Ann Arbor's power couples: Sharing a life – and a business, part 2

What's the secret to maintaining a business in such a hectic – and often competitive – area as Ann Arbor? Numerous local business owners would say that it's being married (or engaged) to your business partner. Back in October we chatted with three Ann Arbor couples who are partners in both life and work, and the enthusiastic responses to that article showed us that we'd just scratched the surface of Ann Arbor's many beloved "power couples." So we chatted with three more couples about how they met, how they built their businesses, and how their personal connection influences their work.


Jason and Tori Tomalia


Jason and Tori Tomalia had always dreamed of opening an improv theatre together, but when Tori was diagnosed with cancer they decided to make their dream a reality sooner than planned. Tori and Jason met in Minneapolis in November 2005 when Jason was performing in the Brave New Workshop improv and sketch comedy troupe there. After a whirlwind romance (they got engaged that December and married in April 2006), they moved to Ann Arbor.


"It was actually on our first date that we said, 'We should open a theater together,'" Tori says.


But the brewing part of the business they'd eventually open – Pointless Brewery and Theatre – actually came first, when Jason asked for a homebrew kit for Christmas one year.


"I said, 'I really kind of dig this,'" he recalls. "And the beer came out really nice, so I thought, 'Let's try some other stuff.' And then I just dove in."


"To the point where our whole kitchen became a brewery," Tori adds.


When Tori was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, the Tomalias decided to make their dream of opening an improv theater happen sooner rather than later. But their experience in the theater world had taught them that opening just a performance space might not be financially viable, even in a town like Ann Arbor.


So they added Jason's brewing skills into the mix and – after lots of fundraising and hard work – Pointless Brewery and Theatre opened in December of 2015 at 3014 Packard St. in Ann Arbor. The couple, who have twin daughters and a son, say the experience has been a whirlwind. Tori started cancer treatment as Pointless was opening and recently started a clinical trial of a new drug as the brewery celebrated its second anniversary.


Tori says that although living the dream of opening a theater with her partner after she got so sick can sound "dreamy," it was also practical in some ways.


"I can't hold a full-time job," she explains, since her treatments often make her tired or ill. "We asked ourselves, what's a way that we can do something where I feel like I'm contributing in some way but if I spend the whole day on the couch it's okay?"


She's able to handle much of the paperwork and organizational components of the business from home. Meanwhile, Jason handles whatever comes up onsite at the theater, which Tori credits to his "improvisational personality." Between brewing, managing Pointless' improv classes and house cast, and performing in the house cast, Jason wears many hats.


"I feel like we balance each other out, though," Jason says. "I can come up with ideas and throw ideas out there and she can freak out and say, 'But how are we going to do this and this and this?'"


"I just admire you so much," Tori says to Jason. "The way that you can handle anything – I've felt that way since I met you. Any situation can come along and he just doesn't panic."


The Tomalias are still feeling out the trajectory of their roles in the business as it continues to grow.


"We're still young," explains Jason. "We know that people are still finding out about us and we're still reaching new people."


"The community continues to astound me," says Tori. "People tell us what this means to them. One of our managers said to us, 'It's not a job. It's a community.' I feel so humbled that we were part of creating something like this."


Keith Orr and Martin Contreras


Community is hugely important to Aut Bar and Common Language Bookstore owners Keith Orr and Martin Contreras as well. When Aut Bar opened at 315 Braun Court, replacing what was previously a Mexican restaurant owned and operated by Contreras and his family, the two felt extremely strongly about creating a place that was welcoming and accepting of the LGBTQ community. That feeling hasn't changed in the 23 years since.


When Contreras and Orr met in 1986, Contreras was working as a physical therapist along with his work at his family's restaurant, and Orr was a bass player for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. Nine years later, when the restaurant became Aut Bar, both quit their full-time jobs to keep up with the business.


"We wanted a place that was open and affirming of the community … and that raised awareness," says Contreras. "At that time in Ann Arbor there really weren't any other places that were doing that."


This is also why Contreras and Orr purchased Common Language Bookstore in 2003 and moved it from its previous location on Fourth Avenue to its current position next to Aut. Although they admit that the bookstore "wouldn't exist except for the restaurant," it's one of the few LGBTQ bookstores of its kind left in the entire country, and the couple feels strongly about keeping it open.


"(Coming out) is a long process for some folks," Contreras says. "They're living in their own sort of closet because they have a fear of not being accepted by family and friends or colleagues. We see this in people who are coming into both businesses and they can say, 'Wow, what a great first experience this is.' It's reaffirming and positive. It makes you feel like you are ready to go out and face life's challenges."


Today, Contreras and Orr have fallen into roles in the businesses that play to their strengths. Orr spends more time at the bookstore, taking care of orders and working at the desk, and works front-of-house at Aut. Contreras plans the food and drink menus for the bar and jumps into the kitchen when need be.


"One of the few explicit agreements we made was that I said, 'Don't make me cook here, and I'll do all the cooking at home,'" Orr chuckles.


The two recently made the decision to close Aut on Mondays so they could have one day to "catch up and sort of rest, although you never really do," Orr says. Otherwise, the two are constantly working, bringing their 15-year-old dog Duke with them each day to greet bookstore customers. Luckily for them, it's a labor of love.


Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff


For Kathy Sample and her husband Bill Brinkerhoff, founders and owners of both Argus Farm Stop locations, owning a business together didn't seem like a particularly natural decision at first. When a professor they both had at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business suggested the idea, Brinkerhoff says he and his wife both "thought he was nuts."


"We have super-different working styles," Brinkerhoff says. "One of the things that we did when we were starting out was to go and talk to other couples who worked together and try to learn what to do and what not to do. But it took us probably 20 years to get to the point where we said, 'Okay, we can actually probably work together.'"


The two have a shared passion for supporting local farmers and giving people access to locally grown foods year-round. They were inspired to create Argus after a visit to a similar store named Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio.


"The concept was so clear," Sample says. "Local farms bring their stuff to a store and it gets sold to the consumer, so you know who's growing it and you might meet them if they're dropping something off. It was so clear that this is a model that should be duplicated. It's actually just surprising that we've lost so much of that connection with our food."


With most farmers relegated to selling their food just once or twice a week at farmers markets, Sample and Brinkerhoff thought a store that was open seven days a week would be a huge benefit for farmers and buyers alike. They talked to dozens of people, including staff at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and the Ann Arbor Planning Department, who all told them the model was a great idea.


Although they thought the store would do well in Ann Arbor, Sample and Brinkerhoff are delighted with its success. They were able to open a second store at 1200 Packard Rd. in Ann Arbor just three years after their first opened in 2014 at 325 W. Liberty. Now, Sample and Brinkerhoff advise other individuals and groups around the country who want to open similar stores.


Since both Sample and Brinkerhoff come from a business background and have worked in various industries over the years, the ins and outs of running a business weren't necessarily a surprise to them. But they do feel a special closeness with even the smallest of problems that come up.


"When you're completely responsible for something, you're much more engaged," says Sample. "When the espresso machine breaks down, it's not cumbersome to figure out a solution. All the things that might annoy you about a business that you don't have a vested interest in, it changes everything ... about your passion for the business (when you are invested)."


And over time, working out those problems together has become the couple's goal.


"We want something that doesn't take one of us out of town and where we can work on stuff side by side," says Brinkerhoff. "It's way more fun."


Elizabeth Pearce lives in Dexter. In addition to Concentrate, she frequently contributes to Pulp.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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