University alum Ben Newman is a firm believer that every city needs a good bagel shop.
It was this belief that oriented his post-graduation career path toward founding the Detroit Institute of Bagels in the city’s Corktown district in 2011.
The business, which is listed as the top restaurant destination for Detroit on Trip Advisor and has four and a half out of five stars on Yelp, was not an idea Newman conceived directly after earning his bachelor’s degree in history from the University in 2006. Nor was it a goal he set his sights on after receiving a master’s degree in urban planning from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in 2010.
Newman said as an undergraduate student, he did not have a clear idea of what he wanted to do. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he worked at a law firm, Short’s Brewing Company and in real estate before deciding to return to the University.
“I was always interested in real estate development and the ways it can have a positive impact on communities,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Daily. “I pursued a master’s degree to learn about socially just and environmentally friendly ways to redevelop places.”
After graduate school, Newman moved to Washington, D.C. to work with a business improvement district — an area in which businesses can levy or pay additional taxes that go toward funding city services, with the idea that that improves the environment and attracts consumers.
This job, he said, in comparison with the fieldwork he did in Detroit during graduate school, did not feel meaningful.
“Compared to the experiences I had working on the East Side while in grad school, in Detroit, it just felt like what we were doing in D.C. was less … important in the day-to-day lives of the people that we were serving,” he said.
Newman then decided to apply for jobs in Detroit, and moved to the city during the interview process.
“I didn’t get any of those positions, but in that time when I was interviewing for positions, I was thinking pretty critically about what I was passionate about, and it was food and urban planning … and using food to help facilitate development and improve communities,” he said.
This self-reflection proved to be the key ingredient. Newman’s passion and background in urban planning met his idea of bagels as the quintessential urban food, and signaled a potential market. This culminated in the creation of the Detroit Institute of Bagels.
In early 2011, Newman and his brother, University alum Dan Newman, began testing and tailoring bagel recipes in the kitchen of their Corktown flat. They began filling small batch orders in March of that year, and eventually started selling at Detroit Eastern Market. Meanwhile, the pair started a Kickstarter campaign, successfully raising $10,000 to put toward buying a commercial oven. They also gained publicity as finalists for the 2011 Hatch Detroit Contest, in which young businesses compete for startup funding.
Throughout 2011, Newman said, he looked for spaces to bring his business idea to fruition.
“We wanted to take a space that had been vacant and activate it, and that’s one of the main things when you’re thinking about urban planning is creating active spaces,” he said.
Newman cited the concept of creating “eyes on the street,” an idea coined by Jane Jacobs in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which is considered one of the most influential books on urban studies.
Though he searched within a four-mile radius of downtown Detroit, Newman said a space in Corktown provided the most suitable location.
“I had a pretty good idea after conversing with my neighbors and other business owners about where Corktown was going and what some of the assets were and what some of the things people wanted to see in the neighborhood were,” he said.
Newman said his education and familiarity with the neighborhood informed his decision to stay.
“I had a good understanding of our place in the neighborhood and the context of the neighborhood,” he said. “I think the degree in urban planning gave me the ability to understand that everything is time and space specific in a city.”
Newman and his brother acquired the space at 1236 Michigan Ave. in November 2011. Before they renovated it, the building on the lot had likely been vacant for about 40 years.
“It was a complete redevelopment of the property,” he said. “There was no infrastructure here to work with. We were basically working with a shell.”
Three days before it opened its doors on Thanksgiving 2013, the Detroit Institute of Bagels was announced as a recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy. The nonprofit conservancy had raised money to preserve Tiger Stadium, which was located in Corktown before its demolition in 2009. Sen. Carl Levin (D) earmarked $3.8 million to the group before they lost the fight for preservation, but stated the money would still be available for the development of a public park and related business in Corktown.
Newman said since the store opened, he’s noticed the energy of Corktown change.
“Corktown is not crazy bustling, but Corktown for Corktown is a lot busier than it had been in the past couple of years,” he said. “There weren’t people walking by, for the most part.”
Newman said though he and his team still have a lot to learn, the Detroit Institute of Bagels is shaping up to fulfill his vision.
“It took a year, but I think we’re getting to a point that I’m very, very proud of what we’re doing.”