Success Wasn’t Guaranteed

By Nick Lico

Jeff Baldwin was destined to work in the food and hospitality industry. “During my high school sophomore year, my brothers graduated from Michigan State University with a hospitality management degree. They asked me what I would do with my life. I was 14 and they got me a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Union Lake. One night, while dining there with my parents, the chef quit and the owner said to me, ‘Here you go, Baldwin. Here’s your chance.’ That’s how my career as a chef started,” Baldwin said.

And what a career it has been, including being the youngest person to be accepted at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at the age of 17 and the youngest executive chef at the Van Dyke Place Restaurant at the age of 21. He was also executive chef at the Whitney Restaurant in Detroit and Mac & Ray’s in Harrison Township and was voted Best Chef and Entrepreneur in Macomb County. The last honor is for his J.Baldwin’s restaurant in Clinton Township. It opened in December 2004 and is consistently lauded as one of the best restaurants in metro Detroit. Like any new venture, its success was not guaranteed.

“I had worked for other people for so many years and tried partnerships that didn’t turn out too well. A lot of people were asking me to open my own restaurant. It was a scary time at first, because no one was coming to the restaurant,” he said

“We stuck with our philosophy of ‘Don’t worry about the guests who aren’t in your restaurant, worry about those who are because they’ll take care of the rest.’ It worked because I think we hit just over $1 million in the first year,” his wife and chief marketing officer, Rosemarie, said.

When asked to what they attribute J.Baldwin’s success, Jeff replied, “Give the customers what they want, not what you think they should have. We have a wide-ranging menu. It’s a melting pot of what customers want.”

One of the items frequently requested by patrons is Jeff’s calamari. So enamored are customers with the calamari that when son Mike and daughter-inlaw Gabriella, both chefs at The Baldwin Group’s second restaurant, Testa Barra, varied the recipe, customers weren’t pleased.

“Mike and Gabriella wanted to put their own stamp on the restaurant and tried a new version of the calamari at Testa Barra, it didn’t turn out well. Customers were complaining that the calamari wasn’t what they were used to at J.Baldwin’s,” Jeff said.

Testa Barra, in Macomb Township, opened in June 2017, offering a modern Italian cuisine with an upscale ambiance. Beginning on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), Testa Barra will also be offering a restaurant within the restaurant.

“We’re calling it Oro and it will feature Latin-inspired small plates with ingredients from Baja, California and Baja, Mexico,” Gabriella said. Oro will be found on Testa Barra’s terrace.

That’s not the only change on the horizon for the Baldwin Restaurant Group. “We’re looking at a new development in Shelby Township that we hope to bring to fruition in the next 18 months,” Rosemarie said.

No matter which restaurant customers visit, they can expect an exceptional wine pairing experience. “We have 14 sommeliers between our two restaurants; not many restaurants can claim that, and six are studying for second level of sommeliers. We are financing those classes because the more educated our staff is, the better the customer experience,” Jeff Jr., director of operations, said.

To celebrate 20 years in business, J.Baldwin’s will have a special wine dinner on December 2. Plans for additional celebrations in December are also in the works. When asked to explain the company’s success, Mike said, “Everyone has many choices for dining out. We want to make sure we’re their best choice.”

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