Urban Traverse City Pioneering 101

Everybody told Russell Springsteen he was crazy. Nobody ever sought out Garland Street, day or night. But he'd already fallen in love with the decrepit site, a few blocks across the parkway from the Open Space on Grand Traverse Bay. He even remembers that momentous day when the Cherriot, the bus for the National Cherry Festival, dropped him off right in front of what would become his Salon Saloon – with the motto "you sip, we'll snip"– and a few years later, one door down, Traverse City's only microbrewery, Right Brain.

"I had this utopian kind of idea about developing this place," says Springsteen, 41, and a native of Durand, near Flint, who explains that people from his area possess a certain blue-collar chip on their shoulders and don't really want to hear well-intentioned advice. Not even from his wife, Bronwen, who grew up in Traverse City, and assured him that nobody would ever find the place.  

Springsteen understood a solid truth about the craft brewery biz, which he learned working for Traverse Brewing Co. on U.S. 31-N in Williamsburg, way off the beaten path: "Beer geeks seek you out."  So he forged on, stars in his eyes, assets leveraged to the max and an architect's plan for the interior that he would have to pay for over time, and his landlord, family and friends got busy making the place sing.

That was four years ago. Every dollar Springsteen made on haircuts went into the next phase -- $40,000 in beermaking equipment, massive stainless-steel holding tanks, all of it according to plan. Springsteen opened Right Brain two and a half years after that, over budget, literally down to a few bucks, so far into it financially that there was no way out.

"The weekend we opened I was in tears -- I could either pay rent or make payroll," says Springsteen. He decided he had to pay his staff and hoped his landlord would forgive him. As it turned out, Right Brain's first weekend gave him enough to do both. In April, he sold Salon Saloon to one of the hairdressers who worked with him, Cecilia Mafonko, so he could focus his whole brain on Right Brain.

Walk inside, and it's like nothing else in Traverse City -- exposed beams and pipes on the ceiling, concrete floors, an eclectic mish-mash of tables and chairs, some of the salon variety. A red wall here, green wall there, dartboards and blackboards, a shuffleboard and a wall of ceramic mugs that signify membership in the Mug Club -- a $225 Lifetime buys a mug, which you create at the ceramics place next door, and discounts on half-gallon growlers of beer.  He has 560 members. There's no kitchen, just made-in-Michigan packaged snacks like Pop-Kie's Popcorn from downtown Traverse City and The Redheads hummus from nearby Lake Leelanau. Even the seating comes from Michigan -- Grand Rapids Chair Co. -- because Springsteen is a fierce believer in the Great Lakes state. Friday night Happy Hour with $3 pints is huge. Rotating local art fills the walls and if it sells, Springsteen takes 10 percent commission. Traverse City's Nielsen Design Group did the retro graphics for Right Brain's pitchers, t-shirts and other items. Bright Bridge Studios, another Traverse City business, designed the website.

The biggest difference you'll notice about Right Brain is the noise level, or lack thereof, because there are no big-screen TVs blaring, just soft music."We've never had a fight or an argument here," Springsteen says, smiling. "There's no TV for people to sit in front of and get mad; there's no food, so people leave when they're hungry. We've redesigned the art of conversation." And, of course, like all Michigan restaurants, it's smoke-free.

Rick Korndorfer, the landlord who has owned the 14,000-square-foot building since 1986, was at Right Brain on a recent Friday night, where a female friend, an attorney in her mid-50s, told him it is one of the few bars in Traverse City where she feels comfortable stopping by alone. Korndorfer used the building as a warehouse for his office-supply business before Springsteen came to him with his idea, after which he rehabbed the former concrete-block exterior with insulating foam and stucco and studded out and insulated the interiors.

"I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for Russ," Korndorfer says, adding that he is optimistic and bullish about the district, despite the fact that another tenant in the building, Joe Cuppa Warehouse Lounge, recently departed.  He is confident he can find another. In the meantime, InsideOut Gallery across the way, which touts one of the Midwest's largest collections of outsider art, is expanding, and other urban pioneers are making this spot their business address: attorneys, a small TV production company, and as of last week, the city's Planning Commission gave its blessings for an upscale, four-story 107-room boutique Hotel Indigo, part of InterContinental Hotels, whose intention is to keep that urban flavor simmering. We'll be watching.

As for Springsteen, who now has 17 employees, a silent partner, a huge debt load, and works 12-hour days, he's happy the hotel people seem to understand what he has created. "You can't stop growth -- all you can do is try to control how it's done. You're either part of the problem or part of the solution -- I choose to be part of the solution."

Patty LaNoue Stearns is managing editor of Northwest Michigan's Second Wave.

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