No matter where you were this summer, it’s been virtually impossible to ignore the many signs of a floundering economy. There’s political gridlock in Washington and panic on Wall Street. Economists debate the likelihood of a double-dip recession while a pervasive sense of malcontent permeates a Main Street plagued by 9.1-percent unemployment. And as students return for the upcoming school year, they’ll be returning to a city that’s lost some of its corporate symbols but gained new marks of its independent spirit at the same time.
Over the summer, @burger, an experimental venture from Big Boy Restaurants, closed its location in the McKinley Towne Center building for the final time after just 11 months in the area. But what more students will notice are the signs advertising the sales at Borders.
Still, despite the tenuous economic environment, entrepreneurs continue to set up shop in Ann Arbor, drawn by the city’s smaller, college-town feel, sophisticated reputation and their previous ties to the region.
Located just a few blocks from what was formerly @burger is Avtomobile (pronounced “automobile”), a new vintage clothing shop that opened its doors in July. According to owners Maris Turner and Sara Renner, who met at Columbus College of Art and Design, the shop was founded after a stint in New York City that left them both disillusioned and looking to move closer to home.
“We wanted to be away from the corporate thing,” said Renner, an Ohio native. “Coming to Michigan was closer to my home and family than New York was.”
Despite its location on Liberty St. — an inconspicuous, blink-and-you-miss-it hole-in-the-wall — the storeowners are highly enthusiastic. Business has been good, and with the return of the student body it’s only improving.
“We opened at (the Ann Arbor Art Fair) which was just awesome for us. A lot of people came in and found out what we are,” Turner said. “Last week, when the students were coming in, there was a lot of traffic and people seemed really excited.”
Thanks in large part to the city’s comparatively lower costs, the duo hasn’t really been affected by the slumping economy and holds a certain come-what-may attitude towards potential recession.
“(Ann Arbor) isn’t New York, so the rent’s definitely a big perk,” Turner said. “It’s a risky time, but you might as well embrace it.”
A few blocks from Avtomobile, another new business has also sprung up. Italian eatery Mani Osteria, the brainchild of Ann Arbor-native Adam Baru, opened last May. Baru, who moved back to Ann Arbor from Philadelphia, returned to raise a family and start his first restaurant project. He brings with him years of experience operating restaurants for Iron Chefs, such as Masaharu Morimoto and Jose Garces.
“I’m probably one of the few people who have worked and survived two Iron Chefs,” Baru joked.
Despite the number of existing Italian restaurants in Ann Arbor, Baru sees plenty of room for his venture, which serves cuisine using locally sourced ingredients made fresh in-house. Though he recognizes the challenges business owners face in a bad economy, he remains optimistic about business and continues to emphasize quality.
“I think that we’re offering really great ingredients for a really quality product,” he said. “We’re just trying to hopefully add to and enhance what is already a great dining scene.”
Existing businesses are also choosing to expand, albeit in unique, cost-effective ways. Mark’s Carts, an outdoor collection of food carts, opened its doors in May and has already introduced two new carts to its courtyard on West Washington. Owner Mark Hodesh attributes their success to the recession-proof nature of food carts and the fun culture that surrounds them.
“Carts are sort of anti-business cycle,” Hodesh says. “It’s fun to eat and people have a good time.”
The newest cart in the courtyard is actually a franchise of an existing business. Hut-K Chaats, an Indian restaurant serving traditional Indian street food with a healthy, all-natural twist, is run by Sumi Bhojani and her husband, Dr. Mahaveer Swaroop Bhojani, a University cancer researcher. The duo added their cart to the courtyard in late July. Because the restaurant’s original location on Packard St. is several miles from campus, the pair wanted a location closer to downtown at a more affordable price.
“We wanted something closer to the town and a bigger place would have been expensive,” Sumi Bhojani said.
Business ebbs and flows with the student population, but since the cart opened, their store has seen business improve, as customers have been able to discover the restaurant’s unique offerings.
“The town is very cosmopolitan. People in Ann Arbor are quite open and willing to try new stuff,” Sumi Bhojani said. “(The cart’s) a good way to send them over to the restaurant.”
The fearless attitude of these business owners testifies to Ann Arbor’s rich entrepreneurial landscape, dotted with more locally owned businesses than most areas have big-box stores. It is perhaps this willingness to open up and explore an environment plagued by recession that makes the area so vibrant. As long as this spirit exists within the community, entrepreneurs will keep finding new and better ways to introduce themselves to the city’s residents.