Tuesday, November 26, 2013

[EID Preview] A Boy and His Bagel Shop: Detroit Institute of Bagels

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

It's two days before Detroit Institute of Bagels officially opens to the public. Owner and chief bagel-maker Ben Newman looks tired. Scratch that: he's straight-up exhausted, wearing the expression of a man who has spent countless hours and sleepless days working on getting his business ready to open and now is finally ready to do it. It's a face I've seen before.

Ben has spent nearly three years and $500,000 to make his bagel dream into a bagel reality, and on Thanksgiving Day, Detroit Institute of Bagels will welcome its first official customers. Why Thanksgiving Day? Because there's plenty going on around downtown, like the Thanksgiving Day Parade – that's over a quarter of a million people right there. There's also the Lions game. But more than anything, after nearly three years of planning, nearly two years after acquiring the building at 1236 Michigan Avenue, and nearly a year since full-on construction started (they were delayed while waiting on Rehabilitation Tax Credits), Ben just needs to get the shop open. It's a story I've heard before.

It's been about two and a half years since Ben and I first sat down inside his Corktown flat and chatted about Detroit's emerging food start-up scene. Back then, Ben was a starry-eyed bagel maker, figuring things out as he went along but excited about the prospect of bringing fresh homemade bagels to Detroit's bagel desert. But it wasn't just that – bagels are and always were a means to and end, never the end in themselves. Ben is an urban planner by trade; his goal was always to take a vacant property and make it an active space, a place that would employ people in a city where jobs are still desperately needed. "Once there was traction behind bagels I knew they could be a vehicle to do those things I was passionate about," Ben says. "Now my thing is for [my employees] to be successful, and the bagels are their avenue to be successful."

In the time since Ben and I first talked, Detroit Institute of Bagels has gained a tremendous local following. Their clever branding endeared them to Detroiters, with wink-wink jokes of Detroit as a "bagel desert" and artwork that played up their name as an homage to the Detroit Institute of Arts (which Senator Carl Levin also winked at yesterday). They successfully funded a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. They were a semifinalist in the first-ever Hatch Detroit competition, and lost as gracefully as anyone could possibly lose. Now, as of yesterday, DIB was officially announced as a recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy – a grant 18 months in the making, and a sort of coming full circle from their early days as a Hatch semifinalist. It seems that everyone in Detroit is rooting for their success.

But timing is everything. A lot has changed in these last two and a half years. Detroit has changed, and dramatically so. Which isn't to say that every new business that opens isn't still greeted with a whole lot of fanfare – they still are – but the time will inevitably come that every new restaurant that opens in the city of Detroit isn't treated as the second coming of Slows. It's not a bad thing; when we eventually get to a point where there are so many people and so much activity that the singular hive-minded enthusiasm for each and every new place peters out and a new business opening is just business as usual, well, Detroit will really feel like a REAL city, Geppetto. That being said, Ben is relieved he started this when he did. "Everything happened at a fortunate time," he says. "I'm glad we started this project two years ago because so much has changed since then. It just happened at the right time to get the support we needed."

Now the Michigan Avenue commercial stretch in Corktown has not only the Slows/Sugar House/Astro Coffee corner, but there's a whole lot more going on – Two James Spirits (another Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy grant recipient), Brooklyn Street Local, MotorCity Wine, Ottava Via, Bucharest Grill, Rubbed, and Batch Brewery have all opened recently or are opening soon. If Ben tried to buy this vacant building now, the asking price might have been a lot higher, perhaps prohibitively so.

But things have worked out for Ben and DIB so far, and just getting to the point of opening is a pretty big deal. The historic building, which sat vacant for about 40 years prior to Ben purchasing it, was completely gutted. Original brick walls, archways, and wooden ceiling beams were exposed and preserved, now a design highlight of this, the "best-designed bagel shop in the world" (a comment Ben once made in jest and then sort of became a thing). Windows were knocked out to let in natural light. A second building was added for bagel production. Wood that once covered the ceiling was repurposed for the interior. The floors were re-done with reclaimed wood from an old gymnasium. Bars and tables were made with reclaimed wood from old bleachers. Industrial restaurant equipment was reclaimed from restaurant supply stores throughout the city, which stock used equipment from restaurants that have gone out of business or upgraded their equipment. The entire space is a testament to sustainability and reclaimed urban environments, truly the very heart of Ben's personal ethos and a shining reflection of Detroit's culture of revival, of reclaiming what is old and forgotten and making something new and thoughtful out of it. Out of the ashes, and all of that.

There is also a pocket park out front, with windows that look into the kitchen at specific points in the bagel-making process. Again, from an urban planning perspective, the park was an important addition for Ben. "Taking the context of Campus Martius downtown and Roosevelt Park across from Slows, both less than a mile away [in opposite directions], there aren't really any good points in between where a pedestrian can relax," says Ben. "A three-quarter-mile walk elsewhere, no one would think twice about that, but here [you have to walk over a freeway]." He plans on programming the space in the warmer months with movie nights and other activities.

As a brand-new business owner, Ben is still figuring things out as he goes along. As any home brewer-turned-professional brewer will tell you, transitioning from home equipment to high-volume commercial equipment isn't as easy as doubling the recipe. Things like payroll, insurance, point of sales and credit cards, inventory expenses, finding distributors for every food item, and dozens of other details are all part of business pre-planning – things you don't necessarily consider when first starting out as a start-up – and more things pop up every day. Now Ben has people – about 25 altogether – depending on him for a paycheck; another of his urban investment goals that he can now make good on. After the New Year, Ben plans on making bagels for wholesale, which will undoubtedly be a huge boon for his business. But for now, Ben just needs to get open – and a good night's sleep, but that's probably a few weeks off still.

Detroit Institute of Bagels will be open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day thereafter, seven days a week. They'll have seven standard daily bagel flavors as well as rotating "small batch" bagel flavors and over a dozen house-made cream cheeses and spreads. They have a full menu of breakfast and lunch bagel sandwiches – including a lox sandwich – and soup made fresh daily. There's free WiFi available with purchase for those who want to grab a bagel and coffee and hunker down to get some work done. The window behind the main counter is an operable service window that can potentially be used for late-night service and special events in the future. And Detroit's days as a bagel desert are finally over.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.