Ann Arbor restaurateur Sava Lelcaj is ready to take on her newest venture, five months after she opened a Spanish tapas restaurant downtown.
Next up on Lelcaj’s agenda: a commissary kitchen with a grab-and-go market for prepared foods and beverages on Boardwalk Drive in Ann Arbor.
There’s no official name yet for the new market at 2825 Boardwalk Drive, but Lelcaj calls it a “baby babo,” referring to her fresh foods market and coffee bar at 403 E. Washington St. in downtown Ann Arbor.
Lelcaj signed a lease in February for the 9,700-square-foot space — formerly Jump City — and plans to convert it into an 800-square-foot grab-and-go market with a coffee roasting operation, a commissary kitchen, a packaging and labeling room, an area to prepare fresh juices, catering offices and a classroom to train employees.
Lelcaj described the expansion plans to about 40 of her executive employees at a staff meeting Tuesday afternoon.
“A couple of our departments should grow, but won’t grow if we don’t have the space,” Lelcaj said. “For instance, we do all of our pastries in house, but we’re cramped for space downtown.”
“Now, we can come here and focus on the craft, focus on the product, the taste, the presentation, and not be distracted with the idea that there’s an actual restaurant upstairs,” she added.
Lelcaj was 23 years old when she opened her flagship restaurant, Sava’s, on South State Street near the University of Michigan campus. In 2009, she moved the restaurant in a major expansion to its existing location at 216 S. State. Today, Lelcaj said Sava’s Restaurant is her strongest business.
“The systems and standards in there, from an operational standpoint, it’s a well-oiled machine,” she said.
Lelcaj opened babo at 403 E. Washington in 2011, a combination of a specialty store, a carry-out restaurant, a coffee shop and a wine bar.
She opened Spanish tapas restaurant Aventura in November.
Lelcaj’s ventures operate under her umbrella company, Savco Hospitality Inc., which also includes a catering arm responsible for about seven to eight events per week. Lelcaj is also adding a food truck, General’s Mobile Coney, to her lineup of businesses.
The Savco company employs about 300 people.
The new commissary kitchen on Boardwalk Drive is meant to streamline food preparation and improve food packaging and labeling. Lelcaj wants a broader geographic reach for some of her products, such as the Greek dressing she bottles and then sells at babo.
“Being able to have great packaging and have great labeling is important, but you need the facility to do that and it’s really difficult to do that downtown. We have our concepts, we have our brands, so we said, ‘If we got this to an excellent level, could we sell it more broad-scale?’ And I think we can,” Lelcaj said.
Lelcaj said grocery chains have contacted her about stocking certain food products and yoga studios want to partner with babo to offer juice cleanses. The cleanses have grown in popularity since babo started preparing fresh juices last year, but Lelcaj said the juicing area takes up too much space at the market.
The operation on Boardwalk Drive will have state-of-the-art equipment for preparing fresh juices.
Lelcaj also hopes to grow the company’s catering businesses with the new space.
Felicia Viening — who has been working with Lelcaj since her early days in Ann Arbor — said the Savco company caters an average of seven events per week between the two restaurants and market.
“We are outgrowing our space and we really want to rebrand our catering. We don’t want to be a restaurant that caters, we want to be a catering company,” Viening said.
The retail area on Boardwalk Drive will have open-air coolers with juices, salads, sandwiches, beverages, dips and meals for people to take home. There will be a glass-encased coffee roasting room.
The market’s tentative hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the goal is to open it this fall.
“It’s grab-and-go only,” Lelcaj said. “We can supply people on the way in and out of their offices, and on the way home from the gym.”
The market is surrounded by office buildings and just north of the Eisenhower Parkway and Boardwalk Drive intersection. It’s in the same building as Grace Ann Arbor Church and One on One Athletic Club.
This will be Lelcaj’s first venture outside of downtown Ann Arbor, but she said it’s close enough that she can still have a hands-on role. She doesn’t view the operation as a new business, but as an opportunity to perfect the processes at her restaurants and market.
“Believe it or not, this is a break for Savco. It’s a break for us to perfect what we have going on right now via a food laboratory where the focus is on the craft and only the craft,” she said.
Lelcaj said she’s not actively looking for expansion opportunities, but she’s also not afraid to take chances.
“It’s happening organically because we don’t do a lot of planning. We get that itch. We have a young company and we’re attracting the types of employees that want to grow, so they propel our growth and then sustain our growth,” she said.