Brian Ahlstrom, right, the owner of Ahlstrom Designs and Ray Stanjevich, left, the co-owner of Friends American Grill, install a sign for the Friends American Grill concession stand at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville on April 10. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
LAWRENCEVILLE — When players get called up to play for the Gwinnett Braves at Coolray Field, they know they’ve made major progress. Ray Stanjevich and Suzanne Cartwright feel the same way about their restaurant.
Like a rising prospect in the Braves organization, the owners of Friends American Grill are on a hot streak. They have six locations overall, three of which have opened in Gwinnett County over the past month or so. The latest is nestled behind home plate on the mezzanine level at Coolray Field, a site where you can order dinner and not miss a pitch.
The new location makes a lot of sense, Stanjevich says. What better place for an establishment dedicated to the gathering of friends.
“We’re a neighborhood grill and bar,” Stanjevich said. “…We’re like a pseudo sports bar with good food.”
The Friends at Coolray Field opened April 11 and the opening of a Winder location followed April 14. The progress continues with the opening of a Buford site May 19. Previously, Friends opened restaurants in Dacula, Dawsonville and, last year, Suwanee. Stanjevich said the restaurants employ 250 people and are hiring for the Buford location.
Stanjevich said business is booming in Winder and the response at Coolray has been good. He praised the Braves organization for welcoming them to the stadium and said the Coolray Friends menu is offering tater tots, chicken wings and beverages. He said their priority is on swift customer service to prevent lines and distraction from the game.
“This is kind of a test. I’ve never had chicken wings at a ballpark before but we’ll see how it goes,” Stanjevich said. “But we may be adding more things to the menu…We keep our customers by taking good care of them. We don’t take people for granted. ”
Stanjevich worked his career with restaurant chains and resists their “cookie cutter” business model. He said he and Cartwright want each Friends site to have a different atmosphere and cater to a targeted clientele. But they also want each one to have a familiar customer feel similar to that featured on the television hit “Cheers.”
“We want people to feel like it’s their kind of place and not a chain restaurant,” he said. “….We know if we don’t do a good job today, tomorrow our customers may go somewhere else.”
The Winder location is in a 107-year-old downtown building and the Buford restaurant will be on Buford Highway at Hamilton Mill Road across from the Buford Community Center near Buford High School.
“They need something catering to the sports teams,” he said. “… And we’ll be right across the street from events at the community center and city hall.”
Stanjevich said menu selections are altered every three months and products are prepared in house if possible.
“Our steaks are certified Angus beef, our burgers ground to our recipes, we cut our own chicken and make all of our dressings and sauces,” he said. “We always stay fresh and try new things. Everything on the menu might not work, but that’s how you learn.”
Stanjevich, a Suwanee resident, said he and Cartwright not only want their restaurants to be places for friends to gather but also want their establishments to help as friends in communities they serve. The Friends in Dacula gave away food and beverages Easter Sunday for an annual fundraiser that collected $20,000 for the family of a Gwinnett County boy suffering from Leukemia.
“It’s our way of trying to give back,” he said.
Friends American Grill features steak and chicken dinners, specialty sandwiches and wraps, Tex-Mex entrees, fish, shrimp, pasta, wings of various flavors and spices, soups and salads, appetizers and desserts. They have catering, a children’s menu and live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays with all you can eat wings on Wednesdays.