Phillip Cooley: Detroit dreamer before it was cool


When talking about growth in Detroit, Phillip Cooley’s name was on everyone’s lips long before Dan Gilbert’s.

The former model has lived all over the world, from Marysville, Michigan, to Barcelona, Spain. He’s close with his parents and brother, and together they opened some of the most-talked about restaurants in the city, starting with Slows Bar-BQ in Corktown a decade ago.

Take a closer look at the 37-year-old, and it’s obvious he’s a different kind of mogul. When walking around Ponyride, his 30,000-square-foot artist and entrepreneur colony in Corktown, he greets everyone by name and asks how they’re doing. In fact, when Ponyride — which offers inexpensive work space to socially conscious creators — started to fill up with tenants, he moved his own work space so someone else could have it.

He understands that to be successful, you must ask others for help, and he knows the value of having talented people around.

“I rely heavily on my partners and my family and all the people in the community I live in,” he said. “What that’s taught me is we really need to bring more people to the table, especially when it comes around innovation, job production ... when you have the infrastructure that we have in the city and you look at the people that we have in the city — folks that design things, build things, engineer things — we have the capability to save ourselves and create our own economy.”

Cooley also stresses being “inclusive” as the city changes.

“A lot of times growth and development can be exclusive,” said Cooley, who is on the advisory board of the ACLU of Southeastern Michigan. “We kind of homogenize communities and displace people, and that’s what I’ve been excited about in Detroit ... we’ve done it better than in Wicker Park (in Chicago) and in Brooklyn. It’s been more inclusive.”

Cooley grew up in Marysville, an hour north of Detroit, and from there bee-lined to Chicago to attend Columbia College. After earning his film degree, he lived in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. He moved to Detroit just a few years before opening Slows in 2005, a move that kick-started growth in Corktown. Cooley, who also plays guitar, went on to open Slows To Go in Midtown, Gold Cash Gold in Corktown, and a second Slows in Grand Rapids.

“Most people know Phil Cooley for his role in Slows Bar-BQ, but the positive impact he’s had on Detroit goes far beyond one restaurant,” says Jeanette Pierce, executive director of Detroit Experience Factory, which offer tours of the city and is a resource for both visitiors and residents. “He didn’t just make some money and disappear. He’s helped other people open businesses and launch projects not by writing checks but by offering advice, friendship and physical labor.”

“Even though he’s been featured in numerous articles —although I’m pretty sure he’s probably never sent a press release in his life— he’s one of the most humble people I know.”

Right now he’s spending most of his time renovating a historic former Detroit fire station that he will live in with his wife, Kate Bordine. His business partners, Michael Chetcuti and Kyle Evans, will move their design studio there, and they hope to open a pizzeria on the main floor.

After that project Cooley said he’s considering slowing down to find more “balance and stability.” He also has plans to teach, which he’s done before at Lawrence Technological University and Western International High School in Detroit.

Melody Baetens

Phillip Cooley

Age: 37

Occupation: Business owner, restauranteur, developer

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Columbia College of Chicago

Family: Wife, Kate Bordine

Honored for: For contributing to Detroit’s growth in the arts and restaurant community, as well as his commitment to making the city’s growth an all-inclusive effort.