POST UPDATE, 07/20, 2 p.m.: Due to an equipment delivery delay, Parks & Rec has pushed its opening date back to Monday, August 3.
Although it's been dogged by delays and some unexpected chef shuffles, the GAR Building's Parks & Rec Diner
will make its official debut on July 27, Republic's general manager Lisa Carleton tells Eater. Newly appointed executive chef Sarah Welch has taken charge of the menu and orchestration of the second restaurant, which will focus on her favorite meal of the day — breakfast — with a multiple twists on eggs, house bloody marys, fresh bread, and milkshakes.
"I don't want it to be a dive."
While the term "diner" in might cultivate images greasy spoons, Welch says she's still demanding a high-level of quality and creativity with the menu. "I don't want it to be a dive." Seating approximately 38 people at tables and bar stools, Park's & Rec feels more relaxed than its upscale counterpart. Designer Peter Gurski, whose credits include the Republic Tavern as well as sets for television and film (he's working on the Full House reboot), has outfitted the space with a rustic wooden sign featuring what appeared to be Belle Isle's Scott Memorial Fountain as well as tables and black metal chairs.
For over a month now Welch has been up early every morning recipe testing to make sure everything can be prepared properly in the small kitchen space. "Things like strada, that point right when they come out of the oven where they haven't had time to coagulate fully and they're just starting to relax, that's like the G-spot for the egg. It needs to be there when it's served to people and the only way to do that is by cooking to order," Welch says.
While opening restaurants is nothing new for Welch (she was sous chef during the opening of Republic and Isalita in Ann Arbor), it's her first time leading the process. "I've always had to ask for permission," before making a menu change, says Welch. "This is my first time where I don't have to do that and so I think I'm still trying to grow into that."
Welch holds a degree in business from Michigan State, but says she always felt passionate about the arts. After rushing through her undergraduate studies, she decided to pursue a degree at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary School) in Manhattan where she worked under April Bloomfield at The Spotted Pig and took courses with master chef Jacques Pepin. Coming back to Michigan, she gained further experience with two years at Forest Grill and a further two at Mani Osteria and Insalita in Ann Arbor.
"She's much more comfortable in the present with pushing the envelope of food and I learned to not be afraid to do that here."
Welch credits much of her success to those early days at Forest Grill working under then-chef David Gilbert. "Working for Gilbert was crazy. He's like hardcore old-school French brigade chef. Like, no bullshit," recalls Welch. The young chef did a brief stint doing pop-ups with Katoi's Brad Greenhill and learning wine at Whole Foods, before Kate Williams asked her to help open Republic. Welch admired chef Williams' confidence in the kitchen. "She's much more comfortable in the present with pushing the envelope of food and I learned to not be afraid to do that here."
Now head of two major downtown restaurants, Welch is focused on developing a strong culture in the kitchen pulling on the strengths of her staff members whether they're pitching a family bread recipe or a new sandwich. "I like to level with people. I don't like to preach to people," she adds.
Focusing on breakfast first at Parks & Rec was a strategic move for Welch. Republic recently launched lunch service and plenty of other great sandwich places in the area she doesn''t feel the need to compete. "I want to see fresh baked things and eggs ways people haven't seen them or [aren't] used to seeing them that don't happen anymore," she says.
Check out the full menu below:
Parks & Rec will open daily for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the GAR Building beginning July 27.