Relationships, Community & Growing a New Kind of Business: Voyager

Published on
May 13, 2020

Meet Eli Boyer, the restaurateur behind Ferndale’s hot neighborhood oyster & seafood bar, Voyager. Eli’s experience as a charter member of DMK Restaurants and history of success building award-winning dining experiences like DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar, Ada Street, and County Barbecue, brings richness and maturity to the Ferndale business community. Eli hopes that the lessons he’s learned in his businesses will encourage, inform, and assist new business owners in the area.

Why Ferndale for Voyager?

"One reason we chose Ferndale was that we thought that people were really accustomed to coming out here and enjoying a wide variety of dining options. We have everything from Peruvian, to Chinese, to Cajun food, to more upscale award-winning restaurants. So, we thought that particular variety in Ferndale lent itself to what we’re trying to do. People were already accustomed to coming to Ferndale to eat at unique places, and that was one thing that made it comfortable for us to locate in Ferndale.

When I relocated from Chicago, I lived in Ferndale – two blocks from here – so I know the kind of people who live here, and how supportive they are of local businesses. When this real estate became available, I was already aware of what I felt the community desired. It just felt right."

What does a restaurant need from its community in order to succeed?

"It’s really important to have a city government and city planning department that rallies around small business owners, and is there to provide support at every step to make it a fluid process, rather than a choppy process full of red tape. Ferndale has standards and processes you have to go through, too, but it never felt daunting. It felt supportive. Whenever you need something throughout the process, you will know exactly where to go. And if you don’t, for whatever reason, you will know which person to contact to help point you in the right direction. As robust as the dining culture is here in Ferndale, it’s still a small community and the city government, as a small business, is very approachable. That makes life a lot easier for people like us."

Is that different than in other communities?

"In my experience working with larger cities in the same process, I’ve noticed it’s more mechanical and less about relationships. It’s not necessarily any smoother or easier; it is often more difficult. The mechanical aspect makes you feel like a cog in a machine, helpless to get answers. The people you need are not in arm’s reach like they are here in Ferndale. When you’re in a larger community, the experience is not as fulfilling, and it’s not necessarily any easier. They have their own processes and systems, but having more human-to-human contact in Ferndale has been an asset for us."

What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

"I’ve got a million of those! Number one for me is the importance of clear communication of all shapes and forms. Whether on a phone call, text, email, or face-to-face interaction, choosing how to speak to people and how to communicate with different personalities…clear, efficient, and productive communication can push a business along, whereas bad communication can hold you back. Always focus on how you communicate with everybody – your guests, your staff, your vendors – just being considerate in that way.

The more practical thing would be to not only make decisions based on money factors – cost vs. savings – but really get to know the people you’re considering working with. Also, consider paying a little more for a stronger relationship or a higher quality product, or – again – better communication. All of the above. You’ve got to put a premium on all of those things."

What have you found to be crucial to making a business sustainable?

"Finding the right real estate and putting together the right lease for the long term. We were able to find a very long-term lease that starts at ten years and has five year options after that. We thought that was very much representative of our neighborhood and the building, and we knew that would be good for our business. That’s one benefit you get in a place like Ferndale compared to other cities: rent is less of a factor in the overall expenditures and it gives you more flexibility. In our case, that manifests itself in being able to run a business that’s open five nights a week for dinner only – that doesn’t feel the need to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for seven days like some other businesses. We’re kind of running into that in Detroit with our other restaurants to some degree. Places like New York City, obviously, you’ve got such high rent that these guys are trying to earn as often as they can, doing things like breakfast menus, lunch menus, midday menus, dinner menus, and salon menus – all these different options at all different times of the day. They’re paying rent at that time of day too, so they need to be bringing in revenue at those times of the day. Here in Ferndale, there’s a lot more flexibility.

When the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority decided that they weren’t going to be giving out liquor licenses in the downtown district, it forced people like myself and other operators to look elsewhere within the city, which is what led us to this location. Not to say that rent would be astronomically higher in Downtown Ferndale, but it would definitely be higher than what we pay here. That allows us to take more risks and hone in on the core of our business rather than to spread ourselves too thin. For us, that gives us flexibility on our menu and allows us to take more risks that way, too. Rather than feeling the need to have a piece of salmon on the menu every night, we can use that menu slot for something a little more unique, has a little more of a story, and is something people can get more excited about. It’s felt throughout the operations of the restaurant.

We recognize that we’re not something for everybody. A lot of people don’t eat seafood of any kind. They stay away from it. We don’t support that lifestyle. We know that we can be something great for a very specific set of people. Whether it’s for that restaurant called Tourino when it was around – which was two-times-in-a-row Free Press restaurant of the year a few years ago - with avant-garde, multi-course tasting menus, to really great Thai takeout (to be honest, the best Thai takeout place in the region is here, if you ask me). We knew that people in Ferndale felt accustomed to coming here for the “good stuff,” so it just made sense compared to surrounding communities."

You’ve been at this a while. How do you avoid burnout? Where have you seen people get stuck, or inhibit their own growth?

"Over time I have learned to take my ego out of it, to focus on what’s right for the businesses and do what’s necessary. That’s ultimately what we’re looking for: for the businesses to be profitable, to be employers for a long time, to be homes for people, and to be respites for other people. For me, we’re always planning new stuff. Whether it’s special events or utilizing our space in different ways – our burger restaurant in Detroit just launched a breakfast sandwich walk-up window, for instance. It was utilizing space and a time of day that we weren’t monetizing. We just kind of went for it.

As far as avoiding burnout, I have no answer for that. I am constantly burned-out. Unfortunately, real burnout is a part of this business. I’ve reached it twice in my career and have had to take steps back and reassess. It’s happened multiple times to people that I’ve worked with in the past. I would hate to think that my management style is any part of that. I think unfortunately it just happens across our industry and there are a lot of factors that play into it. I wish I had advice there.

It’s hard to hone in on what’s wrong with a business if it’s not performing the way you’re expecting it to. If something isn’t working, a lot of other operators will put their head down and keep trudging. They hope their original idea will make it happen – that people will want it, it’s going to work, and people will “get it.” Some people have done that and found success. I’ve learned that that kind of stubbornness, it’s a little ego-driven. Being flexible as an operator, recognizing – hopefully quickly – that something may not be working or sustainable long term, and making necessary adjustments, is the way to keep it sustainable. Adjust your concept if you need to. Do what you need to do.

Here at Voyager, we haven’t had to do much of that, to be honest. Revenues have always been great. For us, it’s mostly cost control on our end. That’s something we need to focus on.

We’re always trying to keep it fresh. It’s important to us that our guests and our fans can experience what we do in different ways, not just at dinner. So, we do brunch sometimes, we do a lobster boil, we let people pre-purchase our seafood platter so they can take it home and enjoy it on New Year’s Eve, for instance, or we do Tiki Schezuan food nights. We are always trying to keep it fresh and find different ways to celebrate. We want people to enjoy seafood that they wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere, and hopefully, make an entire experience, and transport those people on any given night.

If we wanted to, we could probably just do our normal service and stick with our normal operations, but it’s fun for us to switch it up. Even though it’s a ton of work for us to switch it up for one day, we enjoy it, and we think our guests enjoy it. We see the same people at each one no matter what we do – whether it’s Beaujolais Nouveau Night and we have a French menu, or one of these tiki nights that I mentioned – we have the same people in attendance because they understand what we’re trying to do, and they enjoy it. We’ll keep doing stuff like that. Rest assured, if things ever moved in a different direction here, we would have our eyes on it real quick, and would find a way to make an adjustment to fill whatever void that is. It’s about being nimble, willing, and flexible with yourself and your own ideas. You might have a vision for something, but that vision might not be perfect or come out exactly as you envisioned. Or if it does come out how you envisioned, it might not work. So change your vision. Don’t be afraid to take a step back and assess what’s going on and what you can do differently. It might not be originally what you planned, but do what’s right for your businesses."

What’s your big takeaway as a Ferndale business owner?

"Ferndale is a city that is pretty progressive, not only politically, but in their vision for what the city is. This is due to the economic growth the city has seen in recent years, and in looking forward to the outcome with some of the development here. There are huge residential projects planned for our side of Woodward here. There’s stuff that is under construction right now. Ferndale is also considering a partnership with a local business college – Baker College – which would be a great thing for the city. Parks, bike lanes, and greenways are all things that I think are what this City needs to be focusing on. They have leadership at the City that really cares about this place and really embodies this place. Residents and business owners can rally around that. They are incredibly approachable – you see them in the same places that you go to buy your coffee or get a snack. You bump into these people all the time. I see Jordan from City Hall at Red Hook Coffee like once a week. He’s taking meetings there, he’s getting coffee there…a company would say, “We eat our own dog food.” Like, if we made dog food, we’d eat it too. We support ourselves that much! And everyone supports each other. There’s a big network of support, whether it be from the business community, the local government, or residents. Everyone’s really intertwined, one and the same, and really active. Everybody rallies and gets behind businesses that they believe are doing the right thing, and are putting out a good product.

I really couldn’t envision this restaurant anywhere else. There are a lot of similar areas of land that we could plot this building on in Metro Detroit, but Ferndale…we are exactly where this business needs to be for its long-term potential. We’re not a foot traffic-driven restaurant. Voyager is designed to be a destination type of place, because we have a very specific type of cuisine. Because of that, you’d think that it could work in a lot of other places. However, we identify with the city of Ferndale and have quickly become one of the noteworthy businesses here, for whatever reason. I think the City recognizes that and is appreciative of our hard work. We recognize the City has played a huge part in it, and we will hopefully have the opportunity to work together on some other stuff in the future, too."

Is there a business or business owner in Ferndale you visit a lot or want to shout-out?

"Farm Field Table! Their delicious steak, which I buy all too often, and their neighbors in there, the guys from Mongers’ Provisions, who do cheese and chocolate. Those guys are great. Urbanrest – I spend a lot of time there, and we serve their beer in a few places in Metro Detroit.  So, we’re lucky to have their beer often. Also our architects, design-build firm ⅝ Architecture. They’re great and growing like crazy, taking on bigger projects every day. I really love Imperial and Public House and their place, Antihero. I know Sharon Lavoisne, one of the partners there, who has become a big fan of Voyager. We got to know each other by visiting each other’s places. It’s the perfect example of Ferndale rallying around a new business."

To learn more about Voyager, visit their website.

If you’d like to open in Ferndale, check out our Who to Call page to learn what to do next!

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