The days of metro Detroit's restaurant empires are over. The latest breed of successful restaurateur is anti-corporate and anti-chain. They create unique businesses in unique spaces, care about people and preservation, and even managed to open some of Metro Detroit's most successful restaurants in the midst of the economic downturn.
The Union Joints
Curt Catallo and his wife Ann Stevenson never planned to get into the restaurant business. And they never planned on opening multiple restaurants.
"A restaurant is that one business that everyone thinks they can do, including me," jokes Catallo. He and Stevenson own the Union Joints which operates the Clarkston Union, Union Woodshop, Union General Store and Vinsetta Garage. They fell into the restaurateur business in 1995 when his parents bought the old Methodist church in downtown Clarkston and didn't know what to do with it. The couple, whose backgrounds are in advertising and interior design (they still own the Union AdWorks agency), loved the space and thought it would make a great restaurant. Catallo had a chef and a bartender for roommates, so they decided to open a restaurant "just for kicks."
This was how the Clarkston Union - and their now-famous macaroni and cheese, which appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal in 2003 - came to be. Then came the Union Woodshop in 2009, a casual BBQ joint that, despite opening at the worst possible time in a terribly far-flung, remote corner of Metro Detroit, immediately gained a loyal following which led to a spot on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, followed by a third restaurant, the even-buzzier (and busier) Vinsetta Garage in Berkley.
It may seem like these two have the Midas touch of restaurateurs, but their second restaurant attempt - a fine dining restaurant called Clarkston Café, located where the Woodshop is now - was a pretty spectacular failure.
"It didn't work because we gave Main Street, Michigan something it sure didn't need in 2008," Catallo says. But they weren't ready to give up yet. "At that point we were kind of tied to the bull. We were too stubborn to let it throw us off of it. If the bull was going to go down, we were going down with it."
Their tenacity paid off. The Union Woodshop was named Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press in 2011, and Vinsetta Garage was easily the most eagerly anticipated opening of 2012. But it was never their intention to build a restaurant group.
"It was a divining rod that led us to Vinsetta Garage because that space is just so magical. We weren't sitting around looking for another restaurant. It was more like a restaurant called us to it."
Both Vinsetta and their latest endeavor, the Fenton Fire Hall, have all of the elements that draw them to a building - the opportunity to preserve a piece of history by creating a new business in a beloved old building, giving it a new life and giving the community something to enjoy and be proud of.
Catallo is thankful that the Union Joints have been able to grow because it allows his employees the opportunity to grow with him. "It would hurt so much to see one of our great cooks who turned into a chef have to leave us to further his career," he says with utter sincerity. "This gives us the opportunity to [make the same] commitment to them [that they made] to us."
The Fenton Fire Hall, which also came about as a sort of "special alignment of the stars," is slated to open in the summer of 2013 and will feature open-pit meats, sausages, and the one item that remains consistent with each and every new restaurant: macaroni and cheese.
Catallo takes pride in the fact that each restaurant is a totally different entity and a destination unto itself, though he jokes, "We're not smart enough to do the same thing twice … we're always reinventing our own wheel!" (Well, except for the mac & cheese.)
Luciano del Signore, James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner of Bacco and Pizzeria Biga, had his own troubles to contend with during the economic down-slide.
He opened the first Pizzeria Biga in July 2010 in Southfield. Planning began in 2009 in the midst of the worst economic climate in metro Detroit's history. "It was nerve-wracking," he remembers. At the end of 2008, when the economy took a nose-dive, del Signore saw his signature restaurant Bacco facing a serious crisis. He was forced to reinvent Bacco without sacrificing its quality or its reputation; at the same time, he knew it was time to pursue the more casual and approachable pizzeria concept that had been in his head.
But it was by no means easy: financial institutions were buckling down and when the first Biga went under construction hope for an economic turnaround was still a long way off. Del Signore admits he was terrified. "It was just awful. I will never forget it!"
Unlike Catallo and Stevenson, who aim to create destinations, del Signore had always envisioned Pizzeria Biga as a concept that could be repeated in multiple markets.
"I wanted to develop it to have more than one store," he says. "It's a product that's accessible to many. I think you can have multiple locations in one market; they become more neighborhood-type restaurants than destinations."
The second Biga location opened earlier this year in one of Royal Oak's only 100-year-old buildings, an opportunity that also came about as a result of the recession.
"I was always interested in Royal Oak. It has wonderful dining scene and I love the community, the young energetic people. They’re becoming great foodies in that town," del Signore observes. As it happened, his good friend Michael Chetcuti bought the old St. Clair Addison Power Station on Main St., originally built in 1907, with the intention of making it an office for his automotive supplier company Quality Metalcraft. The downturn changed that decision, and "Chet" brought the space to del Signore's attention. "I took my one walk-through and said yeah, I want to be here!"
A third Biga is underway in Ann Arbor. "Ann Arbor is a totally different market for us," says del Signore. But with his plan to reach out a little further with Biga, possibly even to the western and northern parts of the state, it made sense to first start 45 minutes from home. He also looks forward to being in the more health-conscious Ann Arbor market, which is a natural fit for his own philosophy of serving all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free, anti-GMO, healthful foods.
While the economic downturn was the final determining factor in del Signore's decision to start opening Pizzeria Bigas, he had a couple of other agendas in play. "There were two reasons why I created Biga," he says. "One was I wanted to grow for my staff."
He reiterates Catallo’s sentiment on growing for his people: after 25 years in the business a lot of his people have been with him for almost as long. "I wanted to give my staff some entrepreneurial opportunity to be in business for themselves."
And the second reason? "Pure selfishness of pizza for myself!" he jokes. At the time there was'’t a true Neapolitan pizza close to home that he could get whenever he wanted. "I can’t think that far in advance at home to start a biga [dough] then in seven to eight days have a pizza!"
Metromode continues this story next week with two more of the region's most innovative restaurateurs.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog athttp://www.eatitdetroit.com
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography