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.
We continue our two-part story on local restaurateurs who are changing Metro Detroit's dining landscape.
In Royal Oak and Ann Arbor (and also Traverse City), Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell - the real estate developers behind Jolly Pumpkin Cafe, Grizzly Peak Brewing Company, Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery, Bastone, Café Habana, Vinotecca, the recently-opened Lena, and several more – have but one rule when it comes to opening a new restaurant: "It has to be cool."
It also must be something they believe in.
Carlson started out solo in 1995, opening Grizzly Peak
when he was fresh out of college and "just stupid enough to open a brewpub." He found an investor by placing an ad in Crain's Detroit Business which led to his long-time partnership with Chet Czaplicka, partner in nearly all his development projects. Lobdell joined his childhood friend Jon Carlson as a business partner in 2004, forming 2Mission
. They have dozens of developments under their belts (many of them historic preservation buildings), but what's really important to them is not the businesses they've built but the partnerships. Almost every development has its own operating partner - someone running the day-to-day operations who is passionate about the business and personally invested in it.
"We only want to hire nice, good people," Carlson says, then laughs. "That sounds so silly!" But it isn't a silly thing to have a business ethos that puts people first, and this is where Carlson and Lobdell excel. In fact, it is the principle
on which their own partnership is built.
Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin founder and brewmaster who had opened all of the 2Mission brewpubs, started Jolly Pumpkin independently. Carlson and Lobdell came in later when it seemed they could provide the business with some support and operational experience. They also believed in Jeffries' venture.
"Ron and [his wife] Laurie, this was their vision," Carlson defers. Lobdell adds, "When you wear that Jolly Pumpkin shirt, that's Ron, [not us]."
Similarly, a partnership with Detroit's Avalon International Breads formed in early 2010 that is helping the successful bakery move forward with their current $2.2 million expansion. "It's not about us," Carlson says of 2Mission's minority ownership. "It's Jackie and Ann. We're so inspired by them and we knew they would continue to support Detroit, and Detroit would continue to support them."
As important as design and demographics are to them - and those things are indeed important - Carlson and Lobdell have enough humility to see that what ultimately makes their ventures a success are the people working at them every single day. "We pick and select people who have attributes that are different but share our beliefs," Carlson says.
Currently they are working on Jolly Pumpkin's
new production facility in Dexter, which should be completed this month. Plans for a Jolly Pumpkin Café in Royal Oak are still in the works (and they're eager to get started), though it is being held up by an unforeseen delay on the seller's end. They recently revamped Blue Tractor in Ann Arbor - working with a trained Southern pitmaster to beef up the BBQ - relocated Café Habana
and remade the basement space into the beer and bourbon bar Mash
, and opened the ultra-sleek Latin American Lena
in the old Cunningham's Drug Store with the revamped Habana in the stone-walled basement. Next they will resuscitate the Old German (an old Ann Arbor establishment that had been open for 90 years) in the basement of Grizzly Peak, and will move Café Habana out of its current location in Royal Oak and open Monk, an even funkier Belgian-inspired brother restaurant to Bastone
, in its place.
In 17 years they've only had one failure, a brewpub in Grand Rapids in 1997 that Carlson calls "a total disaster." Every good business owner has a failure in his past. But when you consider that the duo not only maintained through the 'Great Recession' but even opened Blue Tractor and Jolly Pumpkin Café in Ann Arbor at the height of it in November 2008 and September 2009, respectively, it's hard to argue that they have a true gift for creating successful restaurants.
"We're constantly talking about the next step," says Carlson. "There's no master plan. We're always looking and talking and just know when the time is right." They like to keep their concepts fresh and interesting and will tweak them every few years to ensure that. And if something doesn't work, they change it, and will keep changing it until it does work. "We don't get our egos into it. We're not so focused on the little details that we miss the big picture."
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at Eat It Detroit.
Silver Pig Restaurant Group
For Mindy Lopus, being a restaurateur is a second career. After owning her own national tech company, her passion for wine and fine dining inspired her to make a career switch. She moved to Birmingham and opened her flagship Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro in 2010, offering the kind of wine and dining experience popular on the coasts – a risky move in a high-rent neighborhood at a time when people weren't as willing to part with their money.
Lopus, who currently owns Tallulah and Bella Piatti in Birmingham under the Silver Pig Restaurant Group, will be focusing her next efforts in Grosse Pointe Park after being approached by developers from the area. The Cotton family, who owns Meridian Health Care, are not usually real estate developers but have been working to redevelop Grosse Pointe Park (where they live) by purchasing buildings for retail and residential use and incentivizing people to move in as well as open businesses, similar to the Live Downtown initiative which has helped several hundred people move downtown through financial incentives. The Cottons have already brought about 150 people to Grosse Pointe Park, and in addition to Lopus's ventures have also attracted James Beard finalist Dave Gilbert, formerly of the Forest Grill, to open his solo venture Marais, as well as a second location for Birmingham's Luxe. They also hope to add a market and a brewpub.
They approached Lopus as she was working on her own growth plans and the opportunity "worked really beautifully" for what she wanted to do.
"They are absolutely not doing this for money," she says. "They are doing this to sustain Grosse Pointe Park and create more of a draw."
The under-served area is ripe with opportunity for bars and restaurants, drawing clientele from the neighboring Grosse Pointes (where dining options are few and not very varied despite dense population and a desirable demographic) as well as the much-buzzed-about city of Detroit. In the coming months Lopus will open two new restaurants and a bakery.
Lopus will open Red Crown in the historic old Standard Oil Gas Station by mid-January. The concept is comfort food and the menu will feature burgers and BBQ, with wood fire smokers and grills. They will serve lunch, dinner and eventually weekend brunches and will have a huge patio out front as well as an organic garden. The building will retain much of the character from its previous incarnation as as the old gas station (think Vinsetta Garage East) with the bar located where the service counter once was and the dining room where the service bays were.
Bona Fide Baking Company will follow closely behind Red Crown and will be a forum for James Beard finalist pastry chef Tanya Fallon to display her skills. They will sell artisan breads and pastries and also have a café serving breakfast and lunch with indoor and outdoor dining. Bona Fide will also be another outpost cafe for the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company, which already has a full cafe and bar in Detroit's Midtown, a second cafe inside the Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills, and is working on a third in Lake Orion. All the breads and desserts for all of the Silver Pig group will be made here, and they will also offer wholesale products to other restaurants and markets.
A third restaurant set to open next spring will serve as a second location for one of Lopus’s Birmingham restaurants, though details have not yet been finalized. Lopus is still working on plans to open Addie & Jack’s, an upscale comfort food concept attached to the Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market in Birmingham, after finally receiving approval from the city for the liquor license. She is also currently working with Bedrock Real Estate (owned by Dan Gilbert) in Detroit, though no leases have been signed yet. Corporate Chef Daniel Campbell will continue overseeing all of the restaurants.