The newest pop-up space in Midtown helps entrepreneurs test their businesses, together

Ne'Gyle Beaman doesn't have a storefront for his men's apparel brand, Bleu Bowtique. But this March, he got the next best thing.

Cass Collective, a new collaborative retail space on Cass Avenue in Midtown, houses Bleu Bowtique and five other pop-up stores, ranging from an olive oil shop to a jewelry store to clothing boutiques. Businesses will rotate out every three months to a year at the space, which is a collaboration between Midtown Detroit Inc. (MDI) and TechTown Detroit.

After four years of selling his custom bow ties and other natty items at fashion shows, pop-up events, and online, Beaman says he's eager for the opportunity to take his business to the next level.

"I think that brick and mortar is needed, and I think it's needed not just for me as a businessman," the Detroit resident says. "There are very few places left where people can go and shop. Everybody outside of Detroit is using the name Detroit, whether it be for clothing or a barbershop, and there's really not much here."

The Cass Collective is intended to give entrepreneurs like Beaman the opportunity to test their business in an environment that stakes out a middle ground between one-night pop-up events (like TechTown's monthly The SHOP) and a dedicated, permanent retail space. But it's not just meant as a precursor to moving businesses into their own brick and mortar locations—it's also low-risk way for entrepreneurs to figure out what model works best for them.
Sarah Donnelly, director of retail services at TechTown Detroit
Sarah Donnelly, director of retail services at TechTown, says that may well be a standalone shop for some business owners. But for others it could mean focusing on e-commerce, moving into wholesaling, or just staying on the pop-up circuit.

"This is a launchpad and a dressing room for that opportunity," Donnelly says.

Cultivating consistency

The idea for the collective originated last summer as a natural extension of the work TechTown and MDI are already doing in Detroit. Donnelly saw a permanent pop-up space as an ideal next step for select graduates of TechTown's Retail Boot Camp program, an eight-week course for entrepreneurs interested in moving into brick-and-mortar spaces.

"More often than not, their desire is to locate here in the Midtown area," Donnelly says. "But we haven't had many graduates who've had the experience of what that means, to operate in Midtown."

MDI executive director Sue Mosey also saw value in locking down a pop-up space in the popular neighborhood. Earlier this year MDI established a similar store, the North End Collective, as part of its $7.5 million investment in the New Center neighborhood. But Midtown had no comparable offering, especially after the neighborhood's Joyride store recently switched its model to host one larger pop-up over a longer lease period, rather than multiple pop-ups with shorter stays.

Hayley Marino, owner of Mie Radici, which sells Sicilian olive oil and products made from olive oil

"We don't have a whole lot of space in the neighborhood," Mosey says. "I really felt like we should grab a well-located space, make some improvements, and then be able to keep this as a rotating space for local entrepreneurs."

In the bigger picture, Mosey expresses hope that the Cass Collective will act as a "testing ground" to cultivate strong new independent business owners citywide.

"They may not stay in Midtown," she says. "Maybe it's in another part of the city, maybe in New Center or somewhere else. But we do feel like that's important."

TechTown is also offering personalized and custom services to each Cass Collective tenant. Donnelly and other TechTown staff will conduct an assessment of each business and create an action plan for each entrepreneur to achieve his or her goals. The collective's intention, she says, is to "train people on the value of merchandising, the value of knowing your customer." 

"Everyone deserves consistency," Donnelly says. "Residents of the neighborhood deserve consistent services, businesses that are open and that are going to be here for the long haul."

Fresh faces and veterans

Ne'Gyle Beaman runs the shop Bleu Bowtique, a seller of custom ties

So far, Cass Collective vendors seem to be settling in well. On a recent Friday afternoon visit, R&B grooves filled the small space and vendors projected enthusiasm for their recently acquired digs. 

"We have a great aura in here," says vendor Vincent McWilliams, founder of the clothing line Kill the Hate. "We all feed off each other. If you come to see me, I'll send you [to the vendor] next door. It just works very well."

The vendors' backgrounds vary widely. McWilliams has marketed his wares primarily online in the past and is mulling a move to brick and mortar, but other vendors have already been through the brick-and-mortar experience and are pursuing new avenues. 

Detroiter Cara Lundgren had a Ferndale storefront for her vintage clothing boutique business, Dolly Rocker's Handmade and Vintage, in the early 2000s. But then the economy bottomed out and Lundgren was forced to shutter the store. Lundgren says she's been trying to reinvent herself ever since, and pop-ups have become one of her favorite ways to operate.

"It just makes more sense economically," she says. "You get more people through the door and obviously you don't have all the overhead. There's a smaller space to fill with inventory, so it's been working out pretty well."

Vendor Jessica Rhuska says she and her partners have particularly appreciated the support they've received since they started their clothing line, Not Sorry Apparel, just a year ago. They attended Retail Boot Camp, where Rhuska and her partners decided to shift their business plan to focus on upcycled clothing instead of handmade items, and subsequently were invited to join the Cass Collective.

"Those resources have been really helpful for cutting down on those mistakes a lot of entrepreneurs make that waste time and money," Rhuska says. "It's been really helpful for us to streamline our business and just focus on what's working for us."

Even those business owners who have managed a brick-and-mortar store before express gratitude for the support system TechTown and MDI offer. Vendor Bridget Rice previously ran her jewelry store, B'Juelz, out of an Oak Park storefront, but shuttered that location three years ago.

"This is actually something I always wanted to be a part of—like-minded individuals that actually work together and help each other out," she says. "Being a small business owner, paying for everything by yourself, is hard."

If there's one complaint among Cass Collective vendors, it's only that the weather hasn't broken quite enough yet for customers to start wandering through Midtown and discovering the new establishment.

"I know the potential is here," Beaman says. "As soon as people are out walking the streets, traffic's going to skyrocket."

This article was part of a series on Detroit's business support ecosystem, and underwritten by business accelerator and incubator TechTown Detroit. Applications to TechTown's Retail Bootcamp are open through June 4. You can apply online here

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.