876 Michigan named one of the best small businesses in state

BALDWIN — Only after a few-months after opening their business, 876 Michigan, LLC, Dina Velocci and Paul Santoro take great pride in being recognized as one of the best small businesses in the state. But they'll attribute the success to a true team-effort from staff, as well as support from the community and customers.

The downtown Baldwin establishment, a historic empty building which was rehabilitated into a first-rate restaurant and housing, was recently selected as one of Michigan SBDC's Best Small Businesses, as part of Michigan Celebrates Small Business awards. The award follows a grant 876 received to continue to support the local community and jobs.

Along with a plaque awarded at the Breslin Center in Lansing, both Velocci and Santoro also received a letter by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, recognizing the notable accomplishment.

"I believe success is best when it is shared with those on our team and in our communities. This very belief is alive and well in 876 Michigan, LLC. We join you in celebration and acknowledgement of your achievements. Your team and community focus has been an asset to costumers, your employees, and Michigan. Thank you for your innovation and perseverance. Michigan is proud to recognize 876 Michigan, LLC as a strong and vibrant small business," Whitmer wrote.  

Velocci and Santoro explained how they are moving forward in the community and what this recognition means to not only them, but the staff and others who have been instrumental in the success.

"This is a humbling experience — a definite honor," Velocci said. "Especially as entrepreneurs, we've been in different businesses before, but to be recognized that fast since the opening in October is an incredible honor. This is not just Paul and I, this is everybody that's touched this restaurant — our staff and our chef (Glenn Forgie) and also our customers. We wouldn't be recognized at this level if it wasn't for our customers being very loyal to our restaurant. We are super greatly appreciative of that."

Santoro said the award reception was a big celebration at the Breslin Center, filled with small businesses throughout the state.

"We want to thank especially Marie Elliot and the Small Business Development Council from West Michigan who nominated us. It was a great honor to be recognized as one of the best small businesses for Lake County," he said.

'BIG THING IS CONSISTENCY'

Since opening the business, the reviews online and on social media have been consistently in the higher range, such as 4.8 and 4.9.

"We've been very blessed with reviews," Velocci said, attributing consistency. "We know that the dollars are tight with inflation and gas, and the fact that we have so many repeat customers I think the big thing is consistency. We really strive that when you come in you have the same type and quality of meal, and a lot of that goes down to our chef who selects our vegetables, selects our meats, things are done a certain way and our staff is trained to provide that consistency. It makes us feel really good when you hear people say, 'This is the best meal. I'll come here no matter what.' The staff and everybody put in a lot of work to provide that consistency."

Velocci said the community has been very welcoming and supportive, as well as seasonal folks and visitors who are so delighted with their experience at 876, they make sure they come back. She said about three-fourths of the clientele are repeat customers to about 1/4th brand new people enjoying the dining experience for the first time.

She also said the work environment is one where employees thrive in creativity and learning, such as bartenders creating new drinks that have been featured in Michigan magazines.

"Our employees are great people. They are hard workers and as much as they give, we give back to them, so it's very much a family here and we take care of the people that work for us. We're very fortunate, very blessed," she said.

Moving forward, 876 is pulling in local farmers for the farm-to-table experience — supporting and partnering with growers in the area providing the freshest of ingredients.

"Our menus now are going to feature a fluid change, so instead of quarterly, it's going to be what's next that's coming on the market, like now we're finishing up with asparagus. We've got rhubarb, strawberries, blueberries, and other produce coming into season, so you'll see the switch in the menu," Velocci said.

"We're also looking at creating a meal, because we recognize that everybody's tight with the budget and we're all paying high gas prices and high food costs, so we're going to try to make a very reasonable meal for families that can be cost affordable as much as possible with high quality products. We're hoping to become really creative, as best we can, and partner with the community with the understanding we're all having a hard time," she added.

'SERVING AS A CATALYST'

Velocci and Santoro have wasted no time in networking for economic development and supporting the community, one of their company's core values. They have reached out to places such as the Lake County Honor Guard, the local hospice facility being built, Lake County Habitat for Humanity, the dog sled race which benefited the Bread of Life Food Pantry, and other causes, such as conservation with Pere Marquette Trout Unlimited and Pere Marquette Watershed Council.

They also have been participating with the Baldwin DDA (Downtown Development Authority) and with Jodi Nichols with the Right Place and Lake County Economic Development Alliance.

"Between the local community leaders, the DDA, the Village Council, Lake-Osceola State Bank, NEDC and the state of Michigan, and then our employees and help, it's really been a team effort that has brought all of this together," Santoro said.

"We think we've already been successful in serving as a catalyst and changing the way that people think about Baldwin. We're aware of a number of projects already being investigated for new construction and the rehabilitation of existing buildings. I know there are a lot of smaller projects that are slated by the DDA, and at the meeting we attended, it was discussed to incorporate a lot of these elements into a grand plan that would really make a splash for Baldwin.

"Once we develop this plan, it will get the attention and excitement of not only state agencies, but also private investors. We can leverage that grand plan to really further the economic development. Dina and I are happy to participate with the DDA and Jodi Nichols with The Right Place and all of the relevant parties and individuals in the communities to help build upon this one project here."