Strip-mall stars: How Ann Arbor businesses create destinations beyond Main, State, and South U

The old real estate mantra "Location, location, location" seems especially imperative in Ann Arbor, where businesses flock to pedestrian-heavy commercial strips like Main Street, South University, and State Street.


But those areas also command the area's highest rents, so many businesses opt for the quieter and less glamorous environs of Ann Arbor's strip malls – where some of them have become destinations in their own right.


The tough part is getting on people's radar in the first place.


"You can get from one side of Ann Arbor to the other in about 15 minutes, but it is interesting how townies tend to stay in their area of town, or the areas they get accustomed to," says Jenny Song. Song is an Ann Arbor native herself and owner of the Songbird Cafe, which has locations in the Plymouth Road Mall at 2707 Plymouth Rd., and at 2891 Jackson Ave.


"Even my friends will say that we're far out if they're on the west or south side of town," she says.


Though press coverage is not something tucked-away local businesses can always count on, local media can play a key role in getting locals' attention. Tori Tomalia, co-owner of Pointless Brewery and Theatre at 3014 Packard St., says a couple of stories in local media helped raise awareness of her business when it opened in December 2015.


"Eventually there was this shift that happened, where it wasn't just friends and family and people that knew us coming out for shows, but people we didn't who just wanted a fun night out," Tomalia says.


Every off-the-beaten-path business owner has a unique story about how they initially attracted customers. Rappourt, for instance, was for many years a retailer called the Wine Seller before its owners, brothers Swetang and Hardik Patel, turned the space at 2721 Plymouth Rd. into a large taproom and restaurant in 2017.


"When we re-opened as a restaurant and bar, we had that core customer group established and already there," says Swetang Patel. "It really did help to have already established ourselves in the beer and wine industry. It's definitely helped us become what we are today."


On the other hand, the beloved local Indian restaurant Cardamom had to start from scratch when it opened in the Courtyard Shops at 1739 Plymouth Rd. in 2013.


"Our network of friends, family, and colleagues helped us with many startup tasks, including tasting the food," says Cardamom owner Binod Dhakal. "Just before we opened, we had complimentary 'dress rehearsal' meals for friends to get feedback to help us improve. People loved the food and were generous in spreading the word. If the first impression is good, customers return, one person tells another or brings a new guest the next time, and it multiplies."


"Word of mouth" is the refrain when any of these local strip-mall stars are asked what kept them going. Special events can also help an off-the-beaten-path business establish awareness and a sense of community – like Pointless' improv classes and other special events, or Songbird's recently introduced crafting workshops and open mics.


But other advantages include free and (usually) plentiful parking, the sense that Ann Arborites like supporting independent local businesses in any location, and the opportunity to reach underserved markets by choosing a more off-the-beaten path location.


"We didn't consider downtown for the second (Songbird Cafe) location because we wanted to cater to all of the townies who want more options outside of the downtown area," Song says. "My view on that probably comes from growing up in Ann Arbor."


Peter Blackshear says that "most everyone who lives or works on the North Side" at least occasionally dines at the Courtyard Shops, where he and his wife Megan Blackshear launched the bookstore Bookbound in 2013. Therefore, he says, "they are apt to discover us eventually."


"But for me, one of the best things about it is the diversity and character of our neighborhood," Blackshear says. "Obviously, any retail business needs to stock items their shoppers are after, and it has turned out that our ideas of what the 'good' or 'important' books are align very closely with our customers."


Bookbound's neighbor, Cardamom, might have ended up in a downtown location had things broken a different way. Dhakal says he started seeking a space for his restaurant in 2006, and "seriously considered" six different locations – mostly in existing downtown restaurants.


"Because of timing, financing, or the space itself, none of them worked out," he says.


But he made many connections in the local commercial real estate scene in the process – which was how he heard about Cardamom's current location in 2012.


"It was worth the wait, because the space turned out to be just right for us," Dhakal says.


One reason Cardamom fits into the Courtyard Shops so well is that it's a bit of a haven for those seeking ethnically diverse food options.


"The proximity to U-M North Campus, with students and families from all over the world and never-ending cultural and art happenings, add to the cosmopolitan vibe," Dhakal says. "The non-food tenants contribute to a broad customer base for the whole mall coming for a wide array of services, from physical therapy to wedding gowns to rug cleaning to books."


Patel says the recent housing boom on nearby Nixon Road means there will soon be thousands more potential customers for his business and others in the area.


"Sometimes locations are just tricky, where it's an awkward fit, but it just works," Patel says. "Our location isn't the greatest. It's not a shiny new complex. But at the end of the day, Rappourt fits in right where it's at. It's hard to put into words, but that's what I love about it. It's not fancy. It's not glitz and glamor. But we worked with what we had, with what was there."


Blackshear echoes that sentiment, stating that he and his wife have never considered relocating.


"As Megan frequently says, 'We'd have to be a different bookstore if we had a different location,' and we're very happy with how well we 'fit' our neighborhood," he says. "In terms of what sort of books it makes sense to carry, we're the bookstore we want to be."


Similarly, though Tomalia and her husband and co-owner Jason Tomalia originally envisioned finding a space in downtown or near campus, the best fit was a space near their home on the east side of town.


"People do think it's weird to have a craft brewery and improv theater in a strip mall," Tomalia says. "But personally, I love that we're a hole-in-the-wall theater. It has the feel of a hidden gem, where you go in expecting one thing, and then it just feels miraculous – like, 'Oh, I never would have expected to find something like this here!'"


Jenn McKee is a 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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