|All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.|
Dee Gifford and Jason Yates are Detroit n00bs, but they seem to have the hang of it already. They just opened a brand-new diner on what is now the hottest stretch of business real estate in Detroit: a place where lighting has struck not once, not twice, but at this point three certifiable times with a couple more still dangling as question marks in the air. (Will Mercury Burger Bar be a huge hit on the level of Slows/Astro/Sugar House, or do they lack the appropriate booster connections to make them buzzworthy? With the media/restaurant dream team behind Gold Cash Gold will it be Huge Ass Huge? Will the Bagel Brothers open to as much acclaim as they received when just working out of their kitchen in Corktown a year ago and FORTHELOVEOFMAN WHEN WILL THAT BE???)
Yep, for a business owner or would-be entrepreneur, Michigan Avenue is the place to be to capitalize on the magic leprechaun juju of Corktown. But for Dee and Jason, who moved here in January from Toronto (Other Fake New York, but a better one), it was simply a golden opportunity for a young couple to open their own business.
Why? Because buildings are cheap and the dream of the ‘90s is alive in Detroit.
“I wanted to open a restaurant,” Dee says. “It’s been my dream for about five or six years now. When Jason and I met he also wanted to open a restaurant so that worked out very well.”
So they started thinking about different places they could go, and Jason – who is also a musician and had Detroit on his radar from that world – suggested they check out Detroit. “I had heard of the local food scene, the urban farms, and we knew property prices would probably be cheaper.” And how!
Over Canadian Thanksgiving in October 2010, Dee and Jason came down to check it out. They drove around the city, went to bars, saw bands play at PJ’s Lager House, and kept coming back for more. “There was no real structure to our visits,” she says. But eventually they stayed at Hostel Detroit shortly after it opened last spring, and that was really when they started to get serious about looking at properties. “We met a whole bunch of people through that. It was definitely a big influence on us; everyone we know in Detroit we pretty much know through the people we met through the hostel.”
In most cities the opening of a hostel barely raises an eyebrow, but in Detroit it signified what many here already knew to be the dawn of a new Detroit – a Detroit not just attracting business travelers with the Big Three and conference attendees at Cobo Hall, but a Detroit that was attracting curious young people from all over the planet who had heard the stories and wanted to see it for themselves. Sure, that whole conversation is sooooo last year, but in the example of Dee and Jason the hostel provided exactly what founder Emily Doerr had always intended for it to do: create a community hub, a place for locals and visitors to converge, for relationships to be made and ideas to evolve. It’s not JUST a hostel; it’s the only hostel in a city that in just 3-4 years has become a source of fascination for the rest of the world (even if that fascination did start out somewhat inadvertently as Schadenfreude).
Dee and Jason had spotted the building that would become Brooklyn Street Local on Michigan Avenue and thought it was a great location. But there were no signs indicating if the building was even available or who to call to inquire about it. Through their connections from the hostel, they got connected with Ryan Cooley of O’Connor Real Estate who showed them the space. “We thought it would be a good fit and it absolutely was.”
Dee’s mother made the investment in the building and they are renting-to-own from her. “We feel very lucky to have parents who were supportive [of our idea],” Dee says. “When we were telling people who weren’t familiar with the city they’d say, ‘WHY are you moving to DETROIT?’ Our parents were like, ‘Awesome, that sounds like a really fun project!’” They closed on the building in December and moved to Detroit on January 16.
Work began on the inside; they kept the kitchen but redid most of the interior space. They trolled Craigslist and thrift stores for chairs, bar stools and other interior elements (like the old church pew). Graffiti artist Reyes painted a mural on the side of the building as part of the “Detroit Beautification Project.” There were some minor repairs that needed to be done and other area businesses rallied around them with recommendations and general support.
“Another thing we found very different from Toronto when we came here was how other business owners [were asking us] ‘What do you need?’” Dee comments. “They were all very supportive. It doesn’t even feel like competition in the traditional sense.” She remembers taking a small business management class in Toronto and making a business plan for a restaurant which including having to “scope out” the competition and get “the competitive edge.” “[This] didn’t feel like competition in the traditional sense ... everyone was very collaborative and really supportive. The way we’re thinking about other businesses [here] is not in an ‘us vs. them’ sort of way. It’s all very supportive and awesome!”
Whether it was people they hadn’t even known for two months putting in a 12-hour day slinging poutine at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or fellow business owners lending a helping hand (sometimes two hands), Dee and Jason were given a big fat friendly Detroit welcome.
Brooklyn Street Local official opened for business on May 17. If you’re wondering about the name, there is no great mystery: “Brooklyn Street” is the name of the cross street on Michigan Ave. where the restaurant is located; “local” refers to their emphasis on local products. “We definitely wanted to include local and organic food; we’re very passionate about it.”
As for that food, they make everything in-house themselves. They aren’t formerly trained as chefs – Dee learned a bit from working at a specialty grocery store that had a prepared foods section and Jason just loves to cook – so what you get is truly the home-style home-cooked experience. They make all of the sauces, dressings, and mustard; all of the pastries and the quiche; anything and everything baked; the veggie burgers and hummus (Jason’s own recipe); even the pea meal bacon. What they didn’t already know how to do themselves, they learned. You want to know about Detroit-style DIY? This is it right here.
Whatever they don’t make themselves they get from local producers, like tempeh from the Brinery and jam from Slow Jams Jam. They get produce from Brother Nature Produce not even half a mile away. They have a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan items on their menu, and a lot of items can be made vegetarian and vegan – like their poutine made with hand-cut fries, which can be made with mushroom gravy. (Their vegan bacon is very popular.)
Right now they are only open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (and cash only). Dee has a lot of ideas for them down the road – dinner events, workshops on canning and making their signature mustard, really any number of different fun things. But for now they’re focused on getting their initial business down and bringing poutine (and other stuff) to the hungry masses.
OHMYGOD LET’S TALK ABOUT POUTINE.
A year ago I was in Toronto and I posted a picture of poutine to the EID Facebook page. People were like “LOL WUT” and “Ew, sounds gross.” And so I began to beat the poutine drum, seeking it out in whatever meager capacity it existed in metro Detroit and often wondering aloud to followers why the F no one around here makes it or even knows what the hell it is with Canada so close by. I prophesized poutine was going to be a thing here (saying, literally, “Poutine: it’s gonna be a ‘thing’”), and then? Green Dot Stables announced they were going to have it. And then Mercury Burger Bar announced they were going to have it (they even put a it on a window cling). All of this while Dee and Jason were getting their place ready and wondering themselves how no one else had thought of it.
Well, a couple of people did (and I’m not saying I had anything to do with it, I’m just saying let’s not discount the possibility), but fact is fact so brace yourselves: much like Mexicans make the best Mexican food and Japanese people make the best sushi and black people make the best soul food and drunks make the best beer, Canadians make the best poutine. At long last, the poutine prophecy has been fulfilled.
Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.