Fast Track: How northern Michigan’s first family of food grew a business empire

It’s a long way from the basement of a tiny house to the ownership of several strings of restaurants. But it’s a trek Wayne Lobdell – and subsequently his sons Jeff, Greg and Marty – have made, from Taco Bell to Mission Table, the Beltline Bar to the Omelette Shoppe, from Muskegon to New York State to San Francisco, Tennessee and Traverse City.

The Lobdell family.

Today Wayne and his wife Terry are the namesakes of Lobdell’s restaurant at the Great Lakes Campus of Northwestern Michigan College. But when Wayne was born in 1938 in the basement of the home built by his parents in Muskegon, such a thing was far beyond his imagination. The family’s humble circumstances were worsened when his father contracted tuberculosis and the family was forced to move in with his uncle in a poorer area.

“I grew up poor,” he said.

Through hard work and perseverance he went to college and became sports editor of the State News at Michigan State. But the journalism major found his true calling in his side job.

“To make money I worked in a restaurant. I was a busboy, and I found if I hustled, the waitresses would share their tips,” he said.

From busboy to dishwasher to cook, young Wayne found he enjoyed restaurant work. After school, he landed at Warwick Hills Country Club in Grand Blanc. He still aspired to more, however.

“It was a good experience, but I decided I wanted to be like the members,” he said, noting that he wanted to make sure his family never suffered under the circumstances in which he’d grown up.

So he again changed career paths, becoming a stockbroker on Wall Street. But after a market downturn, he returned to the hospitality industry at a Sheraton, buoyed by support from his wife Terry, whom he had dated in high school.

“We dated for five years and got married,” he said. “Terry was a cheerleader in high school and has been a cheerleader for me.”

When he was offered the opportunity to move into the fast food scene by the owners of a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Michigan, they jumped at it.

“They couldn’t afford to pay me (what he’d been making), but I got some equity,” he said.

That proved to be a good move. When the corporation split, he emerged with several KFC restaurants, which he then sold to purchase a Taco Bell in Traverse City. He grew the chain in Michigan, then sold them all. He purchased Taco Bells in upstate New York, but kept the family’s Traverse City residence.

Marty, Greg and Jeff Lobdell.

During all these moves, he and Terry were raising a family of three boys – Jeff, Greg and Marty – and one daughter, Cherri, who opted out of what became the family trade. Oldest son Jeff Lobdell followed in his dad’s footsteps, working at one of the KFC restaurants his father owned before going to work at the Waterfront Inn in Traverse City.

He found he loved the business and eventually began to build his own portfolio of restaurants, which today includes six up north (Traverse City establishments Apache Trout Grill, Flap Jack, two Omelette Shoppes, West End Tavern, and Boone’s Prime Time Pub in Suttons Bay) and 15 in Grand Rapids, including the Beltline Bar and Bagel Beanery.

He also recently added Grand Bay Beach Resort Hotel and Sugar Beach Resort Hotel to his holdings.

“My specialty is buying the property, then (letting staff) keep doing what they’re doing,” he said. He believes in keeping the same approach and ambiance, while tweaking things such as improving the bathrooms or bar area.

He was the first to join the business but not the last. Greg Lobdell’s path was perhaps the most circuitous of all. He earned his undergraduate degree in fine arts and a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Michigan, as well as a master’s in real estate development from Columbia University.

It was his friendship with Jon Carlson, another Traverse City alum, plus Greg Lobdell’s interest in architecture and development, that pushed him into the family business.

“There was a brewpub in a historical building (Jon) had restored,” he said about Carlson’s North Peak Brewing Company project. “That was my first passion, (so) we joined forces.”

Today the two own restaurants in Ann Arbor and Traverse City, including Mission Table, Jolly Pumpkin, North Peak and more.

Marty Lobdell had no intention of being involved in the hospitality industry, but rather worked on the periphery with his family as a lawyer and investment banker.

He moved to San Francisco as a venture capitalist and began advising his dad and brothers on acquisitions.

As his father contemplated retiring from active ownership of the 29 Taco Bell restaurants he now owned, he heard the siren song of the hospitality business and his home state.

“I came back in 2013 and took over,” he said.

He began building the business, and today Hospitality Restaurant Group owns and operates 101 Taco Bell restaurants in New York and Tennessee.

“Each of us take a different bent,” said Marty Lobdell.

He contrasted his own niche – building within a brand – with his brothers’ ventures, which range from coffee shops and breakfast eateries to brewpubs.

All three brothers point to their parents as inspirations, from their hard work to the way they took care of their employees and customers.

“Our dad inspired us. His focus, his dedication. He worked hard his entire life,” said Greg Lobdell, calling his father his hero.

“Dad was a mentor, and there’s great camaraderie among restaurateurs,” added Jeff Lobdell.

They all continue to pay it forward. Many of those hired over the years have moved up in the industry, often in their own companies as they’ve grown. And, in a gesture of giving back, Wayne and Terry Lobdell helped fund Northwestern Michigan College’s new teaching restaurant. In honor of the Lobdell’s donation, the restaurant was named after them.

Today the elder Lobdell is officially retired from the restaurant scene, though he keeps an eye on things. He continues to inspire his sons and family through other platforms. He returned to his journalistic roots with his first book, a memoir called “Climb from the Cellar,” recounting his journey from his poor childhood to today. His latest book is “Rachel Versus Sean with Jackson in the Middle,” a tale of two political opposites who meet in a bar and volley back and forth, with the bartender as an intermediary.

Today he continues to write while working to stay as healthy as he can while battling Parkinson’s disease. To that end, he ran a 5K, and more than 20 members of his family joined him, wearing shirts that said “Poppy’s 80.” His shirt simply read “Poppy!”