More than 110,000 restaurants closed permanently in 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. Thousands more went into hibernation, hoping to ride out the pandemic.
Yet, in the face of incredible odds, new restaurants continue to open. Some are operated by people who’ve never been in the field before, but a number of others are by veterans of the culinary world.
I spoke with three such entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor, Mich., who have launched new ventures, even as long-lasting places close their doors.
By far, the place getting the most attention in Ann Arbor is Dixboro House, the multi-million dollar restaurant complex from Sava Farah, owner of her eponymous restaurant Sava’s, as well as Aventura, a small plates spot that is on hiatus.
Still under construction, Dixboro House eventually will house a high-end restaurant run by Louis Maldonado, a Top Chef contestant who worked at a Michelin-stared restaurant in San Francisco.
The restaurant marketed a $350 soft opening package for two that will provide a preview of Maldonado’s cuisine sometime this summer.
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But, the first piece of the venture is now welcoming customers. Over the holidays, Farah opened The Boro, a fast-casual spot featuring pastries from Maldonado’s wife, Annemarie, who worked at San Francisco’s famed Tartine bakery chain.
The Boro also has an all-day menu with many dishes prepared in a wood-burning oven. Items range from pizza to soups and sides. For now, everything is carry out, due to state restrictions.
Farah says she’s excited to have the Maldonados in Ann Arbor. “It’s not the kind of talent you come across every day,” she told me for an article in the Ann Arbor Observer.
Meanwhile, in downtown Ann Arbor, Te Phan, a former industrial designer at Ford Motor Co.
It’s his third edition of the deli, which began as a takeout stand in 2014, then expanded to a stall at the University of Michigan’s main hospital.
Phan, a native of Vietnam, understands he’s taking a risk, given the uncertainty surround the restaurant world. “No one in their crazy mind would open a restaurant now,” he says.
But, Phan adds, “We are trying to give people some hope. They see people closing and running away. We’re running forward.”
Hours are limited and the newest Ginger Deli is carry out only. But, once indoor dining resumes, Phan hopes to add an in-house work space at the back of the restaurant.
A few blocks away, Krishna Nakka and Kiran Rampa, both from India, have opened their second Aroma Indian Cuisine restaurant. It features many of the dishes served at their original Aroma in Farmington Hills, Mich., in Detroit’s northern suburbs.
The men met as undergraduates studying computer science, and went their separate ways, pursuing business careers in Sydney, Silicon Valley and New York City.
Nakka, a food lover, worked in New York restaurants while pursuing a master’s degree. After moving to the Detroit area, he decided he wanted to launch his own dining venture.
He found the original Aroma and invited Rampa, then working as a consultant, to join him. “One day, I said, ‘let’s do it,'” Nakka recalls. “We’re starting tomorrow.”
When a barbecue restaurant vacated its downtown Ann Arbor location, the pair wrote a 10-year business plan, then decided to sign a lease.
Eventually, Aroma will have indoor and outdoor seating. The owners plan to transform a small parking lot into a patio they hope will be open late.
But in the short term, they’re determining which dishes Ann Arbor diners like, and adjusting the menu accordingly. Lamb is already proving popular, and there’s a wide variety of vegetarian offerings.
These owners know that they’ve picked a challenging time to start ventures, when others around them are empty. For Phan, the immediate goal isn’t to earn a profit.
“Right now, it’s just to make rent,” he says. “We want to make our food really healthy and affordable, you know? That’s been our philosophy from day one.”