It's 70 degrees outside, and raining, but inside Morgan & York Fine Wines and Specialty Foods the air conditioning is turned to a chilly-feeling 66 so as to keep the wine and cheese happy.
"I think people can feel that we care about what we're doing," says co-owner Tommy York.
More than you know, Tommy. More than you know.
But York is right. From its original maple floor to the vast wine selection to the chocolate rhubarb truffles (made just this morning with local rhubarb) to the little cubes of bread for sampling imported vinegar and olive oil dispensed in bulk, the place just smacks of attentiveness. A regular customer steps in out of the drizzle and the owners greet her by name. They chat for a few minutes before she heads to the back of the store. The air conditioning may be cold, but the vibe is warm and genuine.
And it's got deep roots. Long, long ago (in the early 90s before Starbucks, wi-fi and the ubiquitous cell phone) York and Morgan worked together at the only coffee house in town - Espresso Royale.
Morgan was a recent University of Michigan physics and astronomy graduate with time to kill. He planned to apply to graduate school. York had worked in restaurants all the way through college at Eastern Michigan and was a managing partner at ERC He was working on a masters in social work at U-M.
It was a good time to be a coffee house. The State Street shop was netting $40,000 a month and the owners were sharing 10 percent with the staff, a crew of smartass intellectuals determined to out-do each other in the quest to make a more perfect cup of coffee, or to make it faster.
"It was amazing to see people rise to the challenge of 'It's all going to be perfect and it's all going to be fast, and it's going to blow people's minds.'" York said.
When an event let out at the Michigan Theater or Hill Auditorium, people would flood the shop. If you were on your game you might be on the coffee machine for an hour and a half, York said. When he stepped out after the rush for a cigarette break, he'd be soaked in sweat, steam rising off of his body. And inside, through the steamed-up windows, he could see this sea of people - every one of them drinking something he'd made – some talking over here, some falling in love over there.
"I thought, 'Man, you can do this for a living?'" said York.
The service aspect of the food business resonated with Morgan, who'd grown up working in the small-town hardware store his grandparents owned.
It was the kind of place where you could buy nails and tools, but also dishes, fishing line and baseball gloves. Morgan started working there in the summers when he was about eight. Taking care of people and helping customers find just the right thing had long since become second nature.
Both men would go on to work for Zingerman's, a natural fit given their feelings about quality and service.
"What Zingerman's did for the food business is they brought a full-service sensibility that I think was lacking," Morgan said. "I don't think it was new. I think it was a revival of the kind of full-service retail that my grandparents practiced."
After a handful of years they decided to go into business together, determined to create something new. They ended up doing it by resurrecting something old.
The Big Ten Market was built in 1940 as a neighborhood grocery. It had fresh meat and fresh produce, and in 1953 the store got a liquor license and added beer and wine to its stock - and the big, gaudy arrow to the oversized landmark sign that still stands outside next to Packard Rd.
"You work with food for a long time and you start thinking, 'Well, what else goes with food?" York said.
The answer was wine. And as they explored food shops and wine shops and food industry shows, a niche emerged.
"What you find is, there are really great wine shops that have anemic food selections and there are great food shops with no wine," York said. "Then you start thinking, "What would happen if you put the two together and had people who cooked and people who drank wine - and were nice to the customers?"
When Morgan and York bought the store in 2001, it had lost its edge as a specialty shop.
"Ann Arbor is so well-served, you can get wine at the gas station," Morgan said. "If we were just going to carry the same old stuff we might as well not be here."
They set about the long, slow process re-establishing the store's reputation for fine food and wine, changing the name to Morgan & York in 2005. The store finally broke even after five years. York compares the experience to giving CPR to someone for five years with no help coming. But now when people ask how the business is doing, the answer is a confident, "Good. We're doing fine."
A lot of their old friends from Espresso Royale are now customers, or vendors. People bring their children in, or come in looking for just the right thing.
Both men are prone to quoting Morgan's grandpa, who's retired now, but sometimes stops by his grandson's store.
"Back in the 80's he'd say, 'If they'd stop talking about how bad all this is and just get back to work, we wouldn't be in this mess,'" Morgan said. "And I think the same is true today. We're in this psychological headlock. If people would just focus on trying to create something positive - be it that garden, or a party with neighbors or whatever- it would make a big difference. It's about taking risks in pursuit of something that's worthwhile."
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Mastermind article was Bhushan Kulkarni.
Morgan and York Getting A Little Cheesy for the Camera-Ann Arbor
The Big Ten Market Looks A Little Different These Days-Morgan and York
Someone Raids the Candy Wall-Ann Arbor
Tommy York Bursts On The Scene-Ann Arbor
MEAT at Morgan and York-Ann Arbor
Matt Morgan Stands in the Best Place to Be in Ann Arbor-Morgan and York
Spice it Up- Spice Rack at Morgan and York
All Photos by Dave LewinskiDave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He couldn't help himself at Morgan and York and bought a ton(okay maybe a pound or so) of great cheese and some wine. He also bought his wonderful girlfriend a delicious sandwich.
Enjoy this story? Sign up
for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.