It’s easy to start a business in Detroit and staggeringly cost-prohibitive to do so in Ann Arbor, right? Not always.
Brad Greenhill, head chef and founding partner at Katoi
, says his experience has been “the polar opposite.” Katoi, a Thai eatery which started as a Detroit food truck, recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in Ann Arbor while a Detroit restaurant is still under construction.
“We opened up [in Ann Arbor] for under $10,000, whereas in Detroit the contract is ballooning to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Greenhill says.
But that’s mostly the result of a mixture of both very good and very bad luck for a group of first-time restaurateurs. Since Greenhill and partners Courtney Henriette and Philip Kafka began transforming a service station on Michigan Avenue in Corktown into Katoi Detroit in December, Greenhill says “everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”
Brad Greenhill, co-owner of Katoi
Henriette recalls that in the course of the construction process, the partners sought advice from a friend who is a general contractor. “He said, ‘The reason you never pay people ahead of time is because, God forbid, your mason dies on the job,’” she says. “We’re having this conversation and Brad looks over to me–and I’m not making this up–and says, ‘Oh, by the way, the mason died yesterday.’”
The biggest setback came this spring, when the skylights on a newly installed roof began leaking profusely as soon as the snow began to melt. Greenhill and Henriette attribute that mishap and many others to the fact that they tried to serve as general contractors on their own first construction project.
Katoi's Corktown location under construction
Things have since turned around; the partners have hired a satisfactory new GC, and Katoi Detroit is set to open this fall.
But in the meantime Katoi found an unusual opportunity in downtown Ann Arbor. Greenhill, a University of Michigan grad and former Ann Arbor resident, had a lucrative friendship in Ali Ramlawi, the owner of Ann Arbor restaurant Jerusalem Garden
. Ramlawi had recently moved his local-favorite Middle Eastern eatery from its cozy location on Fifth Street to a much larger site just around the corner on Liberty, but he didn’t want to give up the good deal he had on the lease. So he sublet the property to Katoi, which moved in in late June and has found great success with the location so far.
“It was just weird, perfect, gift-from-the-universe timing,” Henriette says.
She also says that the Ann Arbor location has worked out well enough that the partners will likely continue to operate both restaurants even once Katoi Detroit is up and running. It’s a rather remarkable expansion for a business that started as a simple food truck only a year ago. Henriette and Greenhill originally met in 2013 through Greenhill’s friends, Two James Spirits
founders David Landrum and Peter Bailey, whom Henriette was bartending for at the time. Henriette and Greenhill decided to go in on a food truck endeavor together, fulfilling Greenhill’s long-running dream of starting a restaurant and Henriette’s enthusiasm for “throwing very elaborate parties with amazing food in strange locations.”
But they ran into a problem: the food truck they purchased, dubbed the “Green Zebra” for its emerald-striped paint job, turned out to be more or less immobile due to frequent mechanical problems.
“There’s a very vibrant food truck scene,” Henriette says. “All these people know each other and they were like, ‘Ah-ha! You bought the Green Zebra!’ They all knew.”
But the duo found a fortunate solution for that major setback. Landrum and Bailey invited Greenhill and Henriette to park the truck on Two James’ property and start serving food as a stationary operation. Through that gig Henriette and Greenhill connected with Kafka, a New York-based billboard company owner. Kafka first visited Detroit in 2012 and soon after began investing in properties on Michigan and Grand River avenues.
“I just came out of curiosity because I sensed that the city had a great brand,” Kafka says. “The city’s value was not in conjunction with its brand.”
Kafka met Henriette and Greenhill while visiting Two James and says he was impressed by the quality of their food and the strength of their business. The three ended up striking a deal to open Katoi’s first brick-and-mortar location in one of Kafka’s recently purchased properties, just across the street from Two James.
The interstate partnership also led to a rather unusual advertising campaign. Kafka regularly sells New York billboard space to clients including Warner Bros., Sony, and Patrón, but he began using the time in between contracts to run his own advertisements for Detroit. This February he ran ads for Katoi reading “Detroit: Now Hiring.” However, the Katoi partners stress that they don’t intend to prioritize New York transplants over Detroiters as they staff their operation. Greenhill says Katoi Detroit will emphasize hiring locals, and that it’s important that the fruits of Detroit’s renaissance extend to the city’s long-term residents and not just “white kids from the suburbs.”
“It’s not like anyone in Manhattan is going to look for a job and move to Detroit,” he says. “It’s only a certain type of person who’s going to do that. And generally that’s the type of person we like to see in Detroit.”
The campaign did attract considerable attention across Detroit media
and national outlets
, and in that sense the partners consider it a success. Kafka says the attention in Detroit, New York, and elsewhere is a testament to the “poignant” quality of the billboards’ message.
“There are always tourism billboards for Massachusetts and Florida and California that pop up in New York, and nobody pays any attention to the ‘Visit California’ billboards,” he says. “You put up a billboard for Detroit and it just shows how relevant the concept of Detroit is in an international state like New York.”
Henriette says it’s “exhilarating and humbling” to play a role in Detroit’s growth and revitalization. But she says she wouldn’t presume to describe herself, or her business, as ambassadors for the city.
“We can't speak for Detroit, only Katoi,” she says. “Detroit has allowed us to make a space for ourselves called Katoi, and it is from this space that we speak and dream and flourish.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.