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Mac and cheese headed to courthouse square

BY HEATHER COX - hcox@chronicle-tribune.com

For the first time in decades, a restaurant is coming to the courthouse square to bring comfort food for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Mac 123 plans to sell macaroni and cheese just the way the customer likes it after taking up residence downtown by fall.

The name reflects a couple of things according to project manager Jeff Horsman. The first being the physical address, 123 E. 3rd St.

Secondly, building your mac and cheese dish just the way the customer likes it is as easy as one, two, three, Horsman said. The first step is picking out the type of pasta, with vegan and gluten free options available in an effort to be inclusive, he said.

The second step is picking the type of cheese and the last step is choosing toppings which range from broccoli to lobster.

The idea for a macaroni and cheese focused restaurant came from manager and executive chef, Mike Kotlarski. Kotlarski said he has been in Grant County for the past seven years and during that time has worked at Payne’s restaurant in Gas City.

When he first started at Payne’s, it was a local coffee and custard shop. While he was there, Payne’s wanted to take the shop in the direction of becoming a full restaurant and he was along for the ride throughout that process.

He said Payne’s had a philosophy that told them not to discount any idea and encouraged thinking outside of the box and creating something new. Taking those lessons learned from working at Payne’s, Kotlarski said he was trying to come up with a good business idea that would work in Grant County, would be unique and could work for everybody.

Eventually, when brainstorming on ideas of how to keep a maximum amount of people happy and well-fed, he landed on the concept of specialty mac and cheese - something he said is an American staple.

One of the beauties of mac and cheese is that everyone has their own unique recipe for it, Kotlarski said. Some may like to eat it with buffalo chicken and bleu cheese while others love it with broccoli and kale.

“So you get wide ranging tastes, wants and desires and I thought there isn’t one recipe, there’s maybe millions … what if I provide a place where people can come in and feel welcome no matter who you are,” he said. “(If you) love velveeta or somebody who really likes lobster mac and a really high quality five cheese blend ... everybody can have something there for them.”

The idea of the restaurant is to be fast-casual, similar to a Chipotle or Panera Bread, where customers can order at the counter, see the food made in front of them and either take it to go or sit down and eat it in the restaurant.

Kotlarski said the employees will be friendly and he hopes they’ll be able to create the beloved mac and cheese recipe that each customer has in mind.

In addition to macaroni and cheese, the restaurant will also be licensed to sell beer and wine, providing a family friendly, smoke free place that adults can order alcohol.

The restaurant will have tables for two, counter seating, booths and in the warmer months will be able to utilize the courtyard space next to the building, where Horsman said they plan to host events ranging from live music to yoga.

Horsman said they’re excited about the location too, since there hasn’t been a restaurant on the square in so long.

Grant County historian Bill Munn said on the square itself, he remembers a restaurant open in the 70s and 80s that served as a salad bar. He also said he remembers a restaurant just off of the square across from the county building where Citizens Bank is now located that was open in the late 80s and early 90s.

Additionally, Horsman said they’re the first restaurant downtown open for dinner. This would benefit anyone who may come downtown for an event or activity and is in need of a place to eat afterwards, he said.

Moving forward, Heidi Peterson, executive director of Main Street Marion said there will eventually be a mexican restaurant in the Boston Hill Center and a cafe downtown, so a variety of options are moving into the downtown area.

Mac 123, she said, will be an important indicator of what can continue to happen in Marion over the next few decades. She said over the next few years, she hopes to see that by having this additional option downtown, it gets other stores wanting to come back to downtown and for people to want to visit downtown regularly.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the success and how that translates into greater success for those restaurants that are already in the downtown area and for bringing the additional retail and restaurants and even businesses of other types to downtown because they start seeing the activity,” Peterson said. “It’s one step in the right direction and I wish all the best for Mike and Mac 123.”

The building which will house Mac 123 is a Halstead Architect building, which will lease out the first floor to the restaurant. Halstead and another local investor are the main individuals investing into the business.

So far, Mike Halstead, president of Halstead Architects, said they’ve been getting the building ready to move into. The stairs inside the building have been redone and since the building itself is 140 years old, they have worked on the stabilization of the building. Currently, he said they are working on a design layout of the kitchen equipment and seating.

Halstead said once they have the designs completed, they’ll submit applications for bigger permits to put in wall framing, electrical, lighting, plumbing and kitchen equipment. He said he hopes to get the Kotlarski and his team into the building by Labor Day.

Similar to what Payne’s has done for Gas City and Jefferson Street Barbeque has done for Converse, Halstead said by providing good product and service, people will come.

Horsman said they hope to open the restaurant for business in October of this year and will be announcing menu items, contests and opening events on their Facebook and Instagram.