Businesses come and go, but in downtown Farmington, a handful of merchants have weathered decades of economic and technological shifts, thus establishing themselves as tried-and-true anchors of this vibrant, small-town community.
To celebrate these beloved local institutions, Metromode’s On the Ground Farmington project is launching a two-part Fixtures of Farmington series, whereby we shine a spotlight on these businesses’ owners; chronicle each venture’s origin story; and gather insights on how and why these businesses, after so many years, continue to thrive.
Dagwoods Deli & Catering
Surprisingly, Farmington’s favorite sandwich shop began as a kind of outgrowth of Sergeant Pepper’s General Store in Ann Arbor.
“My wife’s aunt and uncle started [Sergeant Pepper’s],” says Dagwood’s owner/manager Jerry Burger. “ … But my wife’s aunt wanted a shop out here. … They were Farmington Hills residents, and she wanted something here so she wouldn’t have to drive to Ann Arbor every day. She wanted a business where she could be creative and do something closer to home.”
To that end, Dagwood’s took over a former Kowalski sausage shop that had been vacant for a year. “The idea was, we’d be a deli that served sandwiches on the side,” says Burger, who has served as the store’s manager since its 1984 launch. “But then, a while after we opened, there started to be lines out the door for our sandwiches.”
Jerry Burger, owner/manager of Dagwood's. Photo by David Lewinski.
Indeed, with twenty-five imaginatively varied (not to mention yummy) specialty sandwiches on the menu--along with soups, subs, salads, sides, and more--Dagwood’s has clearly opted to play to its strengths, which may be a big reason for its enduring success.
Even so, a lot has changed over the course of 34 years.
“When we opened, Farmington was a sleepy town,” says Burger, who purchased the business outright in 2002. “Our primary business was at lunchtime, and our nights were pretty slow. These days, we’re busy all day. And with the addition of Starbuck’s and Coldstone [Creamery] right next door, … it’s more likely that people will linger in town for longer. They might come in for a concert at the pavilion or to go to the farmers’ market, and then they’ll come in for a sandwich, and maybe grab coffee and dessert, too.”
Not surprisingly, the 2005 opening of Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park--and the features/events that make their home there (including weekly Swing Nights, a seasonal outdoor ice rink, the farmer’s market and more)-- to the space directly across from Dagwood’s significantly increased foot traffic, business, and visibility.
Now, every day, Dagwood’s draws people looking for a good lunch hour spot, as well as shoppers and, particularly on weekends, families. So despite inevitable the ups and downs of the economy, and an ever-growing list of competitors, Dagwood’s has, over the years, maintained its status as the premiere sandwich stop in Farmington.
“I credit our staff,” says Burger. “We’ve got a really good team. … And the nice thing about Farmington is that our customers are very loyal. They tend to know it’s a small shop, privately owned by a person, not a corporation, and there’s real loyalty for local businesses. We really appreciate that.”
John Cowley & Sons Irish Pub and Restaurant
The Cowley family has been part of Farmington since patriarch, marble setter, and Ireland ex-pat John Cowley--founder of Cowley’s Old Village Inn, which underwent a significant transformation before re-opening as John Cowley & Sons Irish Pub and Restaurant in 2003--moved his family to town to take a job building the altar at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church.
“It was a lengthy job,” says Greg Cowley, current co-owner of John Cowley & Sons. “It took about two years. And he’d often come to drink here (at the original Old Village Inn) after work. … My mother’s favorite quote was, ‘He got into a business he knew well,’ which was a sarcastic way of describing my dad’s habits.”
Yes, after finishing the marble work at Sorrows, John Cowley, then in his 60s, bought the local pub in 1972 and made it Cowley’s Old Village Inn.
“Age was a big factor,” says Greg Cowley of his father’s decision to purchase the pub. (Being a marble setter is physically taxing work.) “Other than being a patron, he didn’t know much of anything about how to run the business. But when he purchased it, it was your typical small town bar that served all the locals and had a fish fry on Friday nights.”
Greg Cowley had been 17 then, and over time, he and his three brothers gained experience working every part of the family business--from mopping floors to food prep and tending bar. Eventually, Greg left the state for more than a decade and worked in corporate sales; but when it came time to raise his own family, he returned to Michigan in ‘99. Not too soon thereafter, he started taking part in conversations about the future of Cowley’s, which was looking every bit its age.
Greg Cowley. Photo by David Lewinski.
“You probably wouldn’t have wanted to come into the old place,” he quipped.
The Cowleys demolished the original building in 2002 and rebuilt it as a two-story venue, with a more polished, upscale-atmosphere restaurant on the first floor, and a more casual pub environment (with TVs and a stage) upstairs.
In addition, Greg Cowley invested ten years working with the Downtown Development Authority and served as a Farmington City Councilman, too, thus aiming to help shape downtown Farmington’s identity and future.
Inevitably, though, the family business has had to weather tough times over the years, including John Cowley’s death in 2013; a Chapter 11 bankruptcy (and a resulting financial reorganization) in 2015; and some longtime customers’ initial resistance to the venue’s updated, more polished look and identity.
“With the old business, we were 75 percent liquor and 25 percent food,” says Greg Cowley. “That’s flipped the other way now. … And we had to adjust the menu to give people the comfort food they want. When we first re-launched the new business, we were presenting ourselves as more upscale and, as a result, things were more expensive. But we adjusted the price point and brought the comfort food back.”
Plus, Greg Cowley estimates that despite high turnover rates in the restaurant industry, about half his staff has been on the job for 12 years or more. This constancy regarding personnel contributes to the restaurant’s homey feel, despite its luxe, elegant furnishings.
And according to Cowley, customers sometimes drive from as far as 35 miles away, passing scores of restaurants along the way to visit the Irish pub and restaurant that still stands in the heart of Farmington’s downtown. To Cowley, that means that he and his staff are doing something right.
“Before all the suburbs grew up around Farmington, there was not much out here,” says Cowley. “ … I like to say we were early adopters on Farmington.”
Stay tuned for part 2, where we'll profile two more "Fixtures of Farmington."