FLINT, Michigan—The two sit at a front table that looks out onto the bricks of South Saginaw Street, with afternoon foot traffic streaming by at a slow pace, marking the heat of the early summer.
Tracey Whelpey is like most Flintstones, she defies expectations. She has run a successful lunch counter for nearly two decades, establishing her commitment here long before the downtown turnaround. Armed with a sharp business sense and even sharper sense of humor, she has a penchant for getting to the point, quickly.
Tony Vu sits next to her, with an air of relaxed focus, seemly like he could be at home anywhere in the world. The pair are a study in contrasts of Flint success stories.
Whelpey, now nearing the end of her “stretch,” sits in the Lunch Studio, her eclectic deli popular with those who seek a fresh sandwich on the strip. (By the way, just in case you don’t already know, the hot corned beef and swiss has life-changing properties.) Vu, on the other hand, is on the come up. His counter, MaMang, at the Flint Farmers Market is making waves for fresh homestyle vietnamese cuisine, especially the pho (pronounced “fuh”).
Vu carries a fast and easy smile, but this laidback look belies a work ethic that’s taken him around the world. After getting burnt out on an IT career, Vu rediscovered his passion for vietnamese food, a passion that has taken him from the set of Chopped on the Food Network to steamy kitchens in far flung destinations like Cusco, Tarapoto, Hoi An and Saigon. His travels in Asia, Latin America and Europe — which also include “climbing around the Himalayas in Pokhara” — influence Vu’s sense of food. It is filled with freshness and a unique perspective.
Both Whelpey and Vu took off from the Vehicle City as young adults, and yet, both decided to come back home to Flint to start their businesses. Talking after hours at the Lunch Studio, each say the word “local” with the kind of mindful regard that comes with a deep love for Flint and “Flint people.”
And, now, their divergent paths are crossing.
Whelpey was one of the first to see the potential in the then-mostly abandoned Saginaw Street. She helped build this space for the next generation. After 17 years downtown, Whelpey is ready to cede her space to a kindred spirit.
After this year, just after the holidays, the Lunch Studio will close and Vu’s MaMang will take up residency on the bricks and add an Asian-influenced speakeasy upstairs.
“We’re excited to carry on the tradition that Tracey established here, a space for healthy food and community,” Vu said.
“We’re in the middle of a passing of the torch so to speak,” Whelpey said. “It’s been awesome and I have loved it here. But I feel like at some point I want to be done, and it just so happens that someone else wants to take over my spot, you know, and just bring a new vibe and change the whole thing — so it’s going to be super exciting.”
Whelpey fondly remembers first coming upon the space that became home to the Lunch Studio. Less than a year before, a coffee shop called Beans and Leaves opened there and it was looking to close.
“There wasn’t really anything else down here. I mean there were bars, so there was bar food and fast food for lunch. And as a business person myself, I was tired that I couldn’t go out and have something for lunch that was wholesome — sort of cleaner food, something that wouldn’t blow up your diet.”
She did a study, looking at the nearby courts, colleges, bank. “I knew there was an opportunity here. … I just knew this was the place.”
Vu was 16 at the time and remembers early anticipating the Lunch Studio — “this new place downtown where we could hang out and do shows and go to different events or whatever ... knowing that there was going to be this new spot was really exciting.”
For Vu and his business, the opportunity to take over the Lunch Studio goes back to his beginnings as a restaurateur. “I was in a position where I was very fortunate to hit the big reset button on life. I took three years and traveled extensively, I went to Vietnam for the first time and was able to learn a lot about my culture.”
Vu opened MaMang at the Flint Farmers’ Market about three years ago. It takes about 20 hours to make the broth for pho — a noodle filled soup swimming with medicinal herbs and an optional kick of jalapeno.
“I always talk about the power of food and how it really is a universal language,” said Vu, whose mother operated the Golden Seahorse in Flint for 15 years and where Vu learned the art of Vietnamese cooking. And, his restaurant is a tribute to her. (MaMang means mama in Vietnamese.)
Vu plans to keep his current location inside the Flint Farmers’ Market, but convert it to a bubble tea and Asian ice cream counter. He also is in the midst of expanding with yet another restaurant, this one called The Good Bowl in Traverse City.
“I feel that’s what we can do here in the city. We may come from different areas and different experiences and backgrounds, but we can all come together around good food,” he said.
Whelpey looks across the empty dining room after a long day, an area filled with assorted art and mishmash of fixtures that have always given the Lunch Studio its casual, homey feel.
“I’ve really just loved this place and I know I’m passing it on to someone who really will care for it,” she said. “When I came here and I found this place, it all fell into place, and now I just feel like this is the right time.”
The Lunch Studio — soon-to-be MaMang — is located at 444 S. Saginaw Street.
The Lunch Studio brings together eclectic furnishings (including this trike in the front window) to create its own unique downtown Flint atmosphere.