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A designer walks into a bar

Design experts trace trends in the industry and how they affect human behavior

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It’s a good chance any bar-goer in Lansing walked into bar developer Clair Lindemann’s work over the years. The owner of Lansing’s Restaurant and Bar Development has had his hands on the pulse of Lansing’s bar business since 1959 as his first job out of high school.

He has 10 active bar development projects within the region. Though he is retired, he said he feels like he has more projects going on now than ever.

“Sometimes it is easy as redecorating. Sometimes it is rebuilding a bar. Sometimes it is gutting the whole place and putting in a brand new restaurant,” Lindemann said. “If I see an idea I like on paper, I can build it up. It’s like building something out of nothing.”

But the bars of today are a far cry from the ones he first worked on in the late '50s and '60s.

“Back in the '40s and '50s, shot and beer type bars were where you’d go,” Lindemann said. “These were like the Unicorn Lounge — long room types with very standard drink options.”

A change happened in the 60s, he said.

“Bars started offering food. Now I think 50 to 60% of the bar business is about food.”

The shot and beer bars began to build modest kitchens for small operations like pizzas, sandwiches and steak, Lindemann said. And they kept on growing.

The ‘80s brought a new wave of bar trends — craft cocktails.

“More recipes for drinks required a different functioning of the bar. It requires more equipment and liquor on hand to compete. So bars got even bigger.”

American Fifth Spirits is a Lansing-based distillery without a full kitchen, but instead of serving fried cheese curds and burgers, it offers elegant fare and an environment to match. 

With no clanging pots from the kitchen or hum from television sets to interfere with intimate conversations, their downtown digs hold on to a tradition, which Lindemann suggests is disappearing.

With the advent of the brewpub, Lindemann the modern bar demanded a full kitchen and cocktail options.   

“Beer is the new selling point of a bar,” Lindemann said. “People go into a bar and ask ‘What kind of beer you got?’ It’s not unusual to have anywhere from 40 to 60 draught beers on hand.” Managing all of those selections gave designers like Lindemann new challenges in storage of the beer and getting it to the bar to be dispensed and served.

But Lindemann said the proliferation of brewpubs may be peaking in Lansing.

“I remember Lansing’s coffee houses,” he said. “There was a coffee house on every corner, it seemed. Now I think 50 to 70% of these independent coffee houses are no longer in existence. The only real success in the Lansing area was Biggby. Craft breweries are reaching the same type of saturation point. You can’t have a brewery on every corner.” 

Another design change hit most bars in the last 15 years, as spaces for live music gave way to massive arrays of TV screens. Sports bars are taking the place of entertainment hubs that live entertainment once filled. 

“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, every bar in Lansing needed to have space for a band,” Lindemann said. “That’s gone by the wayside. Now it is mostly TVs and DJs on certain nights of the week.” 

Sports Bars: Family-friendly?

Voted “Best Neighborhood Bar” in this year’s Top of the Town contest, Dagwood’s, 2803 E. Kalamazoo St., Lansing, is the grandfather of Lansing bars. At the edge of East Lansing and Lansing’s east side, the watering hole serves as common ground for sports fans and college town asylum seekers.

“It was always the place for barflies and regulars but has recently in the last ten years been a place for the younger generation who don’t like the big bar scene,” said Jacob Hill, an interior design student at Michigan State University.

Crunchy’s, 254 W. Grand River Ave., East Lansing, local’s go-to Spartan hang for cheap eats and down-home entertainment, seems to walk the line between dive and sports bar with its dim lighting, wall-to-wall nostalgia and flat screen TVs. At first glance, Crunchy’s and Dagwood’s seem to be speaking the same language, but a dive into Michigan’s liquor laws might suggest otherwise.

Dag’s $5 value meal, complete with a beer, burger and fries, keeps the seats full on game days and in the thick of polar vortexes (top that, McDonalds!). During football season, it’s not uncommon for patrons to be lined up at the bar and down the narrow aisles standing shoulder to shoulder.

Interior designers for restaurants would add that it’s not just the fried food and flat screen TV that cause people to linger. It starts with the seats themselves.

Larissa Fedoroff is an adjunct professor of interior design at Michigan State University with a knack for analyzing a restaurant's ambiance. On a frigid Friday night in East Lansing, she stopped by Crunchy's.

Fedoroff said upon entering the bar, people’s first instinct is to find a cushiony booth. She noted that soft, cushiony seating recreates a sense of “home” and “instant comfort,” which correlates with a patron's willingness to stay longer.

“I think the way they have their seating is set up, large tables and booths, really encourages families to bring their younger relatives along,” Fedoroff said.

The wall-to-wall nostalgia that fills Crunchy’s walls also brings a lighter feeling to the dimly-lit bar, which may speak to why it appeals to parents with younger children.

It’s less likely for a pack of kiddos to pile into one of Dagwood’s booths. Hill said that while some call the joint a dive, it’s as “quaint as any original bar.” However, it’s possible that the psychology that led state legislators to pass the Michigan Liquor Control Code Act of 1998 may still influence the minds of newer parents.

The act prohibited a liquor manufacturer or vendor from providing anything with “secondary value” to a bar, such as coasters, glassware, plaques and neon signs bearing the logos of alcohol companies.

Dagwood’s walls are festooned with alcohol company signage, including an ornate Budweiser carousel with Clydesdale horses pulling a vintage carriage. It seems harmless, but the backers of the 1998 ban would argue such imagery encourages excessive alcohol consumption.

In 2014, these rules started to ease up, allowing licensed retailers to serve drinks in branded glassware provided by manufactures. Today, Section 436.1609 of the Michigan Liquor Control Code states that a manufacturer, outstate seller, or vendor of spirits “may provide brand logoed merchandise to an on-premises retailer and off-premises retailer to promote the brand.”

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