SKYLER ASHLEY, SEAN BRADLEY and KYLE KAMINSKI
When COVID-19 and the ensuing statewide lockdown caused the temporary closure of a vast majority of Michigan businesses, it was only logical to shelve our annual Top of the Town contest. But as local retailers and restaurants began returning (albeit with some necessary changes) we opted to reboot it with special conditions.
While this year’s Top of the Town contest was a bit topsy-turvy, it didn’t stop Greater Lansing from voting in droves. Altogether, we had 10,192 people cast 171,085 votes.
“I think Lansing is a really unique area because it is so, so, so supportive of small businesses. That is why we’re still here, because of the support of the community,” said Summer Schriner, owner of Bad Annie’s in Bad Annie’s Sweary Goods in Lansing.
Maintaining a high level during turbulent times
This year offered the most challenging economic landscape for many entrepreneurs. Stress has been at an all-time high as owners and employees alike stay glued to the news for updates on the pandemic. Nevertheless, the winners represented on this list still strived to provide an excellent service. And since this contest relies on the public to pick out the best, it goes without saying that their customers have noticed.
Bad Annie’s Sweary Goods, a cheeky novelty shop in Old Town, was the recipient of the Best New Business award. Schriner said the beginning days of the pandemic induced a bit of a panic. But after settling down, she quickly pivoted to online sales and made sure her customers had easy access to curbside pickups.
“This made us focus on digital so much more. We made sure that essentially the entire store was online when everything hit the fan. Our social media provided links directly to products on the website,” Schriner said.
Schriner makes it a point for Bad Annie’s to provide a fun and comforting shopping experience for whoever walks through the door. Stickers on the floor make social distancing a snap without the process feeling too intrusive. But it’s the snarky nature of Bad Annie’s products and conversations with the staff that make the store a hit.
“We’re sort of a catharsis for people right now,” Schriner added. “With all of the political scares and the disaster of this administration, folks can come in and vent, take a deep breath and realize there are a lot of like-minded people in Lansing that want to see a change for the better and want to protect one another.”
East Side Barber Shop, which took home Best Barber Shop, is another young business that worked hard to keep up with the expectations of its clientele in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Owner Erika Nehil-Puleo took over the business about six months before COVID-19 became widespread in Michigan.
“With barber shops, we’ve always had high regulations on sanitation. We already knew what to do. The hardest thing was getting our hands on disinfectant. Ever since then, we’re seeing lots of clientele come back in and we’re seeing lots of new people,” Nehil-Puleo said.
Barber shops and hair salons were also a focal point of their own controversy. As outrage against state restrictions took off, it became a common motif to see a protester holding a sign demanding they be allowed to cut their hair.
“Before, barber shops weren’t really talked about. When people started taking stances and protesting, and getting fines by cutting hair on the Capitol lawn, that’s when we started really getting noticed,” Nehil-Puleo said. “We didn’t cut people’s hair outside of the pandemic and we didn’t protest. We waited until we were told we could come back.”
Nehil-Puleo attributes the popularity of her shop to its policy of being open to anybody and providing a much-needed comfortable space during stressful times. “We’re down to Earth and accepting of everyone and we provide a really good cut,” she said.
Shake-ups in the restaurant biz
If any industry has had to undergo a complete overhaul in 2020, it’s the restaurant world. Faced a revolving door of restrictions and regulations, dine-in service has once again been ruled off-limits under orders rolled out by state officials this week.
This summer was the closest thing to “business as usual” for Meat Southern BBQ, winners of the Best BBQ and Best Online Ordering, since the pandemic took off in March. Maintaining normalcy during a pandemic, however, required a few changes.
Catering events like graduations and weddings were canceled as restrictions on gatherings were put in place, explained owner Sean Johnson. Business was down.
“We were able to survive this summer and survive the fall so far,” he said, noting that an open patio helped promote social distancing and boost sales during the summer.
The restaurant, known for its smoked chicken wings and pulled pork and pulled chicken sandwiches, was forced to adapt. Like so many other businesses, it also shifted to only making orders for take-out and experimented with delivery.
“We tried doing a delivery service of our own,” Johnson added.
Still, he said customers would wait in their cars outside the restaurant to pick up their food. “You adjust what you do on a day-to-day basis as the weeks go by,” Johnson added. “For us, one of the reasons we’ve been able to weather this so well is we have a good management staff.”
Klavon’s Pizzeria in Mason, winners of the Best New Restaurant, shares the same rollercoaster ride of a restaurant experience with dozens more in Greater Lansing.
Just before coronavirus-related lockdowns occurred in early March, back-house manager Thom Weller left on paternity leave to help to raise his newborn son.
When Weller came back to work in May, it was eerily quiet. No bussers were staffed. No bartenders either. Fewer guests also warranted fewer hosts in the restaurant.
“In that way, it felt a little bit like a ghost town,” Weller added.
Now, making as little physical contact between the staff and customers (should ever they return) is paramount while still providing excellent food and customer service.
Staff also are constantly wiping down tables, wearing gloves between transactions, and wiping down pens and clipboards for those who come inside to pay and pick up.
“Everyone is wearing a mask throughout their shift. Cleanliness became more extreme,” said Andrew Hall, assistant back house manager at Klavon’s in Mason.
The restaurant even took an extra month to prepare to reopen, doing so in early July instead of June. Klavon’s also took its still-empty dining room and used it to prepare its pizza boxes. “It was like a mini maze of pizza boxes up there,” Hall joked.
In the spring, lines of as many as 40 cars rushed the parking lot to pick up food. Many customers were just happy they could still get a bite of their favorite pizza.
“I think people were mostly thankful,” Hall said. “We heard the typical, ‘Thank you for being open and providing food for us.’ People were definitely not shy with sharing their appreciation at that point.”
Blue Owl Coffee won Best (Non-Biggby) Coffee Shop and Best Solo Hangout. Co-owner Nicholas Berry said the pandemic inspired Blue Owl to rethink its limits and possibilities as a coffee shop. It also led to more involvement in the community after he found new ways to donate excess products across town via social media.
“I hope people realize how symbiotic everything is. We can’t do a coffee shop without our community coming out,” Berry said. “Even though we are separated thanks to the virus, it is vital to remember the importance of us connecting with each other somehow, some way, no matter what.”
Berry said if and when the coronavirus pandemic finally comes to an end, there will be a very large passage of time that saw the community isolated from itself. He suggests: What better of a spot to reconnect, than your favorite local coffee house?
“As things open, we’ll have a year under our belts of not being together. We’ll have to have spaces where we can reconnect with all the stories and weight of 2020,” he said. “That’s what Blue Owl was built to be.”
Party supplies amid the pandemic
Top of the Town voters showed up en masse to represent their favorite bars, distilleries and marijuana provision centers. When you’re locked up inside as part of a perpetual quarantine, you’ve got to take the edge off somehow, right?
The latest series of statewide pandemic orders forces American Fifth Spirits in Lansing’s Stadium District to close its tasting room for the next three weeks, and possibly even longer. But with lemons, they’re making lemonade — or in this case, maybe to-go lemonade with some gin.
Voters named American Fifth as the Best Distillery in Lansing this year. And even with dine-in business shuttered amid a pandemic, the staff kept busy by churning out more than 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and offering some exquisite carryout cocktail blends by the gallon.
The weather is far too cold for the expanded outdoor section to stay open, so staff encourages loyal patrons to keep ordering to-go drinks and keep an eye out for gift packs for the holidays — including kits for at-home cocktail class and baskets to send some Lansing home to the family.
“For us, it’s about producing interesting and tasteful cocktails with the best ingredients we can find, which I think distinguishes us from other bars or tasting rooms,” said owner Nick Garyet. “These are all handmade syrups, juices. It’s all produced in house. We take that extra step.”
Earlier this year, Homegrown Cannabis Co. made history by becoming the first fully licensed provisioning center to offer recreational marijuana sales in the city of Lansing. And over the last several months, the company has only solidified itself among the best shops on the market.
This vertically integrated marijuana powerhouse touches on just about all aspects of the industry from cultivation and processing to warehousing a massive array of retail marijuana products for both the recreational and medical markets. And as if the often-crowded parking lot out front didn’t speak for itself, our readers absolutely showered Homegrown with accolades this year.
Best Indica. Best Sativa. Best Concentrate. Best Grower. Best Processor. And even a curbside pickup model to help keep the business thriving, despite an ever-worsening public health crisis.
“We’ve really tried to stay aggressive with our pricing,” explained owner Tom James. “The pandemic has hurt a lot of people financially, so we want to keep things affordable. We also buy from everybody to keep out there as much variety in products in brands as we possibly can.”
With several pot shops across Michigan and beyond, Skymint Brands is making a name for itself as a power player on both the medical and recreational cannabis markets. Pot-smoking voters across the capital city made their voices heard this year in labeling the blossoming company as the architect behind the single Best Provisioning Center in Lansing.
Nature’s Kyoor took the cake this year for Best CBD Store in Lansing. And with what co-owner Kenneth Kareckas calls “insanely cheaper” pricing than the competition, it’s easy to see why. He isn’t slinging Family Video or front-counter-at-Quality-Dairy CBD; this here is the good stuff.
“We try to have the best prices and the best quality product available. We’re not trying to price gouge anyone. We’re just trying to help people find the best products to fit their needs,” he said.
To accommodate the decreased foot traffic amid the pandemic, Kareckas has also launched delivery available on orders of $50 or more. Still, the new location at 4421 W. Saginaw Highway is expected to remain open (and regularly sanitized) for the foreseeable future amid COVID-19.
“When everything was all shut down, that’s when we ramped up the delivery,” Kareckas added. “A lot of people still came through, and we’ve been fortunate with some really good business.
Partisan divisions on full display as voters pick and choose favorite local politicians
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is proving to be a divisive political figure in Lansing, emphasized in this year’s contest through simultaneously wins in the categories of Best Local Politician and Worst Local Politician — a distinction repeatedly held by his predecessor, Mayor Virg Bernero.
Whether it’s in the form of calling for his immediate resignation or through pouring money into his political campaign, it’s clear that Lansing residents have some strong feelings about the mayor. Whether those fervent attitudes will help or hurt him at the polls in 2021 is still uncertain.
For what it’s worth, however, Schor also secured a win as Favorite Lansing Mayoral Candidate — followed closely by former three-term Mayor Virg Bernero, who is leaning toward a campaign in 2021. Schor received 121 votes to 97 for Bernero and 92 for City Council President Peter Spadafore, who said he is not running for mayor. That potential showdown between them will be one to watch over the next few months.
Outside of the city of Lansing, rural Republican voters paraded in newly elected Republican Clinton County Prosecutor Tony Spagnuolo with the title of Best Candidate for Clinton County. And former Michigan Sen. Rick Jones, despite losing his bid for Eaton County Sheriff this year against incumbent Tom Reich, was also named as the Best Candidate for Eaton County. It’s clear that Reich focused more on the election than rallying popular vote in this year’s contest.
Runner-ups favorites included Clinton County Commissioner Ken Mitchell and Eaton County Commissioner Terrance Augustine. Both secured another term in last month’s General Election.
Bob Pena, who was a shoe-in to be elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners after defeating incumbent Commissioner Thomas Morgan in the August Primary Election, was also named as the Best Candidate for Ingham County — trailed closely in vote totals by newly re-elected Democratic Ingham County Commissioners Derrell Slaughter and Todd Tennis.
At the state and national levels, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was named as the Best State/National Politician, followed closely by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. As expected among Lansing’s left-leaning voters, they also picked President-Elect Joe Biden as Best Presidential Candidate.
Still, local divisions were clear between Democratic and Republican voters in Lansing. Wannabe U.S. Sen. John James and President Donald Trump were both runner-up favorites for this year.
And Trump — to absolutely no surprise — was also named as Worst State/National Politician. After next year, however, voters will need somewhere else to direct that disdain toward the government. All eyes are on Whitmer, who took second for the category in this year’s contest.
Examining the results
Every year we run this contest, we noticed some interesting results once all of the votes have been counted. This year still managed to be a hit, with 10,192 participants casting 171,085 votes.
Some decisions, such as Best Prime Rib, won by Airport Tavern, and Best Bowling Alley, won by Royal Scot, were decided with literally just a single vote. There were several other categories that were decided by a razor-thin margin, so every vote truly matters.
We incorporated two categories specific to the coronavirus pandemic, Best Online Ordering and Best Curbside Pickup. Local champions Meat BBQ took home the Best Online Ordering award, while national chain Texas Roadhouse snatched the Best Curbside Pickup trophy. Other new categories included Best Corn Maze, won by Uncle John’s Cider Mill, and Best Escape Venue, won by Breakout Escape Rooms. Another unique new category, Best Faygo Flavor, was won by Rock N Rye. And DeLuca’s won best Ranch Dressing, which debuted last year.
Many new businesses had a strong showing in this year’s contest. Klavon’s took home Best New Restaurant and was a runner-up for Best Pizzeria, while Constellation Cat Café won Best Hangout for Seniors and Best Trivia Night and was a runner-up for Best Hangout for Students.
Some notable winning streaks were broken. Bowdie’s Chophouse unseated Capital Prime for Best Steak and El Azteco took Best Nachos away from Meat Southern BBQ. Meanwhile, Cugino’s beat DeLuca’s for Best Italian Restaurant. Absolute Gallery came from behind to win Best Art Gallery ahead of Broad Art Museum and the Lansing Art Gallery.
Some businesses are known to absolutely sweep up the awards. This year, Horrocks was just as strong as ever, and newcomers Homegrown Cannabis Co. dominated the marijuana categories. In the Best Whatever category, Donald Trump Signs won the coveted Worst Eyesore Award and Friendliest Staff won Best Category We Didn’t Think Of. Maybe we’ll add that next year? Lansing Facts, an online favorite of many, won Best Twitter and Best Instagram.
All in all, it’s fun to pick and choose our favorite spots to shop, eat and hangout in Lansing. But with the pandemic hurting small businesses statewide, it’s important to note that everyone can use some support and appreciation. So try your best to spread some positivity and support local business.