Healthy competition

. February 27, 2013.

Landlocked in the Midwest, this modestly sized yet progressive college town has gradually evolved into a restaurant destination for foodies on the hunt for eclectic and international cuisine.

Announcements of new high-end restaurants, offering trendy nuevo and haute cuisine with seasonal menus and locally sourced ingredients, seem to multiple by the week with more than a dozen announced in the last six months.   The proliferation of good eateries seems to be received by those in the industry as a boon for all.

“I think it feeds on itself,” said Mark Hodesh, whose Mark’s Carts courtyard has “graduated” two food carts that have moved on to brick and mortar restaurants.

“If you’re doing something like the person next door it’s competitive, but there are a lot of people and a lot of tastes,” says Hodesh. “If you’re thinking, you’re on your game trying real hard and having original thoughts, you’ll do fine.”
For whatever reason, residents here like a good meal more than most — be it the number of two income families, young professionals and college students, or just the availability of places to go. Ann Arborites, according to a market study by the Downtown Development Association, actually dine out at a frequency rate which is 160 percent of the national average.

Downtown has gradually transformed itself into a restaurant corridor. In the last three decades, the amount of restaurant business downtown has nearly doubled, from 7 percent of all downtown commerce in 1983 to 13 percent today, according to the latest DDA report.
“It’s been growing exponentially over the last 30 years,” says Susan Pollay, DDA executive director who moved to Ann Arbor in 1983. “When I came here, there was not much to recommend about the food. There were some restaurants getting a toehold. Zingerman’s had just started. Real Seafood was open, but there weren’t that many.”

Over time, however, diners have been educated to enjoy quality food and ingredients, she says. “Zingerman’s was offering artisanal foods before we had words for it,” she says. “Their fabulous cheeses would inform us: they came from this dairy and specialize in this kind of cheese and came on this kind of bread. Some thought it was expensive but they were teaching us how to appreciate really good food.”
Excellent food became a matter of expectation.

“Our pallets are opened,” she said. Not only is the restaurant scene evolving, but so are local growers. Seasonal menu offerings from local farms are also on the rise. Such “Farm to Table” operations resonate with folks interested in land use planning, green space preservation and support for local farmers, says Pollay.

“Arbor Brewing and Vinology and many others have made a commitment to locally source their ingredients, which makes their menus more interesting,” she said. “You can see what is coming in from market, and those of us who go out to eat a lot enjoy the menu changes to match.”

A steady demand by local restaurants has created a market for more small local farms, says Grange Chef Brandon Johns. “You can keep a market for small mostly family farmers that are only going to raise 15 pigs at a time, 4 times a year,” he says. “That’s why you pay a premium too. You only have 15 pigs, not 3,000 pigs. You’re feeding them better and they have more room to roam.”

Local folks are also in a better position to pay more for it. With the University of Michigan as a major employer and economic engine, Ann Arbor’s median household income of $52,711 well exceeds the national average. And the customer base is well educated as over 69 percent of area residents have completed four or more years of college.

“Let’s face it, we’re very fortunate. Although we’ve had tough times, we were not hit as hard as a lot of other places in Michigan,” said Maura Thompson of the Main Street Association. “People really look at downtown Ann Arbor as a restaurant destination,” she says. “Restaurant Week is a good example.” Restaurants participating in restaurant week have more than doubled — 21 restaurants participated in June 2009, while 55 restaurants were included in January, she said. With downtown space in high demand, businesses that close don’t stay empty for long.

“As many openings as we’ve had this year, I like to think there are more to come,” says Pollay. “I see more being welcomed.”

Food News

Vellum: American Nuevo, owned by Peter and his father, John Roumanis, who owns Mediterrano and Carlyle Grill. Offers a high-end seasonal menu, located next to the Raven’s Club in the 200 block of S. Main Street.

What Crêpe: Chic French bistro, the third location opened by entrepreneur Paul Jenkins Jr., in the former Squares restaurant on Liberty Street.

Isaleta: Mexican restaurant offering small plates, owned by Adam Barus, which has opened next door to Adam’s other popular eatery, Mani Osteria on Liberty Street.

Kuroshio: Asian fusion, owned by locals Kenneth and Grace Wang, who moved into the former Champion House after that long standing business closed in January.

 Slurping Turtle: Chicago based Japanese noodle house owned by award winning chef Takashi Yagihashi of Top Chef Masters fame. The plan is to open sometime this year; space has not been secured yet.

The Lunch Room: vegan food cart, which operated at Mark’s Carts courtyard, is opening in Kerrytown Market in the space occupied by Yamato restaurant. Owned by Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo, it is the second cart to “graduate” into a brick and mortar restaurant (the first was Eat, which moved in the Fall of 2011 to 1906 Packard, near East Stadium Boulevard.

Mission Management, which owns Jolly Pumpkin, Blue Tractor, Cafe Habana and Grizzly Peak, has added three new ventures: Lena in the space occupied longtime by the Parthenon Restaurant on S. Main Street at Liberty; Mash, a bar and live music venue beneath Blue Tractor on Washington; and a third venture, The Old German, an eatery harkening back to another downtown occupant which folded several years ago, will open in the basement of Grizzly Peak.


Domino’s Farms Aids Ann Arbor’s Need for Office Space

Domino’s Pizza and Arbor Research are both launching new office building projects at Domino’s Farms. Domino’s Pizza is creating a 33,000-square-foot building on the north side of Domino’s Farms, expanding to their current space. Arbor Research is creating a new 49,500-square-foot headquarters building on the east side of Domino’s Farms. Both buildings should be completed

A Physician’s Perspective on Legalized Cannabis

On Tuesday, November 6th, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Ten years ago, we had become the 13th state to legalize Cannabis for medical use. I voted for the medical cannabis law years ago because, in my view, cannabis is not a dangerous product, and too many people were being imprisoned for its use. At that time, however, I did not subscribe to the argument that there were legitimate medical uses for cannabis. How things have changed.

Tiny Expo at Ann Arbor District Library—A Curated Holiday Gift Fair with Flair

The Tiny Expo is a gem of an indie arts and crafts fair for vendors with original and unexpected products that make wonderful gifts but may not be an obvious fit for Ann Arbor’s mainstream art fairs. Shoppers who crave artistic, high quality products with diverse price points will find a rich variety of unique, handmade products to choose from.

New Tenants in Downtown Ypsilanti

Formerly long-vacant buildings in Downtown Ypsilanti are experiencing revitalization as small businesses and nonprofits are rapidly filling up spaces. Michigan Advocacy Program (MAP), a nonprofit organization that, “provides access to the justice systems for those that need it most,” recently purchased the Smith Furniture building at 15 S Washington Street which became their headquarters. Decode