Blessed are the cheesemakers: Spencer adds flavor to Ann Arbor restaurant scene

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 12:10pm


Courtesy of Spencer


Ann Arbor is becoming an even more creative and dynamic food community with uniquely structured restaurants — such as places that are known for reliable staples, pop-ups and other partnerships. They give local businesses space to try nontraditional ideas and offer an ever-changing blend of locally sourced meals for a new audience looking to try something new. 

Spencer, a wine and cheese bar/restaurant, has recently taken root in Ann Arbor with a focus on serving a menu that constantly changes with the seasons. Its airy, communal seating space creates a shared experience in which the diner trusts the restaurant to serve interesting and high quality meals rather than deliberately seek out a specific dish fulfilling his own cravings.

Co-founder Steve Hall notes, “In the last couple of years there have been a lot of changes (in the Ann Arbor food community), like more creative and small things popping up … We are tying into a similar audience who has eaten everything in Ann Arbor and is looking into some new sorts of foods.”

“The nice thing about changing all the time is that we’re not any kind of restaurant,” Hall continued. “There’s no one cuisine, so if we get an idea that's like ‘hey, I’m really excited about doing some duck legs this week,’ Abby and I will be like, ‘oh, we’ll do them sort of like French Alsacian-German, so let’s do some mustard-braised cabbage and some roast turnips,’ and we’ll sort of run with that for a week.”

Their cheese and charcuterie brings to light a lesser-known market in Ann Arbor. Hall laments in particular how underappreciated Zingerman’s is for their cheeses.

“It’s not just sandwiches; I know that all students think it’s just only sandwiches," he said. "Their cheeses are just some of the best in the country and you can taste all of them."

There are many considerations that go into the cheese-making process, Hall said.

“You think about the animals and how they’re treated, you think about what those animals were eating, you think about the season of when they’re eating,” he said. “Is it winter and they’re eating dry hay or in the middle of summer when they’re eating fresh grasses and flowers and stuff? All that to the size of the production, the care of the cheesemaker, the age, how it’s been transported, all of it down the line. I think a lot of people don’t consider that and just think, ‘that cheese is $30 a pound, that’s a ridiculous price.’ Well, no, it’s awesome. It’s way underpriced because people really, really care for cheese.”

One of the most important aspects of creating a dynamic culinary culture in Ann Arbor is for both diners and restaurateurs alike to be adventurous and keep an open mind. Being willing to mix new ingredients and flavors signals that innovation is welcome.

For example, Hall urges people to try different types of cheeses.

“I think a lot of people think that, ‘oh, I ate goat cheese on a salad once and I thought it was really weird and I didn’t like it, I therefore don’t like any goat cheese," he said. Well that’s ridiculous. I don’t like American cheese but it doesn’t mean I don’t like any cow’s milk cheese.”

Additionally, pop-ups and collaborative events between local businesses bring fresh takes to the way people traditionally interact with food.

Before Spencer opened shop a few months ago, owners Hall and Abby Olitzky did multiple pop-up events: a weekly menu of dishes at Braun Court bar — wine, cheese and book pairings with Literati and a seasonal five-course dinner using ingredients from Zingerman’s. In addition to establishing local connections for the pair after moving to Ann Arbor from San Francisco, pop-ups offered space to take creative liberties and test new ideas that liven up the local food scene.

Hall says pop-ups taught them about “what people are looking for, what do they respond well to, and how do we best get to that?” which helped identify what elements from San Francisco’s vibrant food community they could successfully implement in Ann Arbor. Both budding entrepreneurs and storied establishments can benefit from partnerships, as well as being willing to reach outward to the community to see what they are interested in while designing a menu.

There are many other businesses in Ann Arbor that also play with unique restaurant structures to satisfy a modern audience that craves flexibility without sacrificing quality and health. Babo sheds the distinction between grocery store versus restaurant with a cheeky, “well, it’s both!” Like Spencer, Babo also has communal seating inside, but supplements it with separate tables outside, giving a range of options for solo munching, on-the-go meals or a catch-up between friends.

The People’s Food Co-op, a communal-membership grocery store that has been a staple in Ann Arbor since 1971, features a similar hot bar and coffee shop concept in the adjoined Café Verde. This is an extension of their goal to provide reasonably priced, fresh, healthy food from local farmers, according to their website. They also offer many ways to get involved in the community through the food, with free classes about eating and health and events for co-op members.

Though Ann Arbor restaurants are typically known for delivering reliable and well-made favorites, there is a growing audience out there looking for elements of novelty and creativity in how they engage with food. And with new businesses like Spencer and Babo opening their doors, or historic local fixtures like People’s Food Co-op and Zingerman’s participating in pop-ups or changing things up, it’s clear that there are places ready to deliver.