Locally owned businesses in downtown Ypsilanti are working together to ensure the shopping district continues to grow stronger.
In recent years, the downtown area has seen lots of improvement, with many vacant storefronts becoming home to new businesses. The transformation started to happen about a decade ago when the Maurer family started buying and renovating some dilapidated buildings, according to Downtown Association of Ypsilanti president Dave Heikkinen.
He lists The Rocket candy and novelty store's relocation, Mix boutique's expansion, and Bona Sera restaurant's opening as three of the most significant things to happen during this downtown transformation.
"With the economy improving, it’s just been growing steadily – not quickly, but just a nice steady growth, and we’re getting all of these really nice destination businesses in town," Heikkinen says.
Some of the downtown area's oldest shops, including Puffer Reds, The Rocket, and Mix, have established themselves as destination businesses by offering unique products or services and catering to a specific clientele. The benefit of having destination businesses anchor downtown Ypsi is their ability to attract customers from other cities.
"We all depend on people coming to us not from the sidewalk, but from outside of downtown," says Heikkinen, who also owns Heikk's Decorated Apparel Studio at 133 W. Michigan Ave.
Downtown Ypsi's destination businesses also are able to use their status and expertise to help new businesses succeed.
In 1982, Puffer Reds owner Eric Williams brought his business to 113 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsi. Puffer Reds has since transitioned from a music store to a clothing and shoe store, and stood the test of time by attracting customers not only from the surrounding area but from other major cities in Michigan and Ohio.
That makes Williams an obvious resource for any new business owner in Ypsi, although he's pretty humble about how much help he's given to other business owners. But he will admit he's open to giving advice or lending a hand to anyone who needs it.
"You do things out of the kindness of your heart, but there’s no need to announce it," Williams says.
Numerous business owners in downtown Ypsi believe they're on the same page when it comes to lending a hand to other business owners. Whether they're helping new businesses get started or collaborating with or promoting existing businesses, the owners try to find a way to pitch in whenever they can.
Supporting new businesses
In late 2009, Mix opened in Ypsi as a boutique selling art, gifts, and refurbished furniture, but its focus shifted after owners Bonnie and Ed Penet introduced clothing and saw how well it sold. The couple sought advice from The Rocket owners Paul Balcom and Eli Morrissey about how to set goals and measure their business' annual growth when Mix eventually took over two storefronts and expanded into 130 W. Michigan Ave., next door to The Rocket at 122 W. Michigan Ave.
Morrissey, who has a background in information technology, also helped the Penets decide on and set up a point-of-sale system so Mix could begin tracking its inventory and sales with a computer program instead of doing everything manually.
When the Penets had the opportunity to open a second store in Ann Arbor, they discussed the move with Balcom and Morrissey, whom Bonnie Penet describes as their "big little brothers." The couple had the chance to return the favor by offering their perspective to Balcom and Morrissey when they decided they wanted to open a second location of The Rocket.
In 2011, before Mix opened its second store in Ann Arbor's Nickels Arcade, the Penets set up an artisan market called Mix Marketplace in the space across from their boutique. That's where Bona Sera, which started as an underground supper club, set up shop as a pop-up in 2012. Bona Sera owner Annette Weathers eventually took over the whole space at 200 W. Michigan Ave. and established her restaurant with support from the Penets.
Weathers was able to help another local business owner get on his feet when Rob Hess of Go! Ice Cream started producing his artisan ice cream in Bona Sera's commercial kitchen every Sunday. He then sold ice cream at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market on Saturdays and delivered it to customers' homes on Thursdays.
Hess believes Go! Ice Cream owes its entire existence to its partnerships with Bona Sera and the Ypsilanti Farmers Market because of the support they gave him before he was able to open his brick-and-mortar store at 10 N. Washington St. a year ago.
"I feel like I just got really lucky because Ypsilanti is just like a place that really loves people who want to do a thing," he says. "If you want to do something positive, they want to get behind you and they want to amplify it."
Working with other businesses
Ypsi's business owners recognize that it can be hard to collaborate with other businesses when you're trying to focus on strengthening and growing your own enterprise. But they believe it's important to make an effort to work together whenever possible because it benefits all Ypsi businesses and the entire city in the long run.
"We’re just into helping out whoever needs help and whoever needs advice, because the more people [and] the more businesses in downtown the better," Weathers says.
Hess says Go! Ice Cream is now in a position to collaborate with virtually all of the other businesses and organizations throughout downtown Ypsi.
The shop has created special ice cream treats for Ma Lou's Fried Chicken, Hyperion Coffee Co., and The Rocket, to name a few. It also frequently trades food or ingredients with Beezy's Cafe. Beezy's makes its scrambled eggs with clarified butter that is a byproduct of making Go!'s sweet browned butter ice cream.
Go! also finds ways to get involved in fundraisers and events held by local groups, like the first annual Ypsi Pride and DIYpsi.
"We are always helping and being helped by the folks around us, and I think it's that type of approach to business that differentiates Ypsi and makes it stronger," Hess says.
He believes Ypsi's business owners feel less threatened by competition because they understand collaboration is much more powerful than competition, so they're more concerned about taking opportunities to work together and help each other out.
Other business owners have the same mindset when it comes to helping each other out because they've built a cooperative community that works together to move downtown Ypsi forward.
Deb Callison, manager of a2vintage at 109 W. Michigan Ave., has taken items off the shelf and lent them to other business owners for creative projects. In one such case, a2vintage allowed Puffer Reds to keep a skateboard it borrowed for a photoshoot. The skateboard is still displayed inside the apparel shop.
"These are neighbors that you see every day. And just like your neighbors at home, if they need something, you’re going to try to help them," Callison says. "That’s just how we should be in this society. We do all need to look out for each other. We need to do that. We’re all in this together."
Bonnie Penet thinks Mix's relationship with Bona Sera is its most valuable collaborative relationship. Bona Sera finds ways to promote Mix, like putting the clothing store's coupons in giveaway gift bags at events, and Mix uses Bona Sera for catering and constantly promotes it by word of mouth.
"We spend probably 10 minutes with every customer, telling them Bona Sera’s story [and] about how fabulous the food is. It’s I think the most important thing we can do for each other," Bonnie Penet says.
Referring customers to other businesses
Many of Ypsi's downtown business owners make efforts to send their customers to nearby shops or restaurants because the owners want their customers to see what else the area has to offer.
Hess says Go! Ice Cream tries to provide a place where customers feel comfortable and then send them out to explore other businesses in downtown Ypsi in hopes that they'll find another establishment that they love. He oftens tells customers to eat at one of the neighboring restaurants before they get ice cream, or to check out what The Rocket has to offer because the two shops share a similar "retro," "kooky" vibe.
If a customer comes into a2vintage looking for an item that the shop doesn't sell, Callison will tell the customer to see if it's available at one of Ypsi's other antique stores, like Salt City Antiques or Materials Unlimited. For instance, Callison will send someone who's looking for vintage jewelry or antique mixing bowls to Salt City, and she'll send someone who's looking for a unique child's gift to The Rocket.
"You need to have each other’s back and you need to say, 'I may not have it, but go here,'" she says.
Balcom says he'll sometimes hear a customer at The Rocket wonder aloud about other retail options in the area, so he'll send them to another similar business, like ModelCave Hobby Shop or World of Rocks. He says the motivations behind referring customers to other businesses – and behind downtown business owners' collaborative mindset in general – may vary, but the result is still positive for all.
"Maybe [part of it is] self-interest ... because if you can get people to appreciate more than one thing in downtown, they’re going to come back to you more often because they have all this other stuff to do downtown," Balcom says. "But in fairness, I do like people to have a good time, so it’s a little bit of altruism there, too."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.