John Lopez and Ann Perrault left Detroit in the early 1990s to “get away” from the stress of living in their hometown, where the renaissance didn’t seem to be catching on.
After a short time living Up North, each felt a call home for different reasons and one common reason: entrepreneurial opportunity. “Something was really happening,” Lopez says. “The momentum is visible. The environment is different now.”
Perrault, a community activist, harbored a desire to build an urban community in the former Cass Corridor area, which had evolved into its current identity, Midtown. Together with partner Jackie Victor, in 1997 they established the city’s first organic bakery, Avalon International Breads, as both gathering place and purveyor of high quality, creative baked goods, including its popular Motown Multigrain bread, savory focaccia and tempting array of brownies and pastries.
Lopez, a restaurateur who was a former partner in the perennial favorite Union Street Restaurant, had sense that something had changed about the business climate in Detroit. Having learned his business from a server’s perspective in Northern Michigan, he joined a partnership in 1999 that resulted in Agave, a hip Mexican restaurant across from the Whitney on Woodward. That led to his 2002 development of trendy and sophisticated Atlas Bistro, closer to downtown, in the former Addison Hotel building, now an apartment building.
Most recently, he came back to Midtown to revive Twingo’s on Cass Avenue in the heart of the University Cultural Center. He hopes to open the restaurant in September, redoing everything from the interior design to the menu (promising a European-style cafe with a blend of French, Italian and Spanish cuisines).
For both entrepreneurs, Detroit’s affordability and revived residential population offered a sense of community that didn’t exist just five years before their return.
Lopez recalls talking to a friend planning a restaurant in Chicago. “Why are you building in Chicago?” he asked. He challenged his friend to explore the New York and Chicago markets, then come to Detroit, which he believes is a rich market for restaurants today.
Although not on the top of the “cool cities” list, Midtown Detroit has long held its own sense of cool, which now has taken on a new vitality, Lopez says. “Detroit has always been as cool a city as you would find anywhere in the country,” he says, referring to the art community that rooted in the Cass Corridor and flourishes in the evolving galleries of Midtown. This area “projects a spirit that made Detroit unique.”
Midtown, he says, has become a “walking neighborhood,” with the recent residential developments such as the Stuber-Stone and Canfield lofts, as well as Wayne State University’s growing residential population, introducing considerable ethnic diversity to the area.
“I want to change the quality of life for people in this neighborhood,” says Lopez.
Perrault has the quality of life at the core of her business plan at Avalon. She says her business has four bottom lines: creating high quality organic baked goods; creating a community gathering place; providing relatively high-paying jobs for local residents; and making a decent living.
Thanks to affordable rent and a pent-up demand for their products, Perrault and Victor have seen remarkable success, not only with the local business but through their regional distribution as well.
“The community needed a place to hang out,” Perrault says.
Indeed, on any given summer day, locals will sit outside at café tables with coffee and talk or read – as one would expect at a coffee bar, which still are in short supply in Midtown.
Avalon has also helped with financing and promoting adjacent businesses, Spiral Collective and Flo’s, to revitalize their small retail strip on Willis.
Lopez and Perrault agree that while the opportunity exists to develop a business – be it a socially conscious business like Avalon or a restaurant – it isn’t easy. There are challenges like working through the city bureaucracy and accessing financing. Even the success of recent years is making it more difficult for small entrepreneurs to find inexpensive properties.
It takes a tenacious entrepreneur with a sense of idealism to thrive in this environment, they say.
“You need to keep your heart open in this area and don’t let it get hard,” Perrault says.
“There is no easy way to do my thing in the city,” Lopez says. “Like a lot of Detroiters, I had a love/hate relationship (with the city). But now I’m in love with it.”
Lopez, who frequents LJ’s, a watering hole in Corktown where local entrepreneurs gather on Wednesday nights, says there has been a convergence of new entrepreneurs with energy and optimism. “A community of people doing the same things” has developed among entrepreneurs where the new learn from the old.
“Those of us who have paid our dues, we’re excited about these kids coming in. They have the same enthusiasm and energy that we had. … They have a lot to offer us and we have a lot to offer them.”
Another promising factor, Lopez says, is the interest displayed by large developers from outside Detroit, who are building upscale residential properties.
Conditions in the city are ripe for the “real renaissance,” Lopez says. “The first renaissance never took place. … Now, the stars are aligned.”
- All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger