Q&A: Restaurateur Sam Abbas on his new brunch spot in historic Dearborn hotel

You might know Sam Abbas as the founder of Yogurtopia or, with locations in Dearborn and Detroit, you might know him for Brome Modern Eatery, his fresh and organic fast-casual restaurant. Perhaps you even recognize his name as a member of the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority.

What’s certain, however, is Abbas’s belief in the city of Dearborn. Abbas is adding yet another restaurant to his portfolio--and a high profile one, at that. He’ll be opening The Great Commoner in the historic Wagner Hotel in west downtown Dearborn as part of Ford’s Wagner Place development.

We asked him all about it.

Q: How are you feeling as you move closer to the opening?

A: We’re excited. We took possession a couple of weeks ago. We feel very comfortable with the structure. With the restoration of the historic building, there was a lot of attention to detail. The exterior is all buttressed up. Now we’re in the permit phase.

We’re excited because we got the city to change the nearby parking rules, now catering to the customers. It will be a big help when we do open. That will be crucial to our survival.

Q: What is the restaurant concept?

A: It’s called The Great Commoner. It will be an all-day café with our main focus on breakfast and brunch. We’ve partnered with French pastry chef Matt Knio, who has his own patisseries in the area, Canelle. We’ll have a state-of-the-art coffee and espresso bar, nitro taps, and pour-overs. We’ll have sandwiches, paninis, salads, and soups--a lot of grab-and-go items to cater to the Ford lunch crowd. A dinner menu in the evenings will feature light pastas with salmon, chicken.

We’re restoring the tiles from the original building. All of the brick walls are restored--the wood flooring, too. We’ll have dine-in seating, a conference room, a podcast recording studio. We want to give the community a platform with affordable rates. With the conference room, people can reserve space and we can serve them coffee and sandwiches.

Q: A podcast recording studio? How’d that idea come about?

A: I’ve just been hearing about so many podcasts coming up, talking to the younger generation and listening to their podcasts. We want this to be a comfortable meeting space where they go for their daily fix and not get rushed out the door. It’s a multi-faceted business.

Q: Why breakfast?

A: We’re super excited to break out of the Brome box and into breakfast, where I think the market is under-served. We have an excellent chef who will be bringing French pastries. Even something as simple as French toast will become extraordinary.

Q: When is the opening date?

A: We’re hoping to open this December or January. January can be a dull month, it’s after the holidays, you don’t have a lot to do. Even coffee can feel like a getaway.

Q: How do you feel about being in Wagner Place development?

A: We’ll have great neighbors, with Jolly Pumpkin, Orangetheory Fitness, clothing boutiques. Ford Land has been good customers of Brome over the years. They came in and asked if we would be interested in the space. We started with one space and ended up taking all three.

Q: What went into developing The Great Commoner?

A: I traveled to food hot spots all over the country, researching what it takes to run a top breakfast and brunch spot.

It’s a challenging business. You have to think outside of the box, have to be versatile and keep up with the trends, have to constantly adapt to new technologies. The biggest thing is how you create the space itself. Every detail is important, from the comfort of the furniture to the texture and colors. You need the right ambiance for the right demographic in the right area.

In this business, there’s a 90 percent chance of failure. You have to get ahead of it and learn from others and mitigate as much risk as possible. Any business owner will tell you that there’s a risk. You can’t be successful until you fail. You learn things along the way and do your research.

I’ve never felt better about a concept. I’ve been friends with Matt from Canelle for quite some time. What better way to mitigate risk than have a partner that has already demonstrated great success.

Q: How’s business in Dearborn looking these days?

A: I’ve always told people that having the opportunity to do business in Dearborn is a blessing. It has a diverse population, a great geographic location near the highways, multiple corporations, and our colleges. It’s unbelievable when you stop and think about it. We’re ten minutes from downtown Detroit, the real estate is incredible--and the museums here, and so many of them.

I’m not saying this just because I’m part of the DDA. I truly feel this way. You can see it here: We’re investing in our downtowns. The change never stops. More permits are being pulled than ever before. We’re experiencing growth like I’ve never seen it. And it’s sustainable growth because these are very seasoned developers that know what it takes to be successful.

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MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.