Red Hot Lovers used to be campus’s main destination for authentic Chicago-style hot dogs and late-night chili cheese waffle fries on a drunken stumble home. But since the beginning of this semester, the hopes of hungry students have been deflated by the scene at 629 E. University Ave.: stools upside down on tables, lights out and no one in sight.
The closing is only temporary, though, according to Troy Slade, the restaurant’s owner. Slade said he closed Red Hot Lovers for winter break, planning to open again when classes resumed, but an unforeseen conflict with the building’s landlord has put things on hold. Slade said he intends to reopen but doesn’t know when or where.
“We will be somewhere in Ann Arbor, on campus,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Slade said his landlord, Dick Johnston, has offered him a one-year extension for his lease, which ends in about three months. Without a lease offer of at least five years, though, Slade said he’ll start looking for a new home for the restaurant.
Johnston could not be reached for comment.
Operations at the restaurant were suspended because Slade didn’t want to invest in a location that he might be vacating soon.
“The place is old, and a lot of the equipment needs fixing up,” he said.
Slade expects a decision from Johnston this week about the lease and said that although he would prefer not to move, there’s “a ton of locations” where landlords would be “thrilled to have a tenant like Red Hot’s.”
“I’m sure if I moved it to South University (Avenue) people would go nuts,” he said. “They’d love it.”
Slade said it doesn’t make sense for any new business owner, especially one who wants to expand, to take the risks involved with short-term lease commitments.
“If you’re going to put money into something, you need the security,” Slade said.
Toward the end of his 30-year ownership of Red Hot Lovers, the previous owner had a series of year-to-year lease extensions from Johnston, Slade said. He added that the former restaurant owner worked with the short-term commitment in part because he was nearing retirement.
In January 2007, the property next to Red Hot Lovers was purchased by the developers of Zaragon Place, an apartment complex that is set to open in May. Formerly the site of the Anberay apartments, the Zaragon’s property had an asking price of $5.45 million — roughly $354 per square foot for the land, according to the Ann Arbor Business Review.
With a short-term lease, Johnston’s property could remain available for similar opportunities.
Slade, a 2003 University graduate, lives in and operates the business from New York, where he grew up. He works for Eli Lilly and Company, a pharmaceutical company.
Red Hot Lovers was Slade’s favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor when he was a student, but he often wished it was open later than 8 p.m. When he was back in town for his sister’s graduation, he “hit it off” with the former owner during a conversation that ultimately led to Slade’s acquisition of the business.
Soon, Red Hot Lovers was open until 4 a.m. six nights per week, joining the likes of New York Pizza Depot, Backroom Pizza and BTB Burrito as late-night destinations.
Slade said he’s committed to preserving the tradition — and improving on it.
“Red Hot’s is not going anywhere,” he said. “I paid too much money. I love the business. I love the concept. I want to do something with it. I have tremendous plans to do more with the business.”