Ypsilanti

From halal burgers to a "galactic gift shop," these Ypsi-area businesses opened during COVID-19

We checked in with a handful of new business owners to see what it's been like to launch during a pandemic.
Many businesses struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but several new entrepreneurs have opened new businesses during the pandemic in the greater Ypsilanti area. 

Ypsilanti-based businesses that have opened since March 2020 include a gender-neutral goods store called One DNA; a gift store selling local arts and crafts called Stardust; vegetarian restaurant Gora's Grill; home and garden supply store Stone and Spoon; and a gift shop in Depot Town called This, That, and ODDer Things. An as yet unnamed bookstore is also in the works in downtown Ypsi. Ypsi Township has added burger restaurant Blazin' Burgerz; a store specializing in Middle Eastern sweets called Cravings Dessert Lounge; and Crazy Crab restaurant.

Additionally, a few established businesses are growing this year. Examples include the owners of the Eagle Crest Marriott in Ypsi Township, who are constructing a private permanent banquet facility that is already booked through the end of the year, even though construction isn't finished. Ypsilanti Township-based R&L Carriers is also expecting to launch a multi-million dollar expansion of its shipping facility on Emerick Street.

We checked in with a handful of new businesses to see what it's been like to launch during a pandemic.

Blazin' Burgerz

Blazin' Burgerz co-owners Farook Issa and Khaled Naser are only in their early 20s, but they figured there was no better time to take a chance and start their own restaurant. Their establishment at 2596 Ellsworth Rd. in Ypsi Township was immediately successful, with nearly a one-hour wait to be served on its first day in business. Since then, the restaurant averages between 100 and 120 orders per day. 
Blazin' Burgerz co-owners Farook Issa and Khaled Naser.
"Everything here is fresh, never frozen, and it's halal," Issa says. "A lot of people don't eat pork, and they know our grill is clean. Our restaurant is big in the Muslim community here and in Canton and Ann Arbor. "

Issa and Naser both have past experience working at other local restaurants, including an Ann Arbor Ahmo's location. While upscale restaurants and others that emphasized indoor dining took a hit during the pandemic, Issa says casual restaurants and ones that do a lot of carryout business have done well. That, plus the fact that Naser had experience running a burger restaurant, was part of their inspiration for choosing a casual burger joint as their first business venture.

"The last three years, I've been cooking in the backyard on a portable grill, making food for friends, family, and neighbors, and trying out recipes," Issa says. "I thought, 'I'm good at this. Why not turn it into a career?'"

The pair's first attempt to lease a space fell through a couple months before the pandemic hit Michigan, but they finally opened in their new space in January.

"We weren't sick of working for other people, but we wanted to do our own thing," Issa says. "We're 23 and 24 years old, and we figured we might fail, but we don't know if we don't try. We decided to do it now, and it's paying off."

Stone and Spoon

Jen Eastridge had experience opening a retail space as the founder of Unicorn Feed and Supply in downtown Ypsilanti, but opening a new business during a pandemic was a whole new experience. She'd signed a lease for the space at 110 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti years before the pandemic hit Michigan, in need not only of the storefront on the first floor but offices on the second floor. 
Stone and Spoon owner Jen Eastridge.
"That was something that I really had to make a hard decision and say, 'Okay, we're doing this. We're going to keep plodding forward,'" she says. 

She officially opened the home and garden store Stone and Spoon in November 2020, not knowing what the fluctuating COVID-19 case numbers were going to mean for a new business. She wanted to have a big grand opening, as many businesses did before the pandemic, but instead had a quiet opening. She allowed only 12 people in the store at a time and offered curbside pickup as well.

Referring to both her retail outlets, she says she tries to create the places she wants to find for herself when she's out in the world.

"I want to make interesting, fun places that someone is going to come back to," she says. "This shop, Stone and Spoon, is influenced by my mom, Shirley. She was an amazing cook and an amazing gardener, and really introduced me to the love of nature and food. Unicorn is much more of a large, imaginative, big idea shop, more influenced by my dad. It's interesting how I've carried my parents with me into adulthood."

Eastridge wants customers who come into the shop to not just complete a transaction but to "have an experience."

"I know it's a little corny, but we want you to come in and feel the love," she says. "That love is expressed in the goods that are offered, many by Michigan businesses and the majority by women-owned or small businesses. It's also expressed in the accessible way the store is laid out."

While shopping for checkout stations, Eastridge found them to be too tall for children or anyone in a wheelchair. She says she doesn't want any of her customers to feel "othered."

"We want to be friendly and accessible to everyone, so we chucked … the original checkout area," Eastridge says. "We intentionally brought in a dining table instead."

Business is going so well that she has expanded into the back third of the first-floor space, offering a cooler with unique and often local beverages. The business' next phase will include small events like cooking demos, workshops, and other pop-up events.

Eastridge says "creating community" is one of her big goals with establishing businesses in Ypsilanti.

"When you come out and support small, local shops, you're not only having an experience you can't get from Amazon, but you're also supporting your local neighbors," she says. "Thankfully, people seem to be really excited about it, calling it a favorite place to get gifts. They see the store and immediately feel this is a place they can enjoy and take a piece with them to make their own space cozier."

Stardust

Holly Schoenfield says she started her "galactic gift shop" at 224 ½ W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti almost by accident.
Stardust owner Holly Schoenfield.
Schoenfield has been an entrepreneur since age 17, doing a little photography, a little fine arts, but mostly graphic design. She'd been working out of an office at Tinker Tech, a maker space in Ypsilanti, but lost that space when Tinker Tech closed.

"I didn't have a home for my graphic design business for a few months, and then this space opened up," she says. 

Her friend and business neighbor Angel Vanas needed a washer and dryer for her salon next door, Star Studio by Angel, and Schoenfield needed an office.

"I didn't have a plan to do the shop when we first decided to rent the building," she says. 

But after Depot Town gift shop The Eyrie closed in March, Schoenfield heard from many local artists and crafters who needed a place to sell their items. So the gift shop, specializing in art and crafts by local makers, opened Jan. 15. 

The store works on a consignment model. Artists can sell in the store and online at the same time, Schoenfield says. Stardust takes a commission for art sold from the store. Artists can also sell online and designate Stardust as a contactless pickup point.

Schoenfield says the store has proven popular with local artisans, and she's adding about one new vendor each week. She says several of her featured artists either started making art or tried out new media during the pandemic. Those artisans are making and selling everything from greeting cards to jewelry to fine art to handmade soap.

The store has also gained a growing following with local shoppers and did especially well June 6, the first night of a month-long Ypsi Pride celebration.

"My door started dinging at 5 p.m. and didn't stop dinging until we closed," Schoenfield says.

A project she's working on for the future combines beautifying the city and supporting local artists. In partnership with the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority, she'll offer free items made by local artists for those who undertake a cleanup project in the community and show proof of completion. 

"Do your part, get some art," Schoenfield says.

Unnamed bookstore

Residents walking through Ypsilanti's downtown may have noticed a storefront full of books and speculated that a bookstore may be opening downtown at 112 W. Michigan Ave. 
Ed Koster at his soon to open downtown Ypsilanti bookstore.
Owner Ed Koster was formerly a partner at David's Books in Ann Arbor. But when original owner David Kozubei died and the store closed in 2011, the books were relegated to a warehouse and Koster has been selling used books online under the name David's Books since then.

A warehouse fire made Koster consider changing his business model, and he signed a lease for a storefront in Ypsilanti. But the pandemic and a broken leg have put him behind his original timeline.

Once open, the bookstore's offerings will include a wide variety of used books and a few DVDs. Koster says he's recently also begun selling gently-used textbooks, and there's been an uptick in interest in books about chess.

He says he hasn't decided if he's going to keep the name David's Books when he opens, but is hoping to have city inspections done and be open for business by the end of the summer. 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.