Monday, September 24, 2012

Hatch Detroit: The Final Four Analysis

What made last year's inaugural Hatch Detroit competition so exciting was that the semifinalists were pretty much all playing on an even field. Some had already successfully run businesses but weren't currently operating anything and lacked the capital to make another go at it; others were bright-eyed nu:Detroit settlers with nothing but a fun idea and hope in their pockets. This year's contestants included two businesses trying to open second locations (people don't get business loans anymore?) and businesses that had already benefitted from a tremendous amount of national press (up to and including a TV show). I thought for sure the littler guys were goners; in a move that surprised I think everyone, this year's top 4 finalists were all relative newbs, with each of the would-be Goliaths eliminated in the first round.

The competition is interesting, and it's no secret that I'm pulling hard for one candidate in particular - Rock City Pies. And yes, Nikita Santches is a friend of mine ... a friend I met in a professional capacity and got close with because I admire and respect what he's about and have faith in him as a professional. Last year I pulled hard for Hugh, who won. Joe Posch is also a friend, but beyond that I felt that his concept really was best - that it provided the most value in terms of economic growth by filling a very serious gap in independent retail in an area (Midtown) that is the best-suited for that kind of growth. Nepotism be damned, his concept really was the strongest one to suit the goals of Hatch (yet there were other concepts, like Anthology Coffee and Detroit Institute of Bagels, that I really wanted to see happen  ... and am happy to say both will soon be happening).

This year I'm not so torn. I think all of these finalists are really fantastic ideas and I really truly would love to see them all happen; that being said, there are reasons why I'm voting for one among the others. And here they are.

The stack of boats at Kayak Pittsburgh.
Detroit River Sports
Love it! Want it! Let's do it! But unless they're buying 75 kayaks plated in gold, they don't need $50,000 to make this concept happen. Something like this can be launched with a relatively modest sum of $10,000. (On the VERY high end, $30,000.) It can be done without a storefront (just a storage facility for the boats overnight and off-season), and with nothing but a launch and an iPad to process rentals. Also, it's at BEST a 6-month business, and realistically probably a 4-month business (generally speaking the operating months for such businesses is Memorial Day to Labor Day - 4 months). But let's look at some illustrative examples, shall we?

Kayak Pittsburgh
Anthony Kiedis once sang about things "under a bridge downtown." He wasn't so much singing about placemaking as about heroin addiction, but as the song has been co-opted to mean any number of trite things dealing with bridges it could just as well be about Kayak Pittsburgh. Located under the Three Rivers Heritage Trail System overpass at the Allegheny Landing, Kayak Pittsburgh's "rental facilities" is a stack of boats and a makeshift desk. They now operate three "locations."

Port Austin Kayak
You know how Port Austin Kayak started? Chris Boyle bought 15 kayaks and started renting them out. Seriously, there is not a tremendous amount of investment required here.

Basically if you can have a launch, you can have a business. The proposed launch site would be on Belle Isle (which is really the only tenable site in the city to make this happen). This site was potentially problematic while talks of the state taking over Belle Isle were still underway; however with City Council once again holding up progress it's difficult to speculate on the feasibility of this project either way. But loss of a lease or access to their launch site would mean a most certain end to this business, and Belle Isle still feels like too much of a question mark (state parks run their own rental services, which is a huge source of income for them that goes towards the maintenance of the park and park services).
CORRECTION: A reader has informed me that Belle Isle as the launch site is merely rumor; I apologize for reporting information from second-hand sources without seeking official confirmation. As it stands there is no officially proposed site that has been reported to the public.

Ultimately Hatch Detroit is about fostering economic growth and creating viable neighborhoods where restaurants, bars, retail stores and other independent businesses thrive, creating street excitement and foot traffic while also impacting the growth of strong, sustainable neighborhoods. A boat launch on Belle Isle (or any other tenable site along Detroit's roughly 12 miles of riverfront shoreline -- that aren't the 5.5 miles slotted for the Riverwalk or the remaining available space gobbled up by riverfront housing and other expensive private property or otherwise inaccessible for a boat launch due to river walls), as super-fun as it sounds, does not accomplish this. Also, the barrier to entry for that kind of business is exceptionally low (significantly lower than even a food truck, the low barriers of entry for which have been praised and can range from about $15,000-80,000, though I've also seen higher estimates in the $45,000-250,000 range) and can be done with relatively little investment. As it stands, this concept is a little more Kickstarter than Hatch (and invariably just a lot of happy "wouldn't it be cool if..." talk until a site is secured and approved).

For a lively discussion on paddle boat businesses (including several reiterations that it is only ever going to be a part-time/spare-time business and such words of wisdom as "Bless all the fools that have started a livery business because they love paddling and the outdoors"), click here. For more about the livery business, see here and here.

La Feria
I like this concept. I think it sounds awesome. I would like to have a tapas restaurant and wine bar in Midtown, even if only just to have the option. However, from the looks of their Facebook page, it would appear that they have already secured a space and are currently in the midst of build-out. Now this is all based on pure conjecture, but this would seem to mean that there is already money behind the project -- one does not sign a lease and begin build-out without there being money involved. Which means it would not be a far stretch to make the inductive leap and assume that this place is going to open with or without the Hatch cash. And if the whole point of Hatch is to promote business growth in the city of Detroit by giving small businesses a shot they might not otherwise have (my words), then maybe let's not throw money at a place that already has it and spread the wealth a little, as it were.

Detroit Vegan Soul
I understand there's a big vegan kick right now. But this is also one of the most obese cities in the country and the 5th fattest state, which means you can go ahead and make another inductive leap and assume that the majority of the city's population do not have healthy eating habits and cannot by forced into them by sheer force of well-intended will. Now is this systemic of a deeper-lying problem latent within the extreme racial and socioeconomic divisions ever-present in the city of Detroit in which lack of healthfulness is also inextricably tied to poverty and lack of education? ... yes. Alas, this institutionalized class warfare will not be changed in time for the final Hatch votes to be calculated.

While one could certainly make the "access" argument -- "people are unhealthy because they have no access to healthy food; this will be their access point and therefore they will adopt a healthier lifestyle" -- maybe. It's an "if you build it, they will come" sort of situation, but it sounds like they're building it regardless. I'm told the women behind this concept are absolutely lovely and I absolutely believe that to be true and I really truly do wish them all the best; I'm just trying to look at the bigger picture here. And right now that bigger picture is that the majority of the neighborhood clientele in the targeted location has not been indoctrinated into the vegan lifestyle and that for a neighborhood that has only JUST started its own process of redevelopment (and by "started" I mean a pop-up backyard hipster party that happens just a handful of days per year and some well-intended rhetoric about retail; oh, and let's not forget the Tim Horton's), then perhaps such a fringe restaurant concept isn't the best way to go right out of the gate. (Tim Horton's is the other food business showpiece.) Maybe they can single-handedly introduce fresh, healthy food to systemically unhealthy Detroiters ... but are you willing to bet $50,000 on it?

Rock City Pies
Am I friends with Nikita Santches? Yes I am. But we became friends out of a professional relationship, and those are some of the friendships I value the most -- people whose work ethic and ethos, not to mention talent and personality, I like/respect/admire so much that we actually become close friends. Is this nepotism? Sweetie, this is Detroit. It's all nepotism. But much as I shouted for last year's winner Joe Posch of Hugh not because he was a friend but because I felt he had the best concept that best served the Hatch objective, so too am I doing the same for Nik. (And also for America.)

First things first: Rock City Pies would not just be a dessert pie stand. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about this (and the one-line blurb on the Hatch website really doesn't help to clarify it). Rock City Pies, as a restaurant, would be pie-themed: pizza "pies," pocket pies, pot pies AND dessert pies. There would be a selection of other menu items too (like an expansive salad bar of locally-sourced items like fresh micro greens and funky, spicy lettuces) - "pie" is just the launching point for a full-service restaurant and bar that would serve both the WSU and CCS students as well as the DMC and many other workers in Midtown whose current options are still pretty limited considering the daily influx of tens of thousands of people. It's all about simple, hearty, home-cooked, from-scratch, affordable food that can serve the whole community; things people want to eat (there is a reason comfort food is all the rage right now), things they can afford to eat, things they can grab on the go. There will also be a bar serving all Michigan beers and Michigan wines (according to Nik, the products being made in our state are so fantastic there is no need to look outside of it). Nik and his father will do all of the construction themselves (save for specialized trades like electric and plumbing) and he'll be utilizing materials salvaged from Detroit sites. THIS is the concept you are voting on; not "just a pie shop."

Is it "just another restaurant"? Well yes, but by that definition so are two of the other three finalists. And while it sounds the The Detroit Vote has now swung towards Detroit River Sports judging by Facebook ("OhMyGodYouGuys, doesn't this sound cool?"), I would urge you to take the above points into consideration before you get all click-happy.

And now, I sign off like Dennis Miller.