Crains -- Restaurateurs see growing Corktown population as solid base for business

Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood, is not only attracting people looking for a cool place to live, but restaurateurs as well.
While six restaurants opening in a city with a 140 square-mile footprint isn't earth shattering news, it is a big deal when those restaurants are all located within a 1.5 square-mile area.
In fact, the density of the neighborhood is one of the biggest draws for restaurateurs weary of a heavy reliance on workers' lunch habits.

Slated to open next year are: Onassis Coney Island on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues; Astro Coffee at 2124 Michigan Ave.; the Sugar House Bar at 2130 Michigan Ave.; Mercury Burger Bar in the former Mercury Coffee Bar space; an Italian eatery directly across the street from Nemo's; and the reopening of Baile Corcaigh at 1426 Bagley St.

Patrick Howe, a liquor license attorney for Birmingham-based Carlin, Edwards, Brown & Howe, said a stable Corktown population will continue to help the area become an entertainment district.

"I have landlords in the Central Business District begging me to feed them restaurant or bar tenants, but I can't find any because they still don't think downtown has the concentration needed to keep their doors open," Howe said.

"But they are willing to look at Corktown because people are living in that neighborhood."

Dave Kwiatkowski, spokesperson for 2130 Michigan Ave. LLC, the group opening the Sugar House Bar, said the neighborhood played a large role in the company's choosing Corktown as the site for the bar. (The bar's name is a play on the infamous Purple Gang's original hangout, the Oakland Sugar House.)
Nathan Skid
The Sugar Bar House Bar, located in the black building next door to O'Connor Real Estate, is expected to open by St. Patrick's Day.

"There are a bunch of people that live there and it's not the kind of downtown area that is busy in the day and dies off at night, Kwiatkowski said.

"It's a neighborhood in the middle of Detroit and that is a big attraction for us."

The 1500-square-foot prohibition-themed bar will serve traditional cocktails made with local spirits and is expected to open by St. Patrick's Day.

Jeff DeBruyn, founder and president of the Corktown Residents' Council, said he gets at least two phone calls a week from people interested in living in Corktown. The problem is, there is a waiting list to get in. Right now, only five units are for sale.

"It's a no-brainer why," DeBruyn said. "It's a safe neighborhood with an engaged community."
Nathan Skid
DeBruyn said he gets at least two phone calls a week from people interested in living in Corktown. The problem is, there is a waiting list to get in.

Mark Wallace, project manager and leasing-director for Hines Limited Partnership at the Renaissance Center, moved into Corktown in 2006.

Wallace said he was drawn to Corktown's diverse neighborhood and the community.

"Detroit grows in waves. And the waves come in, then crash when people turn 35 and move out. What you see is the wave is getting bigger," Wallace said.

"Now, I am seeing more people I don't recognize, whereas 10 years ago, you would see the same people everywhere you went."

Ryan Cooley, founder of Corktown's O'Connor Real Estate Development and co-owner of Slows Bar BQ, says dense population in the neighborhood is important for businesses.
Nathan Skid
Cooley says he asked other restaurant owners about consumer trends in Corktown before deciding to open Slows.

But, he added Corktown's 300 houses aren't enough to keep all of the restaurants full all of the time.

"Before we opened Slows, we asked restaurant owners how they stayed open. Part of it was because of downtown workers," Cooley said.

"Slows proved that you can open something in the city of Detroit and attract people from all over the area. The idea of having a destination place in the city was kind of foreign."

Howard Schwartz, founder of Howard Schwartz Commercial Real Estate in Farmington Hills, said the reason Detroit's downtown isn't gaining the same traction is because of a lack of concentrated livable spaces.

"Downtown has lacked a concentration in housing and it hasn't built up enough synergy for it to gain momentum," Schwatrz said.

"There are people coming to downtown that are snooping around but you just don't have enough units filled to promote more demand. Simply put, Detroit is an emerging area."

But while restaurants are moving in, a staple of the Corktown community is heading in the opposite direction.

Greg Mudge is ending his 13-year run working in Corktown.

Mudge started out working for Eph McNally's in the building currently occupied by Mudgie's Deli at 1300 Porter Street.
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"Do I wish I could stay, sure," Mudge said about his moving out of Corktown.

He purchased the building after Eph's moved to Campus Martius.

"I really like this building and the culture of Corktown he said. "I mean, the cooler we use is the original one from when this space was a grocery store."

But even though the neighborhood has treated him well for over a decade, Mudge is planning to move his sandwich shop to 1260 Library in downtown Detroit, next door to Vincente Cuban Cuisine.

Mudge admitted the decision to move had nothing to do with Corktown or its viability, rather a set of circumstances that made him wary of resigning his lease.

"Do I wish I could stay, sure," he said.

However, Mudge says he is excited about moving into a brand new 1200 square-foot space, a departure from the 100-year-old space Mudgie's currently occupies.

"We'll un-shine it," he said.