At night, the glowing Wurst Bar sign pierces an inky strip of W. Cross Street in downtown Ypsilanti. The dimness of this stretch of street is surprising, given its prime location across from the Eastern Michigan University campus. The block stands in stark contrast to its University of Michigan counterpart, State Street, with its eclectic span of restaurants and retailers, from Ashley's Pub to the Bivouac outdoor store to the Stairway to Heaven head shop.
But the Ypsilanti DDA
has been offering a building rehabilitation facade improvement grant program (the next application deadline is May 18) over the last couple of years, and first-mover businesses like the 140-seat Wurst Bar
, an alehouse and eatery that opened in January, are attracting people to what they hope will become be a bustling commercial block. The restaurant, open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, is lauded for its eclectic sausages - everything from bison and lamb to 'gator, served on brioche or pretzel buns - and don't forget the side of taters.
Tanya Muzumdar talks with Wurst Bar owner Jesse Kranyak, an EMU and Peace Corps alum with 13 years' experience in the restaurant biz. Kranyak also founded and owns Kelleys Island House
, a seasonal restaurant on the popular western Lake Erie island retreat.
I think Ypsilanti is one of the largest undeveloped markets in Michigan... There's not another school in the entire country without at least five bars on a 22,000-student campus. There's a place next to us, Tower Inn, they serve pizza and it's kind of like a sit-down restaurant, but there are no bars anywhere on this whole street that the campus is on. There's some within walking distance, I think maybe four altogether. But we've got twice as many students as Bowling Green, [Ohio], where they have bars all over.
Aside from the students, there's this huge population of at least 6,000 people in this neighborhood around us. And they're all young, they're all professionals. They all have disposable income. A lot of them work in Ann Arbor. It's a really eclectic artsy community. There's definitely this huge market. No one's in here utilizing all these... there's a bunch of empty buildings. It's kind of a no-brainer to me, like you walk through, you see the people, and you see the businesses are here thriving.
Do you have regulars?
I'd say we started developing regulars the first week we were open. A lot of our customers come in 4-5 times a week...I've got regulars for our veggie burgers because we change them every week. We've got bar regulars, table regulars. I've met at least 100 people that I know fairly well from talking to them on a regular basis.
What do they say about the place?
The most repetitive thing I hear is 'We've been waiting for something to open up in this area. This place has needed something like this.' I hear that over and over again.
You have a karaoke night. Any good stories?
(Laughs.) I can't really tell any good karaoke stories without naming names. Our Bingo Night's probably our most fun night. We get an emcee. We give him a couple shots of whiskey to do the emceeing. He gets a little lippy with the customers. And it's free to play. Anytime you make a purchase you get more cards. And he calls off "Bingo!" in a surly tone and you win cash. We give out T-shirts and other prizes. On Wednesdays we do trivia. That's pretty popular.
What's the bingo pot?
Anywhere from $5 to $50, depending on which game we're calling. We give away about an average of $120 a night and we definitely give out a lot of T-shirts and whatever trinkets we get from our distributors.
So bingo doesn't have to be relegated to the bingo hall or school parties.
Right, and a lot of people come in and are like, "Bingo? I don't want to play bingo." And then they start getting into it. We'll have a packed bar and everyone's chatting and he'll get up on the microphone and it's dead silent. Everyone's staring at their cards. It's like, "Let's do this." Bingo is once every hour.
When you cook at home, what's your specialty?
I wouldn't say I have a specialty per se, but I really like to cook things that use different cuisines together. I'm a big fan of using spices and fermented products from Asia and mixing them into American-style cuisine.
[At Wurst Bar] we do a lot of European and Asian-fusion. It's not too prominent, you wouldn't notice it, but things like in our hamburger – we take three blends of meat (brisket, short rib, and chuck) and then we add in on the grill fish sauce, tamari, miso, Worcestershire sauce. It's going onto that burger meat to bring out that umami flavor.
Is there anything you'd like to see in terms of support from the community for places such as yours?
I would love to have our lunch club built up. We have a huge dinner crowd. Since the name is the Wurst Bar we've stuck ourselves into that bar category, but we do put a lot of attention into our food. Everything's made from scratch with locally-sourced products.
Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was: "A Bicycle Built for Seven".
All photos by Doug Coombe
Jesse Kranyak admiring The Wurst Bar's sausage offerings
Jesse behind the bar
The Wurst Bar's Cross Street exterior
Wurst Bar decor
Wurst Bar's Whiskey guard
General Manager Jeff Sanchez with some of their beer offerings
Jeff serving up the Michigan goods
Chef Dan Klenotic making sausage
Dan with the finished sausage
One of 3 great Wurst Bar tee shirts