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Brome Burgers’ Sam Abbas on how Downtown Dearborn is an ideal place to grow a business

"If it will work here, it will work anywhere."

That's what restaurateur Sam Abbas says about Dearborn's downtown districts. He believes that the city's diversity of businesses, customers, and residents make it the ideal testing ground for entrepreneurs.

While Dearborn is home to some of the biggest companies, like Ford Motor Company and Carhartt, the small mom-and-pop businesses also help drive the local economy. The city has college students and business executives, school teachers, and manufacturing workers. Its cultural diversity, too, proves as good a barometer as any.

For these reasons and more--he also says he missed the place where he was born and raised, and that genuine Midwest spirit--Abbas returned from a stint in Arizona, bringing his first business back to Michigan and eventually starting another one.

Sam Abbas founded Yogurtopia, a frozen yogurt and more shop that has expanded with multiple locations across Metro Detroit, and Brome Burgers & Shakes, a fresh and organic fast casual hamburger restaurant. 
 
He's not only guided those businesses through periods of growth and additional locations but was also invited to be a member of the Board of Directors of the West Downtown Dearborn Development Authority, where he serves as the Chairperson of the Promotions and Organizations Committee.

"Dearborn is a place where a business can start, and you can grow from here," says Abbas. "It's kind of like an incubator."

Abbas left Dearborn to complete an MBA from Arizona State University, opening his first Yogurtopia there in Arizona. He learned a lot from running his first Yogurtopia locations, something that prepared him for life back in Michigan. He saw a lot of potential in his hometown and moved back, opening Yogurtopias in Dearborn and its neighboring communities.

Sensing an opportunity for a local hamburger restaurant that focused on fresh, organic ingredients with items made in-house and from scratch, Abbas came up with the Brome Burgers and Shakes concept. A fast success since opening in October 2015, he's already planning a second location. Brome Burgers & Shakes is scheduled to open a location in downtown Detroit's financial district sometime mid-year 2017.

Abbas credits the success of Brome to the lessons learned from Yogurtopia.

"I had always wanted to go into the restaurant business, and I wanted to get my feet wet," he says. "It's a very, very challenging business. You want experience. Yogurtopia allowed me to get that and expand into Brome Burgers."

Not only does Abbas believe Dearborn to be the ideal testing grounds for a new business, but he also views it as a hidden gem. He says that other downtowns in Metro Detroit don't have what Dearborn has, with its museums, big-time employers, and the new John D. Dingell Transit Center. It's on the verge of becoming the new hip downtown of the region, he says, with cool developments, funky architecture, and great restaurants. 

Still, for all of the growth his businesses are experiencing, that doesn't mean it's time for Abbas to kick back and relax. There's always work to be done and lessons to be learned.

"It never gets easier. You think you master one thing but the restaurant business is always challenging," he says. "There are all these different personalities to handle, from the line cooks to the vendors. And as a business owner, you have to wear all the different hats."

"In the restaurant business, you don't own your time. Time owns you."
 
Name and title: Sam Abbas, Owner
 
Years Yogurtopia and Brome Burgers opened: 2013 Yogurtopia and 2015 Brome
 
One interesting job you had before running your restaurants: Business project manager for Cigna Healthcare

What's the best thing about running a restaurant: Seeing a satisfied customer
 
What's your favorite hamburger: The Mex (Corn Salsa, Cheddar-Jack Cheese Sauce, Pickled Jalapeno, Avocado, Chipotle Mayo) is heavenly

Origin story: Dearborn's Green Brain Comics

With Dan and Katie Merritt, comic books are a family business. The couple has owned and operated Green Brain Comics on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn since 1999. And they've been around comics even longer than that. 
 
It's that decades-worth of comic book knowledge that has established Green Brain's reputation as one of the region's go-to sources for the newest comic books and graphic novels, from the most mainstream superhero comics to the more obscure and offbeat independent books.

Katie Merritt first started working at a Wyandotte comic book store as a teenager and is nearing her 29th year in the industry. Her husband Dan began when the couple purchased Green Brain from former owner Gary Reed in 1999. Even their daughter--now an adult who grew up in the shop--works at a comic book shop out in California, a fact her parents get a kick out of. It's the family dynamic that has fueled Green Brain's growth throughout the years.

"I think the fact that we do this together is a perfect balance. It gives us the opportunity to pursue our own things outside the shop and not feel like it's all-consuming," says Katie. 

For Katie, it was a simple retail job as a teenager that completely shaped the course of her life. Visiting her future brother-in-law at Comic Gallery in Wyandotte, and soon started working there herself. That location closed and she moved to then-owner Gary Reed's other location in Dearborn, Comics Plus. Katie would go on to manage that location for ten years and meet her future husband, Dan Merritt.

When Reed wanted out of his comic book business, he first offered the store to long-time manager Katie. Unsure if she wanted to take on the responsibility of owning a business, she consulted with her husband. Dan, wholly unsatisfied with his career in manufacturing, jumped at the notion of the Merritts owning the comic book store. A purchase was completed and a name change was in order. Green Brain Comics was born.
 
Dan swears he can find a book to suit just about anybody. He says this is mainly due to the comic industry's increased diversity in offerings, especially over the past ten or so years. There are more types of books, more styles of art, and more topics addressed. It's a direction the comic book industry and the Merritts have embraced.

"Comic books aren't just for teenage boys anymore," says Dan.

While comic book stores can suffer from an insider's club mentality, a place where superfans gather to discuss the well-studied minutiae of a character that has been around for decades, that's not the vibe the Merritts look to cultivate. Green Brain isn't a clubhouse; it's a bookstore. The books just have pictures in them.

"We want it to be like the Barnes & Noble of graphic novels, of comic books," says Katie. "Anyone can come in. Families, people that don't know anything about comics can know that they can feel comfortable here and say 'I don't know anything about this' and no one here is going to make them feel bad, that they're the noob."

It's that desire for inclusivity that has spilled out of the store and into the neighborhoods. The Merritts are actively involved in the east Dearborn downtown community. Dan is chairperson of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, and the couple frequently works with the Arab American National Museum on events. They once hosted President and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics Geoff Johns, who created a new line of Green Lantern comics where the superhero is a Muslim Arab-American born in Dearborn. Dan is also working with the Dearborn Symphony Orchestra, curating a selection of superhero movie pieces that the orchestra will perform in April. Free Comic Book Day, kids outreach, family-friendly events and more, are all coming out of Green Brain Comics.

This January 21, Green Brain will host a tabletop gaming event, free and open to the public. It's just one more way for the Merritts to reach out to the community and invite them into their world.

Green Brain Comics is located at 13936 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn.

Name: Katie Merritt

Year Green Brain Comics opened:
 
The shop opened as Comics Plus (owned by Gary Reed) in 1985. I started working here in 1988. We became owners in 1999 and changed the name to Green Brain in 2001.

One interesting job you had before running Green Brain Comics:
 
When I was 14 and 15, I worked in a Dairy Queen-style ice cream shop. There were easy days and challenging days, but mostly I ate a lot of ice cream. 
 
What's the best part about running Green Brain Comics:
 
Making people happy by providing an engaging source of entertainment and a place to hang out with others who share their interests. Working with people who also share this passion and are fun to be with. Basically, I get to go to work every day and talk about things I love with people who love the same things.

 Your favorite comic book/graphic novel of all time:
 
There is no way to pick one favorite among the thousands of great books, but one of my favorite series is Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers. It was one of the first comics I read when getting into them in the 80's and one of the reasons I fell in love with the medium. It showed that great comics don't have to be about superheroes. I love the intensely deep world building and that the characters have aged along with me for 30 years. 

If you were a comic book/graphic novel character, who would you be:
 
Right now, I think I would be Wonder Woman so that I could take my magic lasso to Washington D.C.

Name: Dan Merritt

One interesting job you had before running Green Brain Comics: 

I was a machinist for several years before entering the comic book retailing world. One of the things that made machining interesting to me was creative problem solving, and we did plenty of that in the small manufacturing company that I worked for here in Dearborn. It prepared me for running my own business in ways that I never expected. There are little challenges that pop up in the store, and it helps to look at them from all sides to come up with solutions that involve more than just duct tape.

What's the best part about running Green Brain Comics:

The best part about running Green Brain Comics is being surrounded by the medium that I love and spending time with other people that love it as much as I do. My partner Katie, our staff, and our customers, we all love comic books so much. Every day, I get asked to make reading suggestions to customers. It gives me a charge to help find just the right book for that person. And then to see them when they come back in a few weeks for the next issue or volume.

Your favorite comic book/graphic novel of all time: 

One of my favorite writers is Warren Ellis. Several years ago Warren wrote a series called Transmetropolitan. It's the story of a reporter styled after Hunter S. Thompson, who lives and writes in a near future world much like ours. His commentary on that society and the presidential campaign he is hired to cover is fueled by his contempt for it, and his very large appetite for designer drugs. So much that is written about in Transmetropolitan is disturbingly close to what we have experienced over the recent election cycle. For better or worse, this an amazing series that I go back to often for insight, entertainment, and a couple of laughs.

If you were a comic book/graphic novel character, who would you be: 

As corny as it sounds, I've always felt a kinship with Captain America. Not because I am particularly militant, more that I am inspired by his resolve to uphold the values that make us all Americans. Respect, perseverance, and the rights of all Americans have often been a hallmark of the best of Captain America's stories. And particularly, as a comic book retailer, our First Amendment rights are of utmost importance to me. Much like when Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," I use Cap as a role model to remind me that I need to stand up and speak truth to power.

Tom Kelly prepares Michigan for the next industrial revolution

Tom Kelly is preparing for the revolution. And he wants Michigan to be prepared, too.

Technology is rapidly changing the way things are manufactured, and Kelly wants to make sure that Michigan's manufacturing companies are at the forefront of what some are calling the world's fourth industrial revolution—or Industry 4.0, as it's been coined.

As executive director of Automation Alley, Kelly has made it his job to convince the manufacturing industry to invest in Industry 4.0. The phrase was originally coined in Germany, where leaders of an economy similar to Michigan's had seen the writing on the wall and decided that they were going to have to embrace the disruptive technological changes poised to affect manufacturing. Big data, cloud technology, cyber security, 3D printing, autonomous robots, sensors and the Internet.  Each of these is coming, all at the same time.

"The only way we'll be successful is if we understand and move very quickly to protect what we do very well," he says. 
 
Kelly says Michigan needs to let the world know that it's not just a center of automotive and manufacturing technology, but of technology itself. And to do that, he says, the state needs to continue drawing the best minds in technology from all over the world.
 
A native of Syracuse, New York, Kelly was recruited to work at a Metro Detroit startup after college. After an MBA from the University of Michigan and a successful run up the corporate ladder, Kelly switched tracks and began to work for the state's Small Biz Tech Development Center of Michigan. Over the course of seven years, Kelly would advise roughly 300 startups, putting his combination of engineering and business acumen to use.

Kelly was then recruited to join Automation Alley. The advocacy agency was first thought up and launched in 1999 by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who wanted an organization to shine a light on how important technology was to the economy and how far advanced our region was in it. The organization has since gathered over 1,000 members and, though their focus has shifted to stay ahead of the times, it continues to advocate for Michigan technology and industry.

"We think that Industry 4.0 will be more impactful to job creation in Southeast Michigan than even autonomous vehicles," says Kelly. "Now we must win that, too, but factory automation is actually what is going to help us regain our footing in the world."

Kelly has spearheaded Automation Alley's focus on Industry 4.0 since he was named the executive director of the organization earlier this year. There's a significant shift in manufacturing, he says, and not just in automobiles, but also in everything from the defense industry to the produce industry. 
 
Production is moving closer to the consumer, says Kelly, and that means there are jobs to be had. But even though manufacturing may get much more localized, it won't be in the manner of yesteryear. Those days are over and not worth grousing over, says Kelly. 
 
In pointing to Industry 4.0, Kelly points to the future. And with Automation Alley, Kelly hopes to convince the area's manufacturers that it's a future worth investing in.

"We are positioned well to win the next battle. Stop fighting the battle from yesterday. That's over. But now, with the digitization of everything, we can win. So let's run like crazy down that path," says Kelly. "We're in great shape to do that."

Name and title: Tom Kelly, Executive Director

What is one interesting job you had before running Automation Alley:  I worked for the Michigan Small Business Development Center as a Technology Business Consultant helping tech startups from conception through rapid growth. I advised over 300 companies in seven years, but what I learned from each of them in the process was priceless. 

What's the most exciting thing about the technology industry today:  I believe manufacturing will change more in the next five years than the last 50. Industry 4.0 will change everything, and future winners and losers are being determined today.  

What's your favorite car of all time:  '78 Pontiac Grand Prix with a Landau Top. It was the first car I ever had, and I remember that car and those days fondly.

Car sharing research study begins in Dearborn

Thirty University of Michigan-Dearborn students, all residents of the Union at Dearborn, were selected to take part in a research study conducted by automotive supplier DENSO International America, Inc.  in partnership with the Detroit-based advanced energy and mobility technologies accelerator NextEnergy.

The study will analyze the car sharing habits of people who live, work, and frequent the same location. Students will be given near free reign over three Ford Focus electric vehicles, requiring only that they reserve the vehicles through a custom third-party reservation app. They're permitted to take the cars wherever they please, from dinner dates with friends to concerts downtown, from grocery stores to trips back home.

Students are even allowed to leave the state with the cars, but they're not allowed to leave the continental United States with the vehicles.

"MDrive is a great opportunity for University of Michigan-Dearborn students to participate in an eco-friendly, alternative transportation option on campus," Chancellor Daniel Little says in a statement. "Our students will be one of the few who have the potential to influence the new technology decision-making process for vehicle sharing products, services, and business models."

On-board diagnostics equipment and cameras have been installed in the cars, enabling DENSO to collect real-time data and record user experiences. DENSO also installed three charging stations at three parking spaces for the electric vehicles.

In return for the use of the cars, students are required to answer short surveys after each trip. A weekly discussion board will also be held.

According to Michael Bima, a lead engineer in the North American Research and Engineering Center at DENSO International America, "Our goal is to learn more about what technologies are most needed in car share vehicles of the future. And this will help us collect user feedback to design products for the car sharing market."

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

If you don't evolve, you die: How Jacob Bishop re-energized the Mr. Alan's brand

Despite having grown up in and around his father's shoe stores, Jacob Bishop showed little interest in joining his dad's company once graduating from Michigan State University. 
 
He wanted to strike out and build something of his owna not so unusual impulse for a 22-year old. Jacob and his brother Adam did just that, opening Soles Inc., a small high-end sneaker boutique in Miami's South Beach that grew to five locations throughout Florida.

Jacob would eventually move back north and take over the family business, re-branding and re-energizing the decades-old company by drastically shaking up the business model. And it seems to be working. Mr. Alan's is now Elite Mr. Alan's, a place for finding the latest trends in shoes and clothing, not just the best bargains.

It's a quality over quantity approach. Some told him it wouldn't fly. Michigan is not Florida, they said. Keep it simple and don't get too colorful. But as incremental changes proved successful, Jacob was emboldened. It was time for change.

"If you're not either growing or evolving, you're dying," says Jacob.

Jacob is the son of Alan Bishop, founder of the Mr. Alan's chain of shoe and clothing stores. Like his son, Alan also split off from the family business at an early age. At just 18 years old, Alan opened his first shoe store in 1974. Alan's father, Robert, had his own stores, specializing in women's shoes. So as not to compete with his dad, Alan opened a shoe store that carried men's shoes.

As with any successful business, Mr. Alan's changed with the times. Starting out in men's dress shoes, the company eventually began carrying men's casual shoes and even a few sneakers. Clothing was later introduced. As the decades wore on, Mr. Alan's shifted to a price-point-driven model offering good products at good prices, nothing too fancy. Sneakers became the focus. This shift is best identified by one of the catchiest slogans to be transmitted across Metro Detroit's broadcast airwavesMr. Alan's: $29 or two for $50.

Somewhere around 2012, the brothers Bishop merged their Soles Inc. brand with their father's Mr. Alan's chain of stores. Soon, Jacob would be making the trek up north to help with the strategic merging of companies. What he thought would last one month turned into three and then six. Following his father's departure from day-to-day duties, Jacob did something he never thought he'd do. Along with his brother, he became Co-CEO and Co-President of Mr. Alan's.

"The company was doing fine; they were doing greateverything was pretty much consistent," says Jacob. "We weren't necessarily growing, we weren't necessarily declining, but we were not, for a good chunk of time, evolving as a company. Which, I think, leaves you very vulnerable. So even though we were flat, we were a sitting target."

To change that, Jacob took what he learned in Florida and applied it to the Mr. Alan's stores here in Michigan. Though some told him it wouldn't work, Jacob started small. He introduced higher end and better quality products into one section of the store and waited to see how customers would respond. 
 
"If I only mess up 20 percent of the store, I only mess up 20 percent of sales, right?"

Sales, in fact, only grew. Soon the higher end concept took up half of Mr. Alan's stores and eventually would come to take over the whole store. Drastic updates and improvements were made to the furniture, displays, and overall designs of each store. To reflect that evolution, Jacob changed the name from Mr. Alan's to Elite Mr. Alan's.

The company is now in expansion mode. The older Mr. Alan's stores have been re-designed and re-branded as Elite Mr. Alan's. New stores have been popping up throughout Metro Detroit, including the latest at McNichols and Grand River, near the new Meijer development. It's the thirteenth Elite Mr. Alan's store. The company plans to open six more over the next 18 months and 24 more over the next three years.

Like his father before him, Jacob Bishop is proving that in business, evolution is key.

Name and title: Jacob Bishop, Co-President and Co-CEO of Elite Mr. Alan’s

Year Mr. Alan's opened: 1974

Year Mr. Alan's Elite opened/began: evolution into Elite began in 2012

One interesting job he had before running Mr. Alan's: Jacob started his own car detailing business in high school. His niche was that he would pick up the cars from his customers (wherever they were), detailed the cars at his house and then returned the cars to his customers.

Your favorite shoe of all time: White-on-white Nike Air Force 1

Biggest lessons you learned from his dad about running a business: To treat your brands with the same respect used to treat the customers

Entrepreneur launches 'Rochester-opoly' in time for the holidays

When Lynne Vettraino saw a Monopoly spin-off game customized to her hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania while visiting family, she knew at once her adopted hometown of Rochester, Michigan, needed one too.

"It was so cool to see places I know as spaces on a board game," Vettraino says in a press release. "As someone who finds myself always saying how great this region is, I have finally found a way to focus my enthusiasm on a project that can market the fantastic place I live and love.”

So Vettraino set about designing and manufacturing the game, and selling "advertising space" in the form of property deeds, Chance cards and game pieces to local businesses and nonprofits.Top sponsors include Crittenton Hospital, Frank Rewold & Son, Inc., Chief Financial Credit Union, Great Oaks Country Club, Village of Rochester Hills, Rochester Post, Rochester Telemessaging Center and Royal Park Hotel. Proceeds from every game sold will benefit the Rochester Community Schools Foundation. 

The game will be available in early December and sold for $30.00, plus tax. Vendors selling the game include: Chief Financial Credit Union, Crittenton Hospital Gift Shop, Dillman & Upton, Leader Dogs for the Blind, Olive Vinegar, the OPC, Paint Creek Center for the Arts, Rochester College Bookstore, Rochester Hills Public Library, Royal Park Hotel, South Street and Twin Lakes Golf & Swim Club. Rochester-opoly is a limited edition, so people are encouraged to purchase them while supplies last.

You can learn more about Rochester-opoly at this page on Facebook.
 

Startup Story Night accepting submissions for Detroit storytelling event

Everyone has a story to tell, and Southeast Michigan Startup and the New Economy Initiative want to help entrepreneurs tell theirs.
 
The two organizations are presenting Startup Story Night, the first of its kind in Detroit. It’ll be a night of storytelling, hosted by a nationally renowned storyteller, and will take place in a unique venue in the wonderfully diverse city known for creation, creativity, and boundless ideas—and the resolve to never quit.
 
The night will shine a spotlight on five local entrepreneurs who will share their “a-ha” moment: when they realized their idea or product would work, despite the challenges and adversity they faced—and in spite of those who may have told them “no,” or not even given them the time of day. And readers who have attended Southeast Michigan Startup's High Growth Happy Hours or followed coverage of entrepreneurs who are scaling their businesses will have the opportunity to share their story and learn from their peers.
 
Here’s how the process will work:
  • Submissions for stories are open until Dec. 9. Stories must not exceed 10 minutes.
  • A local committee will narrow down the submissions to five entrepreneurs and their stories.
  • The five entrepreneurs will be announced Jan. 3, 2017.
  • Startup Story Night will take place Jan. 19, 2017.
In addition, Detroit native Glynn Washington will be the featured host and storytelling coach. Washington is the host and executive producer of the WNYC-produced podcast Snap Judgment. Washington, a University of Michigan graduate who also received a law degree from U-M’s law school, has a background of supporting and working with entrepreneurs. From 2007 to 2010, Washington was the director of the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at Haas, also known as YEAH, a program at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business that serves at-risk students in middle and high schools.
 
Washington has received national acclaim in publications like The Atlantic, which called him the “fastest-rising public radio star in memory.”
 
In addition to his hosting duties, Washington will conduct a workshop exclusively for the selected entrepreneurs to help them polish their stories and advise them in the art of storytelling onstage, under the bright lights and in front of an audience.
 
To submit a story for consideration, head over to Startup Story Night and fill out the short submission form.

Detroit Grooming Company CEO keeps hands-on approach to business growth

In just three years time, Michael Haddad has gone from complaining about the itchy beginnings of a new beard to selling hundreds of handmade grooming products per week.

Haddad is CEO of Detroit Grooming Company and, along with co-founders Shaun Walford and Chad Buchanan, has grown the company from one handmade product to approximately 200 products. The company started in from a 300 sq. ft. self-characterized closet and has now grown into a 7,000 sq. ft. light industrial building on Wolcott Street in Ferndale. Detroit Grooming Company also has its own barber shop on Woodward Avenue in Ferndale and is building a second one in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood.

Detroit Grooming Company didn't start with a grand vision but instead a genuine curiosity. In 2013, Haddad and Walford, both employees of Buchanan at a local jewelry shop, decided that they were going to grow their beards out for No Shave November, aka Movember, a grassroots movement to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. 
 
With the duo scratching their faces as their beards grew in, they purchased a beard oil to share, hoping it would alleviate the itchiness.

Displeased with the product, Haddad and Walford wondered if they couldn't make one themselves. Fast-forward three years later, and Detroit Grooming Company has launched the Black Label Collection, a limited line of grooming products that include beard oils, butters, and cleansers. Fifteen percent of sales from the Black Label Collection will go to No-Shave.org, which benefits a number of non-profit cancer organizations.

"It's crazy what a little bit of time and a little bit of research actually does," says Haddad. "Because you can be a complete novice at something and the Internet, although it's used for cat pictures and pictures of people's dinner, can also be used to actually make change in your life and affect the outcome of other people's lives, too, in a positive way."

After a period of research and trial-and-error, Haddad and Walford showed what would become their first product, Corktown Beard Oil, to Buchanan. Immediately taken by the tobacco and vanilla scent, Buchanan wanted in, and the three became business partners, launching what would become the Detroit Grooming Company.

Expanding from one product to 200 didn't just happen overnight. Much of what Detroit Grooming Company sells comes from either instances of personal need, customer suggestion, or wondering if they can do something better than their competitors. And it's the co-founders that test the products on themselves. Get an idea, see if it works, and adjust accordingly.

"It's accidental how some things happen, but you have to have deliberate actions afterwards," says Haddad. "Each one of us have contributed to the creation of these products."

Starting in that 300 sq. ft. closet, Detroit Grooming moved to a space on Fort Street in Detroit before outgrowing that and moving to a bigger space in Ferndale. They've since moved to the even bigger 7,000 sq. ft. space in Ferndale. 
 
A barber chair from the 1920s sits near the front, awaiting restoration and an eventual installation in the Corktown barber shop. One row of shelves has hundreds of finished products, awaiting shipment. Another row contains hundreds of ingredients. An enormous vat sits atop two table-top heaters (the vat too big for one heater to handle on its own).

The co-founders are heavily involved, making their products by hand, preparing packages to ship, the majority of which they do themselves. All this despite the fact that they've gone from selling 10 orders per week to selling over 100 orders per day. 
 
Haddad says that for all their success, the same desire to create back in 2013 is the same that drives them today. They're just creating a whole lot more.

"We're able to handle it," Haddad says of the company's growth. "You just scale. You move along with the trends. You don't fight anything. You go with what's flowing. That's how you find the best."

After 35 years, Royal Oak vegetarian restaurant gets better and better

Nick Raftis is the third owner of Inn Season Cafe, the small but mighty vegetarian and vegan restaurant located on the outskirts of downtown Royal Oak. But for Raftis, Inn Season Cafe is as much an institution as it is a business.

Raftis grew up in the 1960s and '70s, a time when vegetarian options were scarce, when, as Raftis tells it, your average restaurant left vegetarians little choice but to order a hamburger without the meat. Things are different these days, though, and dining options for vegetarians are much more varied and available.

In the face of rising competition, Inn Season has managed to not only stay open but thrive. 
 
Inn Season Cafe was established in 1981 and Raftis purchased the business in 2002. But Raftis doesn't believe in resting on one's laurels. The key to success, he says, is change.

"You have to change according to the times," Raftis says. "Our food quality has gone way up. As the compromised integrity of the food products in our normal food channels have become corrupted, we've moved to those where we know where it's grown, how it's grown."

Focusing on local and organic food products is just one way Inn Season Cafe has been able to stay successful. Raftis has another philosophy for running a business and that's to make necessary long-term decisions. 
 
While it might be painful to make those infrastructure upgrades that don't result in any immediate and obvious returns, it's the customers who notice. As Raftis says, "You can get cheap with the money but it fafects the experience."

Raftis himself has an interesting backstory. He was born in Detroit and grew up through the cultural shifts of the late 1960s. As a teenager, he spent time hanging out at the Hare Krishna temple in Detroit. A vegetarian by the age of 16, Raftis would travel around India when he was 18 years old. 
 
He's owned several businesses since then, including an engineering firm, the Sunflower Cafe in Ann Arbor, and a video rental store in Saginaw. A singer and songwriter, he's currently recording an album produced by local rocker Tino Gross of the Howling Diablos.

Though it may have been established in 1981, the restaurant doesn't feel out of date. Raftis points out that only the ceiling and molding – and maybe a mirror – remain from the dining room's past. 
 
The kitchen equipment has been modernized, and the HVAC system is up to date. You could say that the one constant is the food, but the Inn Season Cafe team is constantly trying to improve that, too.

The person that makes the food, however, has been leading the Inn Season Cafe kitchen for over two decades. Raftis, of course, credits much of the restaurant's success to Chef Thomas Lasher and recently sold him a stake in the business. 
 
Lasher creates delicious healthy food, an important distinction from vegetarian and vegan plates that can often feel bland and uninspired, says Raftis. Whether you're a vegetarian, vegan, or even a meat eater, Lasher creates dishes that are healthy and satisfying.

"The good food, when you eat it, you feel energized. Like, hey man, let's go do something. Let's get up and walk around," says Raftis. "And that's the way people feel when they eat here."

35 years and counting.

Profile: Megan Ackroyd prepares to steward Scottish bakery into third generation

As the holiday season draws close, the lines grow longer and longer at Ackroyd's Scottish Bakery, a small storefront in Redford. And like the multiple generations of Ackroyds that have been running the bakery since it first opened, they've been serving their traditional Scottish meat pies, sausage rolls, and bridies to multiple generations of families across the region. 
 
It's a fact that's not lost on Megan Ackroyd, president of Ackroyd's Scottish Bakery, third generation.

"At Christmas time or Thanksgiving, certain families have traditions that are based around our food. That's such a huge compliment and we don't take that for granted at all. It's really incredible for me to be able to say that," says Megan. "My family's business is someone else's family tradition. That's a very specific thing. It's a huge honor. I want to keep that going."

Megan assumed the role of president after her return to Michigan in 2010. It was something she never planned on -- she didn't even plan on staying in Michigan. Fresh off a nearly eight year stint in corporate America, Megan figured she'd return to her family's shop, get re-acquainted with the business, and open a new Ackroyd's Scottish Bakery in Charlotte, North Carolina. 
 
But her return stirred a deep emotional connection to the family business and its customers. So she stayed. Megan has committed herself to growing the Ackroyd's brand, making sure that it sticks around for generations to come.

In 1949, Megan's grandfather Allan Ackroyd and his brother Silas came over from Windsor, Ontario and opened their first shop as Ackroyd's Meat Market near the intersection of 6 Mile and Schaefer roads in Detroit. First a butcher shop, Ackroyd's morphed into a bakery as the brothers began to carry other companies' meat pies and pasties. Soon deciding they could cut out the middle man, they began making their own traditional Scottish meat pies.

The business grew with multiple locations opening across metro Detroit. At somewhere around seven or eight years old, Megan started working at the family's Birmingham location. Too small to see over the counter, she would peek around its edge to take customers' orders.

"I loved working there," says Megan. "It wasn't like my parents were ever forcing me to be there. I was just there for fun."

Ackroyd's is now down to one location, the storefront on 5 Mile Road in Redford. But business is good, and Megan is currently working on a strategy to grow Ackroyd's into a multiple location business once again. The online presence of the company continues to grow. 
 
They've also begun selling their products at the new Red Dot Coffee Company in Northville. Other companies, like Door to Door Organics, sell their shortbread cookies. And Detroit's Bon Bon Bon recently used the Ackroyd's shortbread as a main component in its Butter Cookie Bon Bon treat.

Megan is also planning on a redesign for the Redford location, which is fairly utilitarian with its metal racks and spartan decor. She's tapped Branded by Detroit to create custom wooden shelves and a hand-painted wooden sign. 
 
She wants to tell the story of the unique products Ackroyd's creates and carries. In addition to the range of cookies, teacakes, meat pies, sausage rolls, and many other products they make in house, you'd be hard-pressed to find another business in metro Detroit with the special products they import from the United Kingdom, including foreign candies, pops, and groceries. And the special UK Christmas treats are just about to arrive, too.

"December is, hands down, our best month," says Megan. "It is the busiest, it is the craziest, but it's also the most fun around here."

Ackroyd's remains as much of a family business as ever. Megan's father, Allan, Jr., still works in the back, having always preferred the production side of the bakery, while Megan works the business side of things, her own preferred role. At 90 years old, her grandpa, the co-founder Allan Ackroyd, is also around. Megan's partner Joe Hakim handles the marketing side of the business. And Megan and Joe's three-year-old son is now getting familiar with the store, rearranging the products on the shelves and trying to eat whatever cookies he can get his hands on.

Give him a couple years and you might be ordering from him, too.

Name and title:  Megan Ackroyd, President

Year (or years) business opened: Detroit, 1949. Moved to Redford in '72. Additional store in Birmingham 1983-2004

What is one interesting job you held before owning/running your own biz:  During college, I edited scientific manuscripts (mostly about fruit flies) for the head of the Entomology (bug) Dept at Michigan State 

Favorite memory from working in the shop: It's a toss up between taking class field trips to the bakery, during which I got to see my grandma and dad (such innocent thrills as a kid, huh?), and working with some of my best high school friends from Marian and U of D. We had so much damn fun, but I can't speak for how my dad felt about all of the fun we were having. :)  Those are by far my most treasured memories of working in the Birmingham location.

Favorite item you serve and why: Our meat pies. They are an instrumental part of our company's history and future, a unique product and the process for creating them is a multi-day labor of love.

How Canine to Five's Liz Blondy grew her dog daycare business from city to suburb

Liz Blondy has gone from zero to 250 dogs in eleven years' time. 

Owner of the Canine to Five dog daycare, boarding, and grooming company, Blondy has shepherded the business through a slow start on Cass Avenue in Detroit into a thriving company.  She purchased a nearby pet grooming business, grew the Detroit location, and expanded with a second location in Ferndale. She's now ramping up for a 8,500 sq. ft. addition to the original Detroit facility. 

And she has two dogs of her own now, too.

It all started over a couple of drinks with friends. With no plans to start a business of her own, Blondy was content with her job as a business-to-business sales rep. But she had met some friends at a bar in downtown Detroit in 2003 and eventually learned that her friends dropped their dog off at a day care facility in Farmington Hills every morning, a considerable distance from their homes in Detroit. 

Intrigued, Blondy went home and declared that she would open a facility in the city. After visiting a company in Canada and writing a business plan in November 2003, Canine to Five Detroit opened at 3443 Cass Ave. in May 2005.

"Fortunately, Canine to Five Detroit grew really, really slowly," says Blondy.

Having never owned a business or managed a pack of 100 dogs, Blondy is grateful for the slow start. Two dogs showed up the first day she opened, and she'd average about nine a day the rest of the year. In the second year, Blondy cared for about 18 a day. In the third year, Canine to Five averaged about 30 dogs a day. 

Blondy used that time to learn how to run a business; how to order office supplies, how to break up a dog fight, and how to manage a staff. Since Canine to Five is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, Blondy spent most of her time there those first few years, often sleeping and doing laundry at the building.

It took Canine to Five Detroit seven years to average 70 dogs a day. In contrast, it only took ten months to average 70 dogs a day in Ferndale. The Ferndale location was such an immediate success, in fact, that Blondy was already planning to move to a bigger facility within a year of opening in 2013. She left her lease at the 5,700 sq. ft. building on Hilton Road and purchased the 22,000 sq. ft. facility Canine to Five Ferndale now calls home at 1221 E. Nine Mile Rd.

"When I opened Canine to Five Ferndale, for the first six months, I was very hands-on there, too. But I quickly realized that I couldn't be spending 60 hours a week at Ferndale and still grow both businesses and serve as the COO of Detroit still," says Blondy. "Having good managers and a good supervisory team at both places has been really essential."

Blondy recommends taking existing employees to help open a new location. It's something that will help you grow, she says, stabilizing the expansion.

Having two locations has allowed Blondy to take lessons learned from each and apply them to the other. The slow start in Detroit gave her the time to find out how to run a business. And she says she's learned a lot from the Ferndale relocation, so she's now better prepared for the future Detroit expansion. The two Canine to Five locations now employ approximately 60 full-time and part-time workers that care for about 250 to 270 dogs a day.

Blondy has also learned that a business with a Detroit location and a suburban location are two different beasts. Each city has its own personality, wants, and needs. It's important not to treat the multiple locations with a one-size-fits-all approach. 

There is one thing, however, that needs to be the same.

"Both businesses can have very different personalities, but exceptional customer service has to be the constant between the two," says Blondy. "I'm not gonna try and have everything be super cookie-cutter because I want the locations to have different personalities. But I want, no matter what, the customer to feel good when they leave."


Clawson's Junk King spins trash into gold

As the adage goes, one person's junk is another person's treasure. It’s a lesson that the co-owners and employees of Junk King are taking to the bank.

Consider the recent case of a senior woman who had lived in the same house for decades. When she was ready to move out, she called Junk King of Detroit to help her remove some items from her home. Challenged with mobility issues, the woman hadn't even set foot in her basement for about fifteen years. When Joi McQueen, one of the co-owners of Junk King, went to the basement to see what sort of job they had ahead of them, she felt like she was stepping into a time capsule.

"It was like time had stopped in her basement. Cobwebs everywhere. Literally, no one had been down there," says McQueen. "There was stuff down there where I was like, I don't even know what this is."

"Some people get emotional sometimes when you're pulling stuff out of their basements, and they see things they haven't seen in a number of years," adds co-owner David Rzepecki.

McQueen, Rzepecki, and fellow Junk King of Detroit co-owner Kent Garibaldi have found themselves in a lot of interesting situations since first opening the Clawson-based junk removal business in January of 2016. There are the time capsule basements. There was the ghost arcade, a former business with over one hundred water-damaged arcade machines in the back. And then, of course, there are the hoarders. If there's one thing about modern America, it's that there's no shortage of stuff. That’s why McQueen, Rzepecki, a and Garibaldi figured a junk removal service seems like a pretty good bet for business.

It's hard work, removing a house full of stuff. Junk King's employees work three days on and get two days off; a standard five day work week is too physically grueling, says Rzepecki. And it's not like many of the houses are neatly packed up in boxes. Workers are often carrying out loads to the dumpster, a five-gallon bucket or two at a time. Bed bugs, too, are often the reason someone might call Junk King.

N job is too big or small; Junk King moves everything from a single television set to an entire house full of stuff. They recycle 60 to 65 percent of the items they haul away. Other items may go to the dump. Some items, say a nice couch still in good condition or a working piano, get donated to various organizations. Employees are allowed to take certain items that are otherwise destined for the trash heap, a perk of the job. One working hot tub stayed in the Clawson facility for months as the college-aged employees eyed it for the school year.

"I'm utterly amazed at the number of hot tubs we take out. It seems like we take one out close to one a day or every other day. It's amazing," says Rzepecki. "And half of them are in decent shape."

Co-owners McQueen, Garibaldi, and Rzepecki are old friends, having all worked in the medical equipment and pharmaceutical sales fields at various points over the years. Garibaldi, whose idea it was to buy into the Junk King franchise, still owns a medical equipment and pharmaceutical sales company today. Rzepecki works with him there. McQueen left the field to run Junk King full-time.

The transition from sales to entrepreneur was an easy one, says McQueen. Having to work on your own, manage a territory, and deal with customers prepared her for running Junk King. She says it's even more rewarding. She and her partners delight in seeing the joy on customers' faces after all the items have been removed.

Ten months into the business and the Junk King of Detroit crew is enjoying what they started.

"You get to meet so many people and hear their stories. I love it. I think it beats sales," says McQueen. "People are so happy; they're just ecstatic when you're done getting all of their stuff out. It's really enjoyable to see."

Logicdrop expands, set to launch new product

Earlier this year, technology startup LogicDrop was crammed in a tiny space in Berkley, its founders finding every which way to fit up to 15 employees and computers and work desks. 
 
Things are a little roomier now that Logicdrop has moved into a spacious second-floor space on the same block as popular nightspots Sneakers, the Loving Touch, and Woodward Avenue Brewers in Ferndale. And that's been a boon to the organization.

“We have a very close-knit team. We spend a lot of time working on the culture of our company," says Logicdrop co-founder KimJohn Quin. "We try to bring that startup mentality to our team."

Logicdrop co-founders KimJohn Quinn, John Shuell, and Jared Grabill met each other ten to twelve years ago, each coming from a long history of working at startups. They've been working on some form of their flagship technology product, Logicdrop Studio, for almost two decades now.

The technology has finally caught up to the vision they first shared nearly twenty years ago. It's a business rules platform that allows users to customize data analysis. They say their platform cuts weeks of computing time down to mere minutes.

Logicdrop is gearing up for the release of Logicdrop Studio and the bigger space is a reflection of how the company feels about its future. They've opened up their signature intelligence platform to a round of beta tests and expect to release a final version in the second quarter of 2017. The cofounders say that no matter their future growth, they want to maintain their startup mentality. 

The workplace culture is decidedly loose. There's no dress code, and there are no titles. Employees don't have to punch in and out, don't have to put in for vacation days; all that Logicdrop expects of its employees is that they complete the tasks they've been assigned.

Startups are trial-and-error enterprises, says Shuell, but they've worked it out to where Logicdrop is now growing. The team has discovered that while the Logicdrop Studio product is their goal, maintaining a service-based model to complement the development process of Studio allows them to keep the lights on. 
 
And it's their reputation that has carried them through; each of their clients have come to them, and not the other way around, says Shuell. Clients have included automotive companies, hospitals, law firms, banks, and Fortune 500 company Nestle.

Another way Logicdrop has kept the lights on is to hire college students. The company believes strongly in this practice; it allows them to keep costs down without having to outsource offshore talent. While it's not an official internship program, the company contends that the students it hires are better prepared for the workforce --  should they decide to leave the company after graduation, which is not often the case.

"We expect everyone to understand why they do something, not to go online and say, I found the solution, place in your code and say I'm done," says Quinn. "We want our developers to understand why they did that. And that's been a huge feather in our cap."

Though they first may be leery of the age of some of the developers, clients recommend and return to Logicdrop because of the team's successes, according to Quinn. With the pending official release of Studio and expected growth, Logicdrop is currently hiring.


 

Dessert Oasis' Nathan Hamood pioneers coffee and pomade in Rochester and Detroit

Nathan Hamood isn't very good at sitting still. That's not to say he's an angsty or fidgety sort of person. He just doesn't stop working.

Hamood spends 13 to 14 hours a day between his family's two Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters locations, one in downtown Rochester and one in downtown Detroit's Capitol Park. And when the shops shut down for the night, he somehow finds the time to develop his own hair pomade company, Ace High.

Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters is a family business. Hamood's parents opened up the shop in 2009, and he his sister Stephanie soon became partners. Today, each Hamood remains involved. Dad Jamal is a business law attorney who handles business administration duties for Dessert Oasis. Mom Charlene can often be found helping out around either shop. Sister Stephanie, a talented musician working in the music industry in Nashville, books the music acts. She's turned the two locations into destinations for live music, especially for fans of Americana and roots music.


Hamood's role has increased substantially. He began to study coffee in earnest and by 2010 was experimenting with coffee roasting techniques in a small rotisserie oven. A year or two later the Hamoods purchased a full-size coffee roaster.

“People started to seek out our coffee more and more,” says Hamood. “I was beginning to become really proud of the coffee we were putting out, because what we do next year will always be better than what we do this year.”

Dessert Oasis first opened on the edge of downtown Rochester in 2009. After a couple of years in that location, the family began to develop a new business model emphasizing craft coffee and moved to a central location within downtown Rochester. The first day they re-opened, sales doubled. A few months later they and sales tripled. 

While Dessert Oasis remains a family affair, Hamood is the face of the business. He says he does as much as he can, including buying coffee, roasting coffee, training employees, quality control, and day-to-day administrative work. 
 
He also regularly works behind the coffee bar. Being hands-on is important to him. While sitting down for this story, Hamood left the interview for ten minutes, joining an employee to help make lattes behind the counter.

“There isn't a job here we ask our staff to do that isn't something I'd do,” he says.

The success of Dessert Oasis in Rochester led to the Hamoods opening a second location in Detroit's Capitol Park in late 2015. While the brand remains consistent between the two, each has its own vibe, The Rochester location feels warm and living room-like, while the Detroit shop has a more stark, contemporary style. The Hamoods are excited about Detroit and their place in it. With several residential projects undergoing construction around Capitol Park, Hamood certainly got in at the right time.

Hamood plans on continued growth for Dessert Oasis. He'd like to increase wholesale coffee sales to other shops as well as online. This past spring, Hamood took his beans to America's Best Espresso Competition in Dallas, where he placed second in the contest, qualifying Dessert Oasis for the final round in Nashville later this year. There might even be more locations in the family's future, though Hamood says he won't do it at the sacrifice of identity and quality.

And then there's Ace High hair pomade, which Hamood developed with a Dessert Oasis employee. The pomade, which is sold at both Dessert Oasis locations, is named after old cowboy slang for someone being first-class and well-respected. It fits the country and western theme present in both shops, something he picked up from his musician sister in Nashville.

“Over time, me and one of our guys started playing around with making our own pomade. We thought we could come up with something kind of cool and brand it cool. We've just been chipping away at it whenever we had spare time,” says Hamood. “After hours, late at night if I couldn't sleep, I'd just work on the pomade.”

While coffee and pomade may seem a surprising combination, it's that craftsmanship, that attention to detail, that keeps Hamood's imagination. Even when he's trying to sleep.

Big gets bigger: September 8 innovation news roundup

Underwear is the answer at the Shirt Box

Frank Witsil of the Detroit Free Press asked the question, "How does a business grow when demand for its key product is shrinking?" A men's clothing store in Farmington Hills, the Shirt Box, has done just that. In an interview, co-owners Ron Elkus and Rod Brown explain how they've kept up with the times as demand for men's business fashion has waned over the decades. While dress shirts are still a focus, the Shirt Box has stayed relevant since opening 35 years ago by being at the forefront of changing fashions. One way they've done it? Start selling high-end, $30 underwear, a shift from the "tighty-whities" they first carried. [Detroit Free Press]

Size adjustments for garment growth in Pontiac  

In just one year since starting up, cut and sew manufacturer Detroit Sewn has grown from one client and one employee to 80 clients and 14 employees. In the beginning of 2017, Detroit Sewn will move to a 5,000 sq. ft. facility in downtown Pontiac, twice the size of its current building. The company expects to hire up to five new employees to complement the move. [dBusiness]

Big and getting bigger in Southfield

Metaldyne Performance Group, one of the world's biggest automotive suppliers, just got bigger. The Southfield-based powertrain components supplier has acquired Brillion Iron Works of Brillion, Wis. CEO George Thanopoulos says Metaldyne has completed ten acquisitions in the past ten years, consistent growth for a company ranked 76th in the top 100 global suppliers as put out by the Automotive News. [Crain's Detroit Business]

Quote of the week: "I love it." -- Bill Clinton, when the Detroit News asked his opinion of the city during a Labor Day parade down Michigan Avenue in Corktown. The former president marched in the parade and later spoke at the UAW Solidarity House on E. Jefferson Avenue. [The Detroit News]
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