When he entered this year’s Hatch Detroit small business competition, Elias Khalil of La Feria felt very much an underdog. "I'm old fashioned, I don’t really use social media, which seems to be how most people get votes" he says. Out of 260 entrants, he was shocked and delighted to make the top 10, and the hustling began in earnest.
In addition to the necessary evil of creating Facebook and Twitter accounts, Khalil pounded the pavement, leaving fliers around town and personally spreading the word. Tens of thousands of votes later, his concept for a Spanish-style tapas bar in the Cass Corridor came out on top, with a $50,000 reward to be used to develop the business.
Khalil is one of three partners in La Feria, along with his sister Naomi Khalil and their friend Pilar Baron Hidalgo, a native of Seville, Spain. Naomi lived in Seville and was formerly married to a Spaniard, which is how they met Hidalgo. The three have been friends for over 15 years. Every year around Christmas, Hidalgo hosts a party where she serves traditional tapas. Naomi, also a cook, pitches in with the food. And every year, says Elias, they have the same conversation: "We should open a tapas restaurant!"
How was this past year different? Khalil, a slight, energetic man whose enthusiasm is contagious, practically bounces in his seat at the recollection. "It just felt like the right time. I couldn’t sleep for two days thinking about it. I called up Pilar, and she said 'OK, Let’s do it!' Then a friend told me about the Hatch competition, and here we are."
One thing Khalil knew right off the bat was that he wanted the restaurant to be in the Cass Corridor. A native of Detroit, he grew up here but traveled and lived elsewhere, returning and settling in Midtown 13 years ago. His friend Armando Delicato talked him into co-authoring a book about the neighborhood (Detroit’s Cass Corridor
, in the Images of America series), and although he had always been fond of his 'hood, the process of writing the book cemented his love and dedication. His knowledge led Midtown restaurateur/developer Scott Lowell to approach him to help work on a future Cass Corridor museum, to be located in the basement in the same building that houses Model D's offices.
In true Corridor spirit, his neighbors have come out in full support. He’s gotten business advice and offers of "whatever you need" from Avalon’s Ann Perrault and Motor City Brewing Works' Dan Scarsella, and Sue Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc. has connected him with potential financial assistance and a business class at Tech Town.
The biggest helping hand, though, has come from artist Adnan Charara, owner of the building at 4130 Cass, where the restaurant will be located. The back of the building houses his art studio, and the restaurant will occupy 1,000 square feet in the front, with another possible food-based retail space adjoining. Charara has generously entered into a consent-to-lease agreement, which means that La Feria’s owners have been pledged the space without having to pay rent for the time being. Khalil expresses disbelief and gratitude at the arrangement: "I mean, who does that?!" he says. He describes Charara, whom he met serendipitously at Avalon Bakery while working on his book, as "real, genuine and communitarian."
Part of Khalil’s commitment to the Corridor entails creating a restaurant experience that will be accessible to more of its residents, including students and others on a smaller budget. He feels that a tapas menu -- small servings at lower prices -- is just the thing Midtown needs. "With the right price range and quality of cuisine, we can attract a variety of socioeconomic groups. That’s important in this neighborhood."
Although the restaurant won’t be open until sometime in 2013 (they’re shooting for April to coincide with their namesake festival, Seville’s yearly feria), Model D photographer Marvin Shaouni and I were lucky enough to sample some of the menu items firsthand at Khalil’s home. Having honeymooned this past April in the south of Spain, we became enamored with the food of the region and the tapas culture in general, and were more than eager to experience it again.
Even before our trip, we’d often remarked to each other that Detroit needed a true tapas bar, as opposed to the small-plate-style restaurants that sometimes try to pass themselves off as tapas but are typically more "fancy" and expensive. Khalil and Hidalgo couldn’t agree more, and reassured us that La Feria will only serve classic tapas like empanadas, tortilla de patatas (a Spanish potato frittata), montaditos (little open-faced sandwiches), salmorejo (a chilled soup similar to gazpacho), and croquetas. The menu will change seasonally, and they will try to source as much locally as possible, says Khalil.
As we sip Spanish wine and chat about plans for the restaurant, Hidalgo prepares the food. Her warm and boisterous personality offers a preview of what the atmosphere at La Feria will be like, and guarantees it’s a place where we’ll want to spend time. The plans include having an open kitchen, and Khalil even talks about the possibility of a camera and monitors so that customers can watch Hidalgo prepare the various dishes. In addition to being a talented cook, Hidalgo is also a ceramic artist, and plans to create ceramic tiles as part of the authentic décor.
We watch carefully as she prepares salmorejo, chicken croquetas, montaditos with tomato and Spanish ham, and mushroom caps stuffed with a parsley-garlic sauce. I ask her about the preparation of the croquetas and take mental notes -- I may just have to make them at home, since I don’t know if I can hold out until April. They’re delicately seasoned with bay leaf and nutmeg, and their crisp shell gives way to a creamy center that oozes out decadently. Although Spanish cuisine is typically meat-heavy, they plan to have options for everyone. Vegetarians should be delighted by dishes like the mushroom caps and tortilla de patatas.
Although there’s a lot of work ahead, and despite the fact that he has no restaurant experience and doesn't yet have all the necessary financing, Khalil’s energy and optimism are keeping him motivated for the task ahead. Khalil’s parents, Lebanese immigrants, instilled in him a set of values that will serve him well for the task at hand: "You can make anything possible with the resources you’re given." One gets the impression that with or without Hatch, Khalil would have made his dream a reality. But with the support of the community and his cooperative business neighbors, and an extra $50,000 to boot, those resources seem to be shaping up nicely.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni