FLINT, Michigan -- Flint native Jerrid Heidel bought Blackstone’s restaurant in 2019, but his connections to the building -- and downtown Flint in general -- are much deeper.
“My dad’s wedding suit was from Blackstone’s (the restaurant was formerly a men’s clothing store),” said Heidel, a University of Michigan-Flint graduate. “I grew up here. When I was in school, I always went to Churchill’s, or Metropolis, or The Copa even. We’d also come down here for festivals. There’s a lot of nostalgia for me personally downtown.”
Heidel was a Famous Dave’s franchisee for nearly 16 years and prior to that, worked for Blue Collar Gourmet. He also ran his own screenprinting and embroidery business. He closed on Blackstone’s in July of 2019 and immediately began changing the concept, starting with the name -- the restaurant became Blackstone’s Smokehouse, with the menu shifting to barbecue staples and comfort foods, but prepared in a way that honors the skill that goes into barbecue -- Heidel says people always ask him why he serves barbecue on white China.
“Barbecue is a true skill, so why not give it the presentation it deserves?” he said.
That focus on graft goes beyond the food and drinks, though. Heidel began reshaping the vibe of the restaurant, with changes to the menu, a renewed focus on customer service and quality, and entertainment, including live music and comedy shows. Rearranged and new furniture, lighting, more TV screens, a portable stage, and other changes were also made, and he made it through a typically busy summer season in Flint that included several large downtown events and festivals.
“I got it just in time to get my butt whipped in that event season of August and early September,” Heidel said. “I felt like we did a good job putting a new identity on the place and by November and December, we were getting some buzz back, compliments, good reviews, we were trying to grind through the cold in January and February.”
Then, like many small business owners across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic decimated his business for more than a year. After the first state-mandated shutdown in late winter, Heidel briefly attempted to operate on a limited basis but quickly learned that it actually was not economically viable to be open at that reduced level. The restaurant shut down and didn’t reopen until the first weekend of April 2021. But when they reopened, there were more big changes -- including ones that put performers front and center.
“During the first shutdown, I decided that if I’m going to concentrate as a venue, I’m going to make it legitimate,” Heidel said. “We built a permanent stage, we have a house PA system and did upgrades on the sound system, so musicians come in and just tap right in. I have a soundboard so I can do the audio mixing, just like if you were at the Capitol (Theatre), just on a lot smaller scale. The goal is to bring in crafty, artistic music to complement the building and food.”
Heidel has also had local artists Kevin “Scraps” Burdick and Zach Curtis paint multiple murals inside the restaurant. What has resulted is an environment meant to capture the senses -- the smells of the food, sounds created by musicians, and the visually interesting elements of art and the architecture of the building.
Some of that ambiance will spill out of the restaurant, too. The new PA system allows music to be played out on the patio on Saginaw Street and into Brush Alley behind the building.
Those changes complement the growing artistic and cultural scene that exists in Flint’s downtown and beyond.
“What I’ve seen over the last handful of years, is we are becoming more and more culturally diverse, and more aware of the performing arts,” Heidel said. “It’s almost like an organic cultural revival of what Flint was in its most vibrant years.”
The Smokehouse so far has live music scheduled every weekend through mid-May
and continues to add more performances. Right now, the restaurant is open Thursdays (4-11 p.m.), Fridays (noon-11 p.m.), and Saturdays (noon-11 p.m.). Heidel said those hours should expand as business picks up.
For now, he’s just focused on recapturing some of the early momentum he felt prior to the pandemic. But as business picks up and more things reopen, expect to see new and exciting things that include more live music and comedy performances from both local and touring artists, a rewards program, and more. All of it is designed to help get more people to see and experience and frequently visit Flint.
“This is one of the cooler places in Genesee County,” he said. “This place would be hopping if it were in Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids or Chicago. I’m trying to grow and build that.”
For more information, visit the Blackstone’s Smokehouse website or Facebook page.