Kalamazoo's new Dabney and Co. is a Black culture bar that welcomes all

Everyone is welcome at Dabney and Co., the new bar at Kalamazoo Avenue and North Rose Street.

The bartenders greeted us the moment we opened the door. We were led to a table, low, round, with the classic hurricane candle, with chairs that practically demand you just sink down, sit back, relax. 

My wife got the bar's signature cocktail, the Mint Julep, the invention of Dabney's namesake. I got their take on the Sazarac, "a spirit-forward" cocktail the hostess tells me. And, woah--it seems double the size than what I'd usually get in New Orleans bars. There is no throwin' that back and rushing off to the next bar or the show or anywhere. You're staying.

What is that? A song from the late '70s, funk disco groove... I have to get out the iPhone to Shazam it--The Jones Girls, "You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else," 1979. The sound system plays R&B, hip hop, soul, funk, disco, tracks of the '60s-'90s, at a volume that's meant to be heard, to not just be background, but not so loud as to drown out conversation. Well, make that loud enough so you have to get closer to the one you're talking with.

Low lighting and brick walls create a comfortable ambience at Dabney and Co.The lights are low, windows are covered, and velvet curtains block all outside light. The door opens, and there's a brief glimpse across Kalamazoo Avenue of the Metro Transportation Center under a dusk sky. Oh, that's right, we're in Kalamazoo, I'm reminded.

Does it feel like bars I've been to in New Orleans? No, make that Chicago. No, maybe it was that one time in college when we took a trip to New York City?

Black people, white people, old and young were just relaxing together.

It didn't feel like Kalamazoo.

"Yes, yes," Daniel May says knowingly as I describe the experience during an interview a few days later. It was his intention, his mission, when creating Dabney and Co., to make it feel like a different kind of space, with a vibe that's been missing in this town.

Dabney and Co. owner Daniel May wanted to create an atmosphere reflecting Black culture, but welcoming to all.It's "about creating a safe place for People of Color, and what that means, by showing different aspects of life that people traditionally don't see through media," May says.

"What Dabney and Co. is about is showing the elevated beauty of Black culture through our redefined space. That's through the music, the art, the food, all of that is to show you how we actually are in our culture, not what the media says about us. We show who we are. We're about family, we're about taking care of people, we're about good hospitality and having a good time," May says.

"For me, it's really important, in every aspect of Dabney and Co., you feel exactly how you would come into a Black household. We treat you just like family," he says.

For '90s babies or Motown kids

There's been a history of Black bars in Kalamazoo, most notably Mr. President's in the 1970s-1990s, which reopened briefly in 2015.

May emphasizes that Dabney and Co. is "not a Black bar, we are a Black culture bar. You noticed when you and your wife came here, you saw everybody, every shade, every color, who were all here enjoying Black culture in a redefined way. I designed this space so that more people can participate in the beauty that is Black culture, and the way we tell our stories. Where you interact with staff, who are laughing and dancing with you, that it's truly a one-of-a-kind experience."

May wants everyone--that's also including the LGBT community--to be comfortable. "We're not rushing you out of here, we're not trying to get you one drink and then you're gone. Most people stay for hours." 

Bartender Killian Ongonian makes a mean Mint Julep, among other signature drinks."A lot of this is Daniel's vision," Catalina González, May's event director, says. "It's a culmination of every bar he's ever visited, that he fell in love with." 

"That's the reason why we have the velvet curtains up, and why we have the windows blacked out, because we want you to enter this space and be transported. You want to be transported into our world for a moment. Forget about chores, forget about your day, forget about your month. Have a cocktail or a mocktail, have a second to chill and just breathe and get back to yourself," she says.

González, also a professional photographer and graphic designer, started working with May in 2017 when he launched his event staging company Public Skool. The goal was to "get People of Color into bars and spaces where we weren't the majority," she says.

"I just wanted to celebrate Juneteenth," May says. Before COVID, he hosted a few bar crawls, Juneteenth dinners, and AfroFests. That sent him down the road to becoming Kalamazoo's only current Black bar owner.

May, 32, says "by trade, I'm a pricing manager for a medical device company," but he's clearly having the time of his life with Dabney. 

He was born in East Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to Grand Rapids in 2005. In both towns, he played and sang in bands.

The bar itself was named for John Dabney, born into slavery in 1820s Virginia. A cook and bartender for Richmond's high society, he invented the "hail-storm" mint julep.May's old sax is hanging on Dabney's wall, along with portraits of Funkadelic, Dianna Ross, B.B. King, Barry White. In a separate room are alcoves for more-private groups, and a space for dancing and bands. May says their Studio 54 New Year's Eve, with a live band playing disco classics, was a big success, and he's planning on regular live music starting in the spring.

May's love for music goes into the bar's playlist--it's all selected by May. "Whether you are a '90s baby or a Motown kid. The idea is, if you're here long enough you'll hear your song and be singin'." 

Where everyone can hang out together

May came to Western Michigan University in 2009, majored in management and finance, and minored in economics and business. May worked three jobs, took on 19 credit hours, and managed to get on the dean's list.

He fell in love with the Kalamazoo community, but something was missing. Despite being a diverse community, People of Color didn't always come to downtown bars, restaurants, and brewpubs. They didn't feel welcomed. 

"I've been here 13 years, going on my 14th year here. And to see the community truly lack these types of spaces, where all walks of life can come in and congregate.... people who are engaging here, hanging out, making new friends, traditionally would never hang out in the same places, have never met each other before. But you stay here long enough, you see people make friends, laugh, a song comes on and everybody singing together," he says. 

"How we break down some of those barriers is through music. People can't be mad at each other over music. It's our one commonality that we can all bond together and have a truly amazing time." 

May gets up for our photo shoot, finds himself behind the bar. Maze and Frankie Beverly's "Happy Feelin's" inspires him to burst into song.

Maya James and Carl Brown enjoy a cocktail at Dabney and Co.Carl Brown and Maya James are enjoying the impromptu show, along with cocktails and what May calls the bar's "soul food tapas," small plates and sandwiches like the Maple Bacon Jalapeño Cornbread and Sunday Dinner sandwich. 

"It's really nice to see an upscale Black-owned bar in Kalamazoo. I really love that it's from community members that I support, and I like coming in and seeing their faces," Brown says. "I definitely love an upscale bar that me and multiple People of Color can come in and feel immediately welcomed. That's something I've never really experienced in town before this."

He doesn't feel welcome in other Kalamazoo establishments?

Brown pauses before answering. "There's nowhere else in town that I can go, with a group of People of Color, and not be 'that table.'"

It's not that they get any side-eye -- "let's take the perception of the issues of racism as it relates to individual treatment off the table. That's just s--tty people," he says. "Let's talk about, when I'm at the only table with five Black people in a room full of white people, it feels f---in' weird."

The bar itself was named for John Dabney, born into slavery in 1820s Virginia. A cook and bartender for Richmond's high society, he invented the "hail-storm" mint julep.James says, "And sometimes we don't get the same treatment as the group of affluent white people who come to the same bar. You might be put in the corner by the bathroom --"

"I've been put at a table by the bathroom or by the kitchen far too many times," Brown says.

The previous weekend Brown's sister from Charleston, SC, and cousin from Fayetteville, NC, came to town. Brown took them to Dabney and Co. "And they were like 'Oh my god, a bar full of Black people, this is amazing!'" he says. Though they were from fairly large Southern towns with large Black populations, there was nothing like Dabney and Co. there. "So it's not like this is just unique for Kalamazoo, this is unique for small cities in this country." 

"Liberation through Spirits"

James points out that the bar pays homage to the Black heritage behind the spirits, spirits once served at taverns that were "only open to White people. And now we're taking that back. We can have our own Uncle Nearest and drink it, too."

It turns out that Jack Daniel had a lot of help learning how to distill his whiskey. While enslaved, master distiller Nathan "Uncle Nearest" Green originated a method to make Tennessee whisky smooth, much smoother than the typical rotgut of the 19th century, which he then taught to Daniel. Dabney and Co. has bottles of Uncle Nearest, the award-winning whiskey reborn by Green's great-great-granddaughter, behind the bar.

An array of cocktails, including Mint Julep, the Last Word, and Make-a-Wsih, are Dabney and Co. specialties.The bar itself was named for John Dabney, born into slavery in 1820s Virginia. A cook and bartender for Richmond's high society, he invented the "hail-storm" mint julep. 

Dabney's only income came from tips. He purchased his wife's freedom from his income and opened his own restaurants at the end of the Civil War.

That's why "Liberation through Spirits" is their motto, May points out.
May wants to keep the vibe positive, but he acknowledges that he saw some outright racism in online comments when the bar opened in November. 

"Kalamazoo is a diverse community, but it experiences the same thing every other community does. I've been here for 14 years, and it's been a challenge to be intentional about the type of entertaining, the type of guests that we serve, and about being inclusive," he says.

"As you can imagine, as this place was being reviewed, we had an abundance of criticism and racist comments, some of them were deadly as well, where people were threatening to come here and shoot it up, who'd say 'it's the new drug hub,'" May says.

Bartender Killian Ongonian serves up Dabney and Co.'s signature drins."You can imagine the challenges it takes to be a Black business owner, the challenges of financing and everything else that goes along with the bureaucracy... when you finally announce that you're doing something for the community, that this amount of hate comes--I quit reading the comments." 

"There's two Kalamazoos. There's the Kalamazoo that we portray to the world, and there's the one we actually live in," he says.

May says that he's felt welcomed by the city establishment. "The city has taken great care of us. What bothers me is the bureaucracy at the state level, that's been my challenge. But the city--we wouldn't have been able to pull this off if it wasn't for our city leaders, Southwest Michigan First, Chamber of Commerce."

"We were intentional with being downtown. Being downtown allowed us to show the beauty of our faces... We are not in a neighborhood, we want everyone to experience that this is what community and diversity look like. And it means having Black, Hispanic, everybody else, businesses downtown, and everybody thriving. That's what diversity looks like," May says. 

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.