Coming Soon: Center Grill at Les & Jim’s
If all goes as planned, the Merrill community will have a new dining option as early as late-fall, with the opening of the new Center Grill Restaurant at Les & Jim’s, located at 1208 N. Center Avenue.
As owner Mark Bares explains, the idea to renovate the 58-year old building and establish a full-service restaurant has been around for quite some time, but the wheels of bringing it to fruition began to turn this past January.
“The idea was to remove the existing bar and expand the lounge area into a full dining room, as well as expanding the kitchen, to accommodate a restaurant which would offer the community an upscale contemporary dining option.”
Bares and General Manager Kevin Jacoby took their plans to an architect in mid-January and set about navigating through the various permit processes at the state and local levels.
Unfortunately, the process hit a major roadblock in late March.
“We had everything in order and a review meeting set-up with the state for April, but then the Safer at Home Order was handed down and that put everything on hold. It was disappointing but there wasn’t much we could do at that point.” Bares adds.
“Or so we thought…” Kevin jokes.
“Yeah, I have a problem with having idle hands,” Mark agrees with a grin.
Even though the construction phase was on hold, the pair quickly decided the preparation phase certainly wasn’t. With the assistance of staff and their family members, the pair set about removing the bar-which was the original bar built along with the building in 1962-tearing down wallpaper and raising the ceiling; kicking off the third major renovation in the building’s history.
“My grandpa Les and my dad (Jim), bought the building in 1969,” Bares explains. “The only real major changes over the years was the addition of the banquet hall in 1974 and the disco dance floor ten years later.”
While the transformation is still in its infancy, the Les & Jim’s crew has already made significant progress.
The dining room now spans over 1,000 square feet, complete with tables, booths, new vinyl laminate flooring and wall-mounted televisions
. The ceiling has been raised and now features new lighting. Although the kitchen expansion is just beginning, the end result will be a 400 square foot kitchen and prep area (formerly 90 square feet) complete with new equipment.
“Doing this during the shut-down was a gamble for us. The bar is a key source of revenue for us and if the order was lifted just as we were tearing everything out, that could have been a pretty big problem for us. This project also made it possible for me to keep all of my staff on-board during the shutdown, thankfully we didn’t have to lay anyone off,” Bares adds.
As Jacoby explains, the whole process of the bar removal bears an interesting story in itself.
“We had kicked the idea around if we should take the bar out then or wait, like Mark said, it definitely came with its share of risk for the business. This whole project wasn’t supposed to start moving along until after bowling season. So we had a meeting with staff and it was decided we should get started on the bar right away, we were all in agreement.”
“Even though we agreed we should, I still was unsure. It was one thing to talk about it, but another to actually do it,” Mark said.
As Jacoby further explains, a few days later Mark arrived with a sledge hammer and removed a small section of the bar just to get an idea of what the process would look like to remove it.
“He had somewhere to be, so after he left, I just looked at the bar and decided it was time. I looked at the guys (Tyler and Seth) and told them to grab the saw, this is happening today, like right now.”
“When I came back I’ll admit I was pretty surprised and maybe a bit shocked,” Mark adds.
“They had quite a bit done in that hour or so I was gone. Like I said I knew it had to be done, but I just needed that extra push I guess. And well…coming back to see the bar half gone, that was the push I needed.” he adds with a laugh.
“We are pretty excited for this,” Kevin said.
“I will be overseeing the kitchen start-up and putting the menu together. We don’t have everything decided quite yet, but I can tell you there will be a lot of prep work involved for our menu items with all fresh ingredients. Sourcing locally will definitely be a focus for us.”
Along with new menu items and daily specials, the current Les & Jim’s menu complete with pizzas, wraps etc. will remain intact.
“When we are done and Center Grill opens its doors, we feel it will fill a need in the community,” Mark said. “There is a need and demand for more upscale dining options in the Merrill area. We couldn’t be more excited to cater to that need.”
The pair estimate the addition of 10-15 new staff members for Center Grill, including cooks and kitchen staff, wait staff and bar staff. Mark also emphasizes the endeavor will not impact the bowling alley or the banquet hall rentals, whatsoever.
“Bowlers will have the option to come in and have a drink or order food same as they always have. Except now it will be from a broader menu and a brand new dining environment.”