Kzoo Kitchens

‘Cuz, I’m going to open a restaurant’

The pandemic and massive construction disruptions were no match for the casual but sophisticated recipes at Ty's Joint on Portage Street, which is nearing its one-year anniversary.

Tyrone Griffis and his cousin Nikki McKnight laugh whenever they tell the story. 

For years — decades, really — whenever there was a family gathering at McKnight’s house, she’d serve plate after plate of fried chicken and pots of gooey mac and cheese and cakes and cobblers. 

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 “I’d go to those family gatherings and say, ‘Why do you have all of this food?” Griffis said. “And she’d say, ‘I just can’t help it. I cook in large portions.'”

He would then offer his prophetic one-liner, “One day, Cuz, I’m going to open a restaurant …”

Diners at Ty’s Joint, 1301 Portage St., which Griffis opened nine months ago, are in on the delicious joke now too. 

The menu features McKnight’s trademark fried chicken and fish, that family-famous mac and cheese, the sweet cornbread dressing with chicken, those collard greens with the salty, spicy pot likker, and the perfectly caramelized candied yams.

“I love to see people eat my food and try different stuff,” said McKnight, who credits her grandma for inspiring her to start cooking. “And you always want to have enough for people to take something home.”

Despite a bumpy start, the restaurant, located in the former Pho On The Block location in the Edison neighborhood, is finding its footing and making a name for itself. It is even starting to feel solid enough to offer catering options to the community. 

Ty’s Joint opened when Michigan was still deep in the partial pandemic lockdown. There were still limits on the numbers of people who could be in a business at one time. Then, Portage Street began a long, difficult construction project which limited access to the restaurant. 

Others might have been stymied by those roadblocks, but Griffis takes a positive view. A slow and steady opening allowed him and McKnight to get used to the restaurant business. Both are restaurant newbies — Griffis, a longtime salesman for Art Van Furniture and its successor Loves Furniture, which went out of business last year, and McKnight, a former government worker. 

They used the slower spring and summer to perfect their recipes, gauge the customer interest in menu items, learn about supply chain issues and just generally how to operate their own business.

The restaurant is bright and airy, keeping some of the Pho On The Block look, with simple modern lines. There’s a TV behind the cash register, hung over the containers of “soul punch” as Griffis and McKnight call the offerings of Kool-Aid. Tucked under the sound system on the side are dominoes and cards, an invite to sit and socialize while you enjoy your meal like it’s family dinner at McKnight’s home. 

diners sit at a counter at Ty's Joint

There’s no playing when the food comes, though, especially if your dish requires you to use your hands. McKnight’s chicken and perch are light with a salty dusting of flour and seasoning, not fried chicken with a thick coating. The perch has a crispy blanket of cornmeal that gives heft to the delicate fish. 

The cornbread dressing with chicken is a can’t miss – and that’s from someone who doesn’t even really like dressing – as are some of the best candied yams you’ll ever eat. The collards had just a little heat, and the mac and cheese was a creamy, gooey treat. Other side options include green beans, fried okra, and spaghetti. Griffis and McKnight urge people to try the improbable sounding strawberry shortcake chicken and waffles – which they insist is delicious.

The restaurant is big on specials, some courtesy of Griffis’ wife Kaitina Griffis, who is the other lead chef and whose specialty is the fried lamb chops, which I didn’t have room to try but provide another reason to return. Daily specials can be found on the restaurant’s Facebook page, which has been the business’ main marketing platform. Recent posts include a crab boil, bluegill and Hoppin’ John, a black-eyed peas and rice dish. 

Although Griffis said he cooks a mean breakfast, he largely stays out of Kaitina’s and McKnight’s way in the kitchen. 

The 40-seat eatery has a sophisticated feel, but Ty’s Joint is casual dining. Guests order at a front counter and dine off of paper plates. The food outshines some higher end, fine dining soul food found in southwest Michigan. 

Ty’s Joint also benefits from Griffis’ almost 30 years in sales. Whether selling furniture or selling fried chicken, he says the key is understanding how to deliver good service. His goal, he said, is to always make the customer feel comfortable and like they are getting a good deal for their dollar. If someone leaves something on their plate, he’s quick to come up and ask if they want to try something else. 

“Sales and service go hand in hand. Good service equals good sales,” he said. “I’m not selling sofas anymore; now I’m selling food. I tell people it’s a lot cheaper to come in and see me now.”

The three owners stand in front of Ty's Joint
Kaitina Griffis, Tyrone Griffis, and Nikki McKnight stand in front of Ty’s Joint at the corner of Portage Street and Washington Avenue.

Ty’s Joint

1301 Portage St.
Phone: (269) 443-2315

Hours:
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Closed Monday

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