Social district a ‘game changer’ for bars and restaurants in downtown Farmington

When the Farmington Downtown Development Authority was working on their calendar last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled most events, a pop-up beer garden was in the works. It was going to complement a summer concert series in the park.

But this year, should an outdoor concert series work, officials won’t have to worry about building a beer garden. The Syndicate, a social district that allows for alcoholic beverages to be purchased from local businesses and consumed in designated areas downtown, provides that need for them. Not only does The Syndicate get people walking around downtown, it provides an economic boost to downtown businesses.

And that’s the whole point.

The bars and restaurants participating in The Syndicate have been bolstered by the social district since its debut on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2020, business owners say.

“We love to hear that,” says Kate Knight, director of the Farmington DDA. “We’re looking to buoy their spirit and their bottom lines.”

“[The Syndicate] seems to be catching on pretty quickly,” says Scott Freeman, general manager of the Civic Theater

As bars and restaurants prepare to reopen their establishments to indoor dining on Monday, Feb. 1, The Syndicate provides an appreciated extra revenue stream; state restrictions will limit the amount of indoor customers to 25 percent capacity. Hopefully, the social district will long outlast capacity restrictions and COVID-19 itself.

“When looking back on this, people will look and say, Hey, why couldn’t we do this before? It’s opening people’s eyes,” says Scott Freeman, general manager of the Farmington Civic Theater. “When I was on the DDA, the goal was to create a pedestrian-oriented experience. What better way to create a free flow of foot traffic downtown?”

The Syndicate is new and will continue to evolve. But it plays a part in a larger vision, one of a more vibrant and dynamic downtown Farmington.

“We’re going to continue to build up our nooks and crannies for people to get out and enjoy downtown,” Knight says.

Riley Park is part of The Syndicate social district

Bar owners had known about plans for the social district for several months leading up to its debut on Dec. 31, 2020. It was actually sometime in late summer when the Farmington Brewing Company first purchased 1,000 compostable and recyclable to-go cups to prepare for the opening of The Syndicate.

It may have been worth the wait.

“We had 1,000 cups ready and we went through 700 of them on New Year’s Eve,” says Jason Schlaff, co-owner of the brewery.

“This New Year’s Eve was the busiest we’ve been in 14 months.”

Schlaff, who says that the brewery is typically pretty conservative when it comes to having beer online and ready to be tapped, was relieved to have extra beer on hand for the big night. The brewery tapped 14 kegs on New Year’s Eve, well beyond what was expected.

For a small business owner like Schlaff, The Syndicate is not only exciting because it helps boost sales over the course of this pandemic, but because the law allows for social districts through 2024, which will hopefully be well after COVID-19 has been wrested under control.

“The Syndicate is a game changer for us, not only the community but for the business and our staff,” Schlaff says.

“This allows us to grow beyond our borders. Our whole downtown becomes our tap room, as long as everyone’s responsible.

“It really is a game changer.”

“We’re very fortunate to have our two patios,” says Jacob Khalil, co-owner of MI.MOSA

With the temporary halt on indoor dining services, popular brunch spot MI.MOSA has taken the time to experiment, utilizing two stone pizza ovens that came with their building to develop a new pizza menu. It’s something that couldn’t have happened pre-pandemic; the restaurant simply didn’t have the time or space to add a whole new menu.

“Now that the volume has slowed down, we can experiment more. We wouldn’t be able to do pizza on a normal brunch day,” says co-owner Jacob Khalil.

“We’re testing the waters. Maybe we’ll have a whole new storefront one day.”

Khalil credits the two MI.MOSA patios — and the help from community partners like the DDA — with keeping the restaurant’s doors open. The DDA has been providing downtown businesses and their outdoor heaters with free propane fill-ups, benefiting both the downtown businesses and the local businesses that sell propane.

Of course, MI.MOSA’s menu helps a lot, too. Khalil says that their happy hour options and mimosa flights to-go have been big hits on their patios and now The Syndicate. The past year has been a team effort, he says.

“The social district keeps us involved in the community. A lot of our friends love our mimosas and Moscow mules and Manhattans and they take them outside,” Khalil says.

“We try to make the drinks as good as when people are dining in. We keep the ice on the side and the ingredients are as fresh as possible.”

“If there’s a 30-minute wait for a patio seat, people can grab a cocktail and walk to the park,” says Scot Pelc, co-owner of Sidecar Slider Bar

In the few short weeks since The Syndicate opened, Scot Pelc, who co-owns the Sidecar Slider Bar with his wife Angela, says that business is the busiest it’s been since the summertime. So much so, in fact, that Sidecar has been able to bring on two extra bartenders for the weekends, with one of them focusing solely on making drinks to-go.

Sidecar purchased a can-seaming machine from the Grand Rapids-based company Oktober, allowing customers to take their drinks out and into The Syndicate. It’s not necessarily cost-efficient, he says, but worth the extra cost to provide something that’s unique and different for customers.

“We went through so many cans in that first weekend The Syndicate opened that I had to drive out to Grand Rapids to pick up a new batch,” Scot says.

Sidecar, like many that are associated with The Syndicate, be they business owners, city officials, or other downtown stakeholders, is looking forward to the summertime. The social district has been a welcome relief in these cold weather months, a time of year that is traditionally slow for bars and restaurants — and that was before COVID-19.

The benefits of The Syndicate could be felt even more come summer.

“Farmington has an outstanding downtown. People love walking around here,” Scot says. “I can’t wait for when people are walking around with their drinks and cocktails, going to concerts in the park and going to the farmers market.”

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

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