Categorized | Global View

Traveling with Tubas

[front]The life of a tuba connoisseur shows on every wall as versions of the instrument, ranging in age and vivacity, line the restaurant. The story of a world traveler is displayed through the world maps that serve as sporadic wallpaper. The menu, like a small novel demanding acute attention, tells of tastes and smells from millions of miles away. And the guy in the pink, furry bear hat sitting next to you – well he just reminds you that you are not in any run-of-the-mill establishment. The Traveler\’s Club is a place where worlds collide.
On the corner of Hamilton and Okemos Roads for the past 25 years, the Traveler\’s Club offers an around-the-world trip in one meal without leaving the comfort of the Lansing area. The 15-page menu includes flavors and dishes from all corners of the globe and every month a specific region is highlighted by a multi-course, regionally themed meal. The Traveler\’s Club uses as many locally grown products as possible to create meals that are not locally inspired. The restaurant, which doubles as a self-proclaimed tuba museum, has been encompassed by the same four walls for the entirety of its existence, but offers a welcome change from a steaming bowl of Ramen noodles and other college-student-inspired fare.
\”We have a theory that if you eat something different everyday for the rest of your life, you still won\’t be able to try every dish that is made around the world,\” Traveler\’s Club owner Will White said. \”Variety is the spice of life, and of course you have to have food to go along with it.\”
White opened the Traveler\’s Club in 1982 with his partner, Jennifer, as a way to satisfy his own worldly cuisine binges as well as to promote the addiction to others. The couple spent time traveling to regions such as Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe. Upon returning to the states, their appetites mimicked their travel pattern, and they found themselves eating Indian food for a week, becoming bored and moving on to a different genre. It was these practices that fostered White\’s knowledge of worldly cuisine, as well as his experiences growing up in ethnically diverse Detroit. White embodies the theory behind the Traveler\’s Club Epicurean Omnivore card, which offers specials such as one free entree or sampler after the purchase of twelve. He eats everything and enjoys it all.
The wide array of dishes offered at the Traveler\’s Club is what customers find most attractive, White said. \”Everybody appreciates something different so the large menu allows families or large parties can satisfy their desires. If someone wants Mexican food and the other wants Chinese, they can get both; or a kid might want grilled cheese and the parent might want something fancy,\” White said. Not only are the options for food endless, but for drinks as well. An extensive wine list is topped only slightly by 120 different beers to choose from, including Tuba Charlie\’s, which is brewed on the patio of the Traveler\’s Club, distinguishing it as the smallest brew pub in Michigan.
Maintaining a menu that caters to all continents is not simple, and because the Traveler\’s Club grows some of its own food and supports local farmers and businesses, the upkeep is even more difficult. The four page stock list is some indication of the quantity and variety of food necessary to have on hand to keep the restaurant running. Rhubarb and herbs are examples of some ingredients grown on the Traveler\’s Club premises and local businesses such as Asian supermarkets are popular outlets for White\’s grocery list. White sees supporting local farming and businesses as not a revolutionary idea, but rather an old one because, \”That\’s the way it used to be, everything was local.\”
The local feel of the global restaurant is created by more than knowing that the eggs in your Ethnic Special Eggs breakfast are fresh from an Omega Farms coop in Haslett. Virgins to the Traveler\’s Club blend with old customers to create a cast of characters that would be difficult to stumble upon in any other Lansing area restaurant.
\”There is a certain type of people there – it has it\’s own little atmosphere,\” said Sam Haapaniemi, a political theory and constitutional democracy sophomore and a Traveler\’s Club enthusiast.
[inside]Across from my own table were two booths. In one sat an unassuming, 20-something male sporting a pink, furry bear hat that buckled beneath the chin and was complete with the cutest furry, pink bear ears I had ever laid eyes on. Apparently this bear hat was a fact of life for him because he thought nothing of it and perhaps forgot he even had it on. In the other sat an impeccably ironed couple, neither of which had a hair out of place, who seemed to be discussing matters of great importance, however that would be defined. Each character flanked each other, but none of them seemed to be thinking, \”now this would make a great picture.\”
The varied customer base includes families, students, and even tourists. With only a small budget for advertising, White relies mostly on word of mouth for promotion. The Traveler\’s Club sign, boasting not only international cuisine but also a tuba museum is enough for most driving by to put on the brakes and take notice. Many of the out-of-town customers have read about the Traveler\’s Club in roadside attraction books or travel magazines, White said, making the restaurant a most humble tourist attraction. Other events, such as board game night every Monday through Wednesday, bring the Lansing area together. Games are supplied by the restaurant, and customers are encouraged to bring their own as well because after all, what could be better than a heated game of Chutes and Ladders with a dollar-off pint on the side?
\”I like the atmosphere the most because it is so quaint, and the decorations are fun to look at – the maps, instruments, the plants,\” political theory and constitutional democracy sophomore Sam Titze said.
Word travels fast among MSU students and the allure of the Traveler\’s Club overshadows its distance from campus. \”I\’m surprised how well known it is for such a small restaurant that is so far away from campus,\” Haapaniemi said.
A history of the Traveler\’s Club is embedded within its customers and employees alike. John Dickerson grew up in Haslett and remembers frequenting the Traveler\’s Club for breakfast as a kid and loving the variety of wall decorations. Dickerson now works at the Traveler\’s Club and said jokingly that besides beer, the people at the Traveler\’s Club make working there worthwhile. \”There are a lot of characters here and a lot of people who have been here since it first opened,\” Dickerson said.
Barbara Herman, a Lansing area resident, said she has been eating at the Traveler\’s Club for years. Ever since she heard that the Traveler\’s Club was the place to come for good, healthy food she has not looked back since. \”There\’s such a variety of food, you never get bored. It\’s the kind of stuff I would serve at home,\” Herman said.
So why the tubas?
\”Music and food are two things that can be appreciated without speaking a specific language. Both are the spices of life in different ways, and both are universal forms of global communication,\” White said.
The tuba museum was launched when White would leave his tubas laying around the restaurant after playing with live bands. After a while, the restaurant began to look like a tuba graveyard so White started hanging them on the walls and then proclaimed it a museum. Every tuba in the Traveler\’s Club belongs to White, who is continually adding to his collection. \”Collectors never stop collecting. I have more in the basement but I don\’t have any room to hang them up right now,\” White said.
[tuba]An entirely new wing of the tuba museum is in the works for the next year, as White has an expansion plan in place. The plan would create more room for the brewery area of the restaurant and would set the stage for an even larger project that would change the face of the entire Hamilton and Okemos Roads corner. White wants to expand the corner to include another restaurant, a coffee shop, and 26 condominiums. Keeping the project environmentally friendly is important to White, who wants the expansion plan to encourage walking. \”I walk to work,\” he said. \”I walk to lunch. I walk everywhere. Sometimes I don\’t drive anywhere for a week. Once gas gets to be $5 a gallon more people are going to start walking, and they should be. That\’s why I want the project to be environmentally designed,\” White said.
Despite ambitious plans for expansion to an already wide ranging business, White sees the Traveler\’s Club not as competition to others in the local business pool, but as an asset. Because the Traveler\’s Club offers their customers American fare to fall back on, people feel safer trying more exotic flavors present in regionally specific foods like Thai or Indian, White said. By exposing people to other flavors, White is supporting the growth of regionally specific restaurants as well as his international restaurant. \”I like to go to regionally specific places, too, and I want to make sure all the small businesses survive because it really contributes to the quality of life,\” White said.
The Traveler\’s Club experience is one that is difficult to forget. Whether it is the assortment of tubas clinging to the walls, the changing regional specialties offered on the menu, or the guy in the pink bear hat scanning the menu, it becomes hard to discern whether or not you have in fact traveled to somewhere other than Okemos Road. Whatever your reasoning for walking through the cherry red doors, you become subject to colliding worlds and White\’s view of the Traveler\’s Club as a \”world peace statement in a small way, through the stomach and the taste buds.\”

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