If Wilma’s Ann Arbor were a person, she’d be a trendy, crunchy redhead who owns cats and succulents and has a spice garden in her backyard. She’d be the type of woman who could look cute matching completely different patterns, casually pull off clogs and she’d always use reusable grocery bags at the farmer’s market. She’d be the girl at hot yoga who isn’t trying to show off but is just naturally incredibly flexible and somehow looks good after sweating for an hour-long class. She’d play the guitar and enjoy hiking, make her own oat milk and have her own book club. She’d also be an Instagram influencer from L.A.
Wilma’s (formerly known as Fred’s) has been a staple in the Ann Arbor community since it first opened its doors on South University Avenue three years ago. The trendy, health-foodie cafe and coffee bar “Fred’s” moved to its spot on E. Washington Street and grew into its quirky name with a similarly idiosyncratic personality. After facing licensing issues with the name, the original Fred’s had to rebrand and create a new title for the well-known restaurant. Being such a pertinent part of student life at the University of Michigan, owners Sava Farah and managing partner Nathan D’Andrea left the choice in the hands of the customers, running a name-change campaign for several months in which they received thousands of ideas.
“The goal,” D’Andrea said in an interview with The Daily, “was for our customers to give us a name that makes the feel at home –– there’s a certain feeling people get when they come in here and we wanted the name to reflect those sentiments.”
When selecting the perfect name for their spot, they knew they wanted to go with a female name and something that had the same personal feel that Fred’s did. They assume that multiple people suggested Wilma’s because of the Flintstones reference –– Wilma being Fred Flintstone’s wife –– but the team behind Wilma’s selected the name because they associated it with a homey and happy feel. They felt as though the name “Wilma” felt like an older generational name and liked the way the ‘w’ looked in cursive on their fresh new logo as well.
“Wilma’s reminds a lot of us of a mother or grandmother’s name,” D’Andrea said. “And a lot of people associated Fred’s, and now Wilma’s, with a feeling of home.”
Something about the interior of the restaurant really brings on that comfortable, cozy feel whenever you walk into the door for brunch, lunch, dinner or a smoothie. The white-tiled floors are complemented by bright, natural light spilling in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and lush, green, overgrown plants adorn all of the empty spaces. A bohemian style hanging swing, comfortable low couches and a simple earth tone rug decorate the living-room-esque seating area before the counter. The intention here is to fill some of the empty space in the restaurant with purposeful furniture, instead of misusing or not using the space at all. The living room area is often utilized as a study spot, a reading nook or a solo dining area when someone stops in for a lunch break or a latte. To the left of the counter, the main seating section is mostly white and simple, complemented by simple, green toned accessories and of course, on the tables, the beautifully crafted acai bowls and heavily topped avocado toasts.
The interior of Wilma’s really fits her unique personality, the culinary experience and overall chic ambiance. The idea for Ann Arbor’s premiere health food oasis was born out of a vision to bring a clean, creative culinary experience to Ann Arbor –– one that mimics health food trends on the East and West Coasts that we as diners don’t often have the privilege of encountering in the Midwest.
“You know food trends sort of start in Australia, and then they go to California, and then they skip over the entire country and go to the East Coast,” said D’Andrea when asked about the original intention and idea behind Wilma’s. “We wanted to create an East Coast-West Coast vibe, serving everything from light snacks to meals. We wanted to stay ahead of the trends so that we can be the start of the trends for other places here in Ann Arbor. Being a city that has a surplus of folks from other coastal cities, the idea works really well.”
In terms of foodie trends, from açaí bowls to avocado toast to poke to turmeric to stuffed avocados to blue majik lattes, Wilma’s did it before anywhere else in Ann Arbor, and, because they go the extra mile to ensure everything is authentic, delicious and beautiful — they do it better. The menu has not changed much with the rebranding and the same clean, unique and healthy dishes are still available, from snacks and small plates to full meals. The top seller, no surprise, is the avocado toast, which is made on a thick slice of fresh Zingerman’s bread and topped with perfectly symmetrical slices of avocado, bright pink pickled onion and a dusting of chili flakes. A welcome addition is a perfectly cooked egg, and the runny, bright yellow yolk pools into the soft bread and makes the most mouthwatering dish. Coming in as the second-best seller is the acai bowl, which is topped with thinly sliced red apple, coconut flakes, crunchy pumpkin seeds, to-die-for gluten free granola and a lacy drizzle of honey. Other best sellers include the salmon bowl, which is paired with a unique starchy cauliflower fried rice, avocado and kimchi and the tuna poke, which is served with a sweet mango salad and toasted sesame. This wide array of favorites by customers is a testament to the fact that Wilma’s takes on a diverse variety of flavors, cultures and trends in their menu and manages to succeed with all of them. Sometimes a major risk is not honing in on one particular cuisine and attempting to be masters at too many flavors — but the restaurant manages to take on this risk, and succeeds effortlessly.
“With the food, what we care the most about is putting thought into it and creating each menu item thoroughly. Anything here can be made gluten free and or vegan,” D’Andrea said when asked about how they create the menu. When asked about his favorite dishes he remarked, “I can’t really pick a favorite. Every time someone asks me what the best thing on the menu is, I tell them they should try something they haven’t before, or try something new. I firmly believe that everything we make here is that good.”
In addition to the full menu donned with smoothies, toasts and salads, Wilma’s also has a rotating selection of homemade gluten free and vegan pastries on display, including thick and creamy chocolate cupcakes, crispy yet soft ginger molasses cookies and colorful funfetti cupcakes. If you’re looking for both a healthy and simple option that has something that everyone in your party will like, you can’t go wrong with Wilma’s. When I was there, I had the “nice cream,” a healthy take on ice cream made with banana, avocado, vegan protein and cold brew topped with a layer of creamy almond butter, crunchy clusters of spiced granola, banana and hemp hearts. I couldn’t pass up the gluten free avocado toast with a fried egg as well, which was the perfect balanced breakfast choice. To wash it all down, I opted for an almond milk matcha latte, which I had unsweetened; however, it still had a perfectly subtle sweet taste.
“We like to explore and take risks, find out what the benefits are of certain health foods, and not pigeonhole ourselves to being one cuisine or one “thing.” We want to be able to push ourselves to discover new things everyday. People are heading toward being more health conscious — for the mind, body and soul,” D’Andrea said when asked about the wonderfully diverse and unique menu.
At Wilma’s much of the choices on the menu remind me of restaurants from where I grew up, about 1,000 miles away from here on the East Coast where many people are hooked on health-foodie trends and Instagrammable dining experiences. There aren’t many spots in town where I can feel like I’m in any of the cafes of my hometown, or having brunch with my family on a Saturday afternoon, but Wilma’s really replicates a strong feeling of the East Coast, of home, that I’ve yet to find elsewhere.
“For the out-of-state kids from the West and East Coasts, we are sort of like a home away from home,” D’Andrea said when asked about the demographic of customers. The majority of their customers comes from the undergraduate community, and the owners have worked hard to foster a semblance of home for students who come to the Midwest for college from some place far away. “It’s like a different state in here, and we often have students telling us how much they feel that Wilma’s personality reminds them of their homes in California, New York, New Jersey.”
In narrowing their identity a bit with the rebranding, the team behind Wilma’s wanted to make the entire restaurant have a throughline in its vibe, as opposed to having contrasting feelings in the different corners of the restaurant. They made the fix by decluttering some of their spaces, making sure all of the surfaces are clean and match the simplicity of the food and moving the plants higher up instead of at eye level. In matching their interior with the food they made sure the look of the place followed a similar trendy, boho feeling and everything else fell in line with the same theme. The dress code for employees, music choices, cutlery, cushions and decorations all fall into the same trend-setter, coastal, simple motif. The restaurant is a full package in terms of the dining experience, and the commitment to all the details contributes to its allure.
The restaurant is well-known for its Instagrammable qualities: The ways in which everything from the intimate interior to the picture perfect dishes are incredibly photogenic.
“We’re always looking for ways to include opportunities for people to want the world to know they were here. We’re putting a trendy mirror about halfway through the line so when people are waiting on a long line with friends, they can snap a selfie. But the Instagrammable aspect is just one piece of the puzzle, it’s about so much more,” D’Andrea said when asked about the social media behind Wilma’s (@wilmasannarbor).
The team at Wilma’s values human interactions, even if it’s just in the simple exchange of a few dollars for a cup of tea to go. They focus on the touch points and small details, which starts with making the customers feel welcome for however short or long their visit to the quaint, green oasis is. Because there are more restaurants per capita in Ann Arbor than in New York City, the competition is steep, and going the extra mile goes a long way in curating a popular spot in a city so crowded with restaurants. Thinking of unique ideas, working hard to stay on top of trends, taking risks and providing a familiar feel are all important pieces to Wilma’s puzzle. These are the things that attract students, Ann Arbor residents and businessmen and women to Wilma’s for a beetroot and quinoa burger — choices both loaded with nutrients and tasty.
“Healthy is what people want these days. The trend of health food is taking off all over and we want to set the precedent for what that looks like in Ann Arbor while also providing an individual, extraordinary experience that evokes feelings of home for the customer,” D’Andrea said in regards to the restaurant officially rebranding as Wilma’s.
As I sat there, munching on avocado toast saturated in egg yolk and tangy slivers of pickled onion, I thought about Wilma –– who she’d be, what she’d be doing, what she’d like to cook, what her recipe book would look like, what her journal would look like, what her favorite book would be, what kind of car she’d drive. Taking it all in, as the morning rush commenced and customers sat elbow to elbow, filling the living room and the benches, stools and tables, smiling and trying something new, I realized something serendipitous: Wilma is whoever each and every customer wants her to be — for me, a fiery redhead in checkered pants and a polka dot shirt with a cat and a book club, for someone else, a marathon runner with a gluten allergy, a dancer vegetarian with a sweet tooth, a college student trying to find her way –– and when we walk into the front doors of 403 E. Washington St., we’re really stepping into her life.
CORRECTION: This article previously referred to Fred Lelcaj as the current owner of Wilma’s.