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Detroit small businesses sticking to inner-city roots

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Motor City Brewing Works is joining a growing list of popular Detroit retailers sticking to their city roots.

Michigan’s second-oldest microbrewer plans to open a second tap room and restaurant next year on Detroit’s “Avenue of Fashion.” That’s the stretch of Livernois between Seven Mile and Eight Mile that was a hub of luxury stores in the 1950s. The strip fell on hard times, but a steady wave of new stores has been opening in the past few years.

“It’s a real neighborhood. I get a sense a lot of people can walk from their homes to be here,” said John Linardos, founder and co-owner of Motor City Brewing. “Detroit has so many mini-cities. The bottom line is whether we can be sustainable and will we fill a need here? The answer is yes — at least we think so.”

Midtown-based Motor City Brewing is not alone in choosing to expand within the city.

The Bucharest Grill, purveyors of shawarmas, recently opened its third take-out location in Detroit. Avalon International Breads chose an east side location several years ago to expand its production, and is working on a downtown café on Woodward. And the owner of Sugar House in Corktown and Wright & Co. downtown also operates the Peterboro and Honest John’s in Cass Corridor, and Café 78 in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Such commitment to Detroit is “a fantastic generational change” said Larry Mongo, owner of Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy on Griswold and Gents by D’Mongo’s salon in the Millender Center. Mongo and his wife, Dianne, have owned and operated Detroit shops since the late 1970s, when they opened a beauty salon on the Avenue of Fashion.

“For many years, a lot of small businesses in Detroit used to run to the suburbs as soon as they made two dimes,” Mongo said. “What’s great about people like Motor City Brewing, or ... Slows Bar BQ or the Wright & Co. guys is that those are very popular places and you know any suburb would love to have them. To me, the fact that business like that are staying in Detroit is as positive as Dan Gilbert spending tens of millions downtown.”

Linardos and Motor City Brewing co-owner Dan Scarsella said staying in Detroit is a mix of pragmatism and good business. It also fits their sense of mission that they can bolster a strong neighborhood.

“I didn’t want to sit in traffic all day,” Scarsella said, when asked why he wasn’t interested in opening a suburban location. Motor City Brewing has gotten invitations by investors to set up shop in various suburbs.

Of the new location for Motor City Brewing, Scarsella said, “This also happens to be one the most stable neighborhoods in the city.”

Livernois’ Avenue of Fashion is surrounded by architecturally distinctive neighborhoods: Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods, Green Acres and the University District. The University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College are less than two miles away, which means about 6,000 college students are nearby. Within one mile of the Livernois strip, there are nearly 9,000 households with average incomes of at least $50,000, according to recent study by the nonprofit Revolve Detroit.

The Avenue of Fashion and the building that will be home to Motor City’s Brewing tap room and restaurant seems to represent a confluence of investment trends in Detroit.

The Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the city’s quasi-public agency that promotes development, has made a concentrated effort to enhance the strip, helping secure a variety of foundation and grant money. In the past few years, there has been about $1.7 million in street upgrades, including new streetlights.

The brewer of Ghettoblaster and Motown Bohemian Lager is setting up in a building that has been mainly vacant since the ’80s and was in such disrepair the city planned to demolish it four years ago. But local entrepreneur Chad Dickinson stepped in and bought the 10,000-square-foot building, which is U-shaped and resembles a lodge.

“Back in the ’30s, it used be owned by a gay black poet,” Dickinson said. It was last called the Hunter’s Supper Club and had gone through a series of owners who let the building decline, he said.

Earlier this year, Dickinson won a $100,000 grant from the Motor City Match program, which is funded by foundations and aimed at small businesses, to renovate the building. It was in need of a complete overhaul, which is taking place now. Dickinson is also a furniture maker and part of the building will hold his shop for his business Dickinson by Design.

In another part of the building will be the new business Slyde, a fast-casual slider restaurant that will concentrate on healthy fare made with ingredients from local farms. Slyde won a $45,000 grant from Motor City Match, which is where Dickinson met the brother-and-sister team behind the new restaurant, L.J. and Anitrah Nelson. The siblings have other partners in the venture: Bradford Frost, Jem Frick and chef Rayna Cook.

“We’ve been planning this for a long time, so we considered suburbs and many other spots,” L.J. Nelson said. “But to me, it wouldn’t have been authentic if we say we support Detroit farms and the city as a whole and then end up in Ferndale.’’

Anitrah Nelson said the Livernois building and the northwest Detroit neighborhood made “a lot of sense.”

“Everyone involved in the building seems to be as community-oriented as we are.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN