The Art of Destination Dining
Royal Oak and Birmingham are probably the toniest metro Detroit cities for a businessperson to open a restaurant in. With vibrant, walkable downtowns and active surrounding communities, both have a built-in clientele base that make it difficult to resist. Put your finger in the wind, open an eatery that follow current trends and you should do fine.
Unless, of course, you like to gamble. And Hubert Yaro is a betting man.
Yaro - along with partner Jim Hayosch - is behind two of the most iconoclastic concepts in two of the most mainstream trend-driven cities: Ronin in Royal Oak and Commonwealth in Birmingham. Ronin, a sushi restaurant that serves up decidedly un-"authentic" items like Ahi Tuna Pizza and Mountain Dew Rolls, is located in what could best be described as the outskirts of downtown Royal Oak at 4th Street and Lafayette.
Over in Birmingham - a city that, it is worth mentioning, is still in thrall of Starbucks - Commonwealth roasts their own responsibly-sourced coffee beans brewed in the superior (if time-consuming) pour-over method and serves a small but respectable selection of locally-sourced menu items made from scratch. It too is located a bit off the beaten path on Hamilton Row just outside of the major traffic flow of downtown Birmingham.
While these somewhat edgy concepts in tucked-away locations could certainly be called risky, Yaro saw both as addressing the needs of an under-served and therefore invisible market.
"There was a place in L.A. that [I would go to] just to get a good breakfast," Yaro says. "Just simple, clean food; some of the basics but really sourced well." He felt that the metro Detroit market was missing that kind of coffee-and-breakfast place, one that really put an emphasis on quality of execution. "I was sick of driving out to Comet Coffee in Ann Arbor every time I wanted to get a coffee."
With Commonwealth, the partners put their own money into it because they believed in the concept. "We want to grow it more organically," explains Yaro. "People 'discover' it that way when it's off the beaten path. Hopefully it's the product and service and vibe that's bringing them in, not just an ad they saw, or the location."
If you build it they will come, etc.
Both Yaro and Hayosch lived outside of Michigan (in Arizona and California) for over a decade and were able to bring back with them a sense of what hot culinary trends were coming in from the coasts. Ronin opened in 2007 and to this day is the only Japanese-meets-nü-American restaurant of its kind; upscale yet comfortable in that effortless, edgy L.A. sort of way without seeming like it's trying too hard.
Yaro says of Commonwealth (which goes equally for Ronin), "It's a place for people who don't necessarily want a 'scene.' It's something that's tastefully done and the product is done well; hopefully that represents the restaurant and not us trying too hard."
Looking at some of metro Detroit's other up-and-coming downtowns like Plymouth and Berkley, Yaro believes that each city has its own unique identity and each city has people that will support new concepts.
"Anything that's done well, that's genuine with some thought and proper research put into it, could work," he states. "Really do the research to make sure that city does support it when you're doing something unique that no one else is doing. Having that funky place is important; there's not enough places in town [that try to do] something unique."
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com
ALL PHOTOS BY DAVID LEWINSKI