food, though Prentice and his staff worked many extra hours to make sure all scheduled catering events went off without a hitch.
In the fall, an agreement was reached with General Motors to take over a closed restaurant at the corporation's headquarters in the 72-story Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. After months of negotiations, GM had agreed to cover most of the renovation costs, which were more expensive due to the restaurant's elevated location, as well as basing the rent on a percentage of revenues.
Prentice's new concept was called Coach Insignia, whose name was taken from a type of wine made by Fisher Vineyards, run by the grandson of the founder of one-time GM division Fisher Body. Fisher's wines would be featured in the restaurant's $250,000 wine cellar, which was overseen by Madeline Triffon. The dinner-only menu would include steak, seafood, and chicken dishes. Coach Insignia's circular space had once rotated slowly to give diners a panoramic view of Detroit and environs, but Prentice decided to abandon this feature to allow for more tables and better food service. In addition to 220 seats on two floors, the space also offered banquet seating for 110 and private dining rooms.
In February 2004, URC closed Café Jardin, and in April of the same year the firm opened its first brewpub, Thunder Bay Brewing Co., in Great Lakes Crossing Mall in Auburn Hills. It replaced the shuttered Alcatraz Brewing Co. In the summer, Coach Insignia started operations, earning four-star reviews from both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.
The year 2005 saw the firm begin operating as the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group in order to reflect its owner's high visibility in the community as well as to distinguish it from other companies with "Unique" in their names. Plans were also underway for the Portabella restaurant to close in late spring, with a new brewpub featuring soul food and live jazz music, Etouffe, set to open in the summer at the Star Southfield Entertainment Complex.
After a quarter-century, the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group had grown from a single delicatessen into one of the Detroit area's largest restaurant management and catering firms. With offerings that ranged from unpretentious deli fare to some of the city's most highly acclaimed food and wine, the firm had established itself as one of the most respected organizations of its type in the Midwest.
Principal Subsidiaries: MPRG Off Premise Catering; Sourdough Bread Factory.
Principal Competitors: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants; Epoch Restaurant Group; Andiamo Restaurant Group; Forte Belanger Catering.
- Anglebrandt, Gary, "Thinking Like a Chef: Restaurateur Prentice Helps Soup Kitchens Get Most from Budgets," Crain's Detroit Business, November 25, 2002, p. 1.
- Blassingame, Kelley M., "Serving a Benefits Buffet: Prentice Offers Unparalleled Benefits Smorgasbord for Restaurant Staff," Employee Benefit News, October 1, 2003.
- Bohy, Ric, "'MMMMM' Is for Morels," Detroit Monthly, May 1, 1996, p. 73.
- Boldt, Ethan, "Unique Restaurant Corp.," Restaurant Business, April 15, 1999, p. 24.
- Kosdrosky, Terry, "Milk & Honey Has Unique Approach," Crain's Detroit Business, February 4, 2002, p. 19.
- ------, "Prentice to Sell One Eatery, Convert Another," Crain's Detroit Business, October 18, 1999, p. 3.
- "Matt Prentice Restaurant Group History," Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, 2005.
- Norris, Kim, and Sylvia Rector, "Unique Restaurant Corp. Trims Health Benefits," Detroit Free Press, February 12, 2003.
- Perlik, Allison, "Unique Restaurant Corp.," Restaurants & Institutions, November 1, 2002, p. 66.
- Rector, Sylvia, Mark Stryker, and John Gallagher, "Restaurateur Says Deal Near for Detroit Renaissance Center," Detroit Free Press, May 23, 2003.
- Snavely, Brent, "Restaurant Events Help to Fill Charities' Plates," Crain's Detroit Business, November 1, 2004, p. 24.
- Stopa, Marsha, "'Roadkill' Restaurateur: Prentice Has Way with Leftovers," Crain's Detroit Business, February 27, 1995, p. 3.
- Strong, Michael, "Prentice Reaches for New Heights," Crain's Detroit Business, October 6, 2003, p. 21.
- Van Houten, Ben, "Rescue Operation," Restaurant Business, October 15, 2000, p. 29.
- Ytuarte, Chris, "Food Chain to Require Hepatitis A Vaccinations," Supermarket News, January 31, 2000, p. 29.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 70. St. James Press, 2005.