How Ann Arbor developed its food crush

Brad Hedeman, director of marketing and product selection for Zingerman's Mail Order, arrived in Ann Arbor as a U-M freshman in 1994; and though he began his career that year with a job at Zingerman's Deli, he also, a few years later, waited tables at West End Grill.

"At the time, there just weren't a lot of restaurant options downtown," says Hedeman. "If you couldn't get in at West End, you probably went to the Chop House."

There were other choices, of course: Real Seafood Company had been a Main St. mainstay since 1975; and Gratzi, Palio, and the Prickly Pear had all opened their doors by the early '90s. But these eateries were once part of a relatively small grouping that has, in the last decade or so, exploded into a full-blown restaurant buffet in Ann Arbor, thus making the town a go-to destination for serious foodies.

There are many possible reasons for this evolution: the ethnic and cultural diversity of a college town; Ann Arbor's "hippie" sensibilities, which translated - in gastronomic terms - into a relatively early embrace of vegetarian/vegan and farm-to-table cuisine; a longstanding, community-wide preference for local businesses and food suppliers; a population that regularly gets a sizable injection of new, creative young people every year; and a growing frenzy around the creation and consumption of food that's swept not just Treetown, but the entire country – a la The Food Network and other media.

"Eating is no longer just about sustaining ourselves," says Laura Berarducci, a self-described foodie ("Food rules my life," she jokes) who's also the marketing director for the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's become an experience, and Ann Arbor has a long history of having a very rich food culture. … Washtenaw County provides this great balance between rural and urban, which really helps when the farm-to-table craze suddenly becomes a big deal. … Ann Arbor is kind of unique, in that it didn't have to change who it was to meet the demands of the foodie traveler."

Nearly everyone agrees that a significant part of the foundation for Ann Arbor's current, thriving food/restaurant culture is Zingerman's, which began as a deli in 1982. As it grew in notoriety and popularity – and spawned community classes and tastings, as well as Zingerman's Roadhouse, Bakehouse, Creamery, Mail Order and more – it started showing up on "best" lists in national newspapers and magazines, drawing more and more food-related attention to this mid-sized college town in the Mitten.

Berarducci believes that Zingerman's founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw "really captured the Ann Arbor spirit and made it tangible. … Zingerman's has risen to the top when it comes to name recognition at the national level."

Brandon Johns, founder and chef of Grange Kitchen and Bar, adds, "As much as some people dislike Zingerman's because of their prices, they are what made Ann Arbor a noteworthy food town. They've done such a good job for so long. That in itself is super important. They made us all more relevant, each time Zingerman's is written about in the New York Times. If nothing else, it's that kind of reputation that helps push things forward. And with the addition of their newer businesses, they push others, because they're still always trying to innovate. … They always think about what else they could be doing."

Ann Arbor's chefs and foodies also cite high quality local food suppliers as a fundamental building block of any restaurant scene – including the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market --which is now, incredibly, marking its 97th season-- and the Kerrytown fish market that Saginaw co-founded with Mike Monahan in 1979.

Grange, which opened in 2009, specializes in making dishes from fresh, local, in-season foods, but Johns notes that "even people who don't claim to be about 'local food' often buy stuff at the farmer's market. The Pacific Rim doesn't talk about it, but every week, they put in a big order because it's good."

And though you might think this puts a strain on supply, Johns answers, "No, it's the opposite. The more people who see that as a market, the more they'll grow. We're not fighting over stuff at all. … Some farmers are doing some really cool things now, growing ginger, artichokes, lemon grass – things that are hard to do. That's really exciting to me."

"I feel like [the local food scene] grew from people doing small scale things they were very passionate about," says Eve Aronoff, chef and founder of Frita Batido and eve. "The restaurants were an organic extension of places like Durham's Tracklements, the Farmer's Market, Zingerman's Deli, Morgan and York, ZZ's Market and others as a foundation of the food community in Ann Arbor. … And then people who loved to cook and create brought their own personal visions to fruition, and many of those were restaurants."

But not always. Ann Arbor is also home to unique, food-centric entities like Selma Cafe, wherein residents Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe regularly opened their home to serve a locally sourced breakfast as a fundraiser to support area farmers, often welcoming local guest chefs into the kitchen. (Selma began in 2009, and went on hiatus in 2014.)

Nick Roumel, an Ann Arbor attorney who's written for many years about the local food/restaurant scene for Current and the Washtenaw County's The Legal News, as well as serving as a Selma Cafe board member, notes that Selma served as a place where chefs of various stripes could work together. He cites its supportive atmosphere, and a focus on collaboration, as a vital piece of the local foodie culture puzzle.

"What I liked about Selma was what some writer once said," Roumel quotes: "It was a fourth place, besides work, school, and a church or place of worship, that was a gathering place for people in a community."

Berarducci further connects the local foodie dots to a growing food entrepreneur movement and Ypsilanti. She singles out Rob Hess, founder of Go! Ice Cream, as its poster boy.

"He wanted to make his own ice cream, so he took classes, and he decided he wanted to make ice cream that was as natural as it could possibly be," says Berarducci. "He couldn't find a pasteurized base that wasn't full of chemicals and additives, so he wanted to make his own, but he had to find someone to pasteurize his base. He rented Bona Sera's kitchen after hours for production, and he started out delivering ice cream on bikes. Now he's about to open a brick and mortar shop in downtown Ypsilanti, around the corner from Beezy's." (According to Go! Ice Cream's website, the company aims for a July 2016 opening.)

Berarducci thinks that local partnerships have allowed up-and-comers to get a foothold and even expand. She mentions how The Brinery, a local company that specializes in fermented foods, has partnered with Zingerman's. Mark's Carts, established by former Fleetwood operator and Downtown Home & Garden owner Mark Hodesh, has also served as a testing ground for new restaurants like The Lunch Room and San Street (which will soon open as Miss Kim's in Kerrytown).

Hedeman, meanwhile, highlights 327 Braun Court's role in the artisan cocktail movement, as well as its past willingness to lend out its kitchen out to pop-up chefs/restaurants (including Central Provisions, which now has its own brick-and-mortar space, known as Spencer).

"The bar has the tools and space for a budding restaurateur to play around in," says Hedeman. "It's like a big sandbox for them. And they don't have to secure all this funding if you just give them a chance to do that without all the immediate pressure of being successful as a restaurant.

Hedeman also mentions the sense of community that has been fostered by local restaurateurs. "There's a lot of helping out, even though it's competitive. And I'm sure we'll hit a saturation point at some point in Ann Arbor, but right now, there's a 'the more, the merrier' attitude about it. … Ann Arbor's become a place where people go to find out what's next in food, and we all benefit from that."

When asked what might currently be missing from the local food scene, chefs and foodies alike noted the paucity of good late night food options; but individually, they also voiced a desire for more breakfast spots; neo-Greek food ("not the Greektown-type food, but the things people actually eat in the Greek islands that are more vegetable-based," says Roumel); and wine bars.

That having been said, Ann Arbor's thriving, dynamic restaurant scene already offers foodies a broad range of tempting options.

"I think food is so basic/fundamental and multi-faceted at the same time," says Aronoff. " …As people's awareness grows, it is natural that food/restaurant culture would draw people's interest and passion. Along with that, I think the restaurant industry has gained acceptance and respect as a challenging and exciting field, so people look at it and see all that it has to offer and creates. Ann Arbor is an especially culturally diverse, interesting, and thoughtful community, so we bring all of that into our food community."

"It's such a communal experience to sit down and share a meal with someone," says Berarducci. " …Wherever you go, we all need to eat, and eating well takes a necessity and turns it into an artform. The whole celebrity chef thing – I equate it to a musician or artist who's creating pieces you can experience by going to the theater. But with food, you get to eat the artwork."

Jenn McKee is freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a  pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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