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New 'tip-less' Detroit restaurant Magnet won't reopen

Chef Brad Greenhill blames the pandemic, but owner Philip Kafka said there were issues with the concept even earlier; the two have dissolved their hospitality group

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

About three weeks shy of what would have been its first anniversary, the team behind chef-driven, hip restaurant Magnet says the restaurant won't reopen. 

Owner Philip Kafka said he plans to reopen the space in the future as a more casual restaurant "inspired by the streets of Tel Aviv." Magnet chef Brad Greenhill will continue to focus on Corktown's Takoi — where he's gotten glowing local and national accolades for his Thai dishes — with 100% ownership. Kafka will no longer be a partner at Takoi, but will operate only as the building's landlord. 

New Detroit restaurant Magnet has a simple interior design featuring blue tile and walnut.

Greenhill and Kafka, who have also dissolved their restaurant group Top Young Hospitality, have different takes on why Magnet is finished.

The restaurant opened in September 2019 after more than a year of planning and work. Besides offering flame-cooked dishes with a focus on vegetables, the takeaway was the progressive hospitality model in which guests did not tip and instead paid the cost of labor was baked into the menu pricing. 

Greenhill said he believes COVID-19 and being forced to close the restaurant in its infancy is what killed Magnet. 

"I would 100% put it on the pandemic," said the chef. "Where there are some things we needed to work out to make it a little more of a sustainable project, we hadn't been open six months (yet). Usually it takes a restaurant five months to a year to get its groove and figure out how business is going to be, staffing and all of that." 

Kafka says he had planned to restructure the restaurants before the pandemic hit, adding he thought the two concepts — Magnet and Takoi — spread everyone too thin.

"If we wanted to reopen the restaurant we would have reopened the restaurant," said Kafka. "It's not that we're a casualty of COVID. COVID actually gave us the opportunity to reorganize in a more effective and strategic manner ... I'm excited about this change. Brad's in a great place, he's going to own Takoi 100% the way we structured things."

Kafka said that while enough food at Magnet was sold to cover the costs, it wasn't "a sustainable way to create a lifestyle or work in an effective manner."

"As a business person looking at it from a birds-eye view, everybody was stretched way too thin," said Kafka. "Having two restaurants of that caliber was like putting all of our heart and soul into two places. It was really difficult ... it was too much."

Server Hannah Green works the floor at Magnet, a new restaurant that has done away with the tipping model in Detroit, Michigan on November 6, 2019.

As for the no-tipping model, in which guests paid more for a meal but in turn didn't have to leave gratuity, Kafka thinks it was too ambitious for Magnet as a new restaurant. The idea was to give employees a more consistent wage, and he thinks it could work in the right restaurant, but with Magnet "we were trying to do too many things in a new place."

In the future he wants to take some of the Middle Eastern influence Magnet had, but make the next restaurant in this space more casual. 

"Now that Brad can be fully focused on Takoi, I’m going to take Magnet back and I’m going to reopen it in the originally iteration of what it was supposed to be, which is a really casual, energetic restaurant inspired by the streets of Tel Aviv," said Kafka. "I don’t know when that’s going to be, but it’s going to be more like drinking food, not craft cocktails, more like a vodka soda. Not as casual as a bar, but it’s going to be great food, simple. Instead of the average ticket price of $60, it’s going to be more like $20-$25 a head."

Kafka said he is likely to team up with chef Michael Goldberg, who ran the globally-influenced sandwich shop Allenby Detroit inside the Fort Street Galley for a few months, for this new restaurant. 

In addition, Kafka is also renting to chefs Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson for the second of their two new restaurants. They told The Detroit News  month that this was going to go in the space known as the Pantry, a side room to Magnet. 

They haven't chosen a name yet, but describe it as an "all day cafe" that will serve the neighborhood six to seven days a week. 

Greenhill says Takoi is stable and has been doing carryout and delivery service, as well as patio dining. They also started selling canned craft cocktails. Greenhill expects the inside dining room to open back up around Sept. 16, at half capacity. Reservations will be available soon at takoidetroit.com.

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens