The Washtenaw Indie Awards
The Ann magazine and Think Local First created The Washtenaw Indie Awards this year to celebrate local, independently-owned businesses in Washtenaw County. We wanted to spotlight these risk-taking, community-enhancing folks who do so much to make Ann Arbor special. We solicited nominations from the public and a panel of judges picked the finalists and winners. Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
The Washtenaw Soul Award
A business that represents the unique spirit of Washtenaw County by celebrating diversity, creativity, is confident in their individuality and supports their community.
The Hidden Gem Award
A business that is too often overlooked and more people should know about.
The Big Leap Award
A business that “took the leap” and successfully created a new idea, model or solution despite all the risks.
Zingerman’s Community of Businesses
Owners: Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw
Zingerman’s as a worker-owned cooperative? It’s coming
There’s not much need to document the storied history of the most famous business in Ann Arbor, so instead we’ll give you an update on what’s new at Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Keeping up with Big Z is a challenge given the local institution’s insatiable appetite for improving and expanding.
For starters, if it’s been awhile since you’ve been to the original deli that launched the Zingerman’s empire, you’ll find that it’s doubled in size. There’s more seating and restrooms inside the iconic Detroit Street location. The sandwich menu has been updated and co-founder Paul Saginaw says several new innovations will be introduced in the next year.
Also doubling in size will be Zingerman’s creamery, located with some of the other satellite units on Plaza Drive in south Ann Arbor near the airport. A new creamery will be built across the parking lot from the existing location. It will meet state requirements for a Class A dairy, allowing Zingerman’s to produce, package and sell yogurt.
Then there’s the development and expansion of a rural property near Dexter known as Cornman Farms. Chef Alex Young of Zingerman’s Roadhouse is growing heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, squash and beans, among many other types of produce. The property also includes a pre-Civil War barn that is being rehabbed into an event space and a Greek Revival house that will host private dinners and a cooking school, according to Saginaw. Event bookings will be available in early 2014. Cornman Farms will also have a new milking parlor for the goat herd that supplies milk to the creamery.
New food outlets are in development. Details will be announced later but Saginaw describes them as “a Korean restaurant concept and also a Tunisian restaurant.”
Meanwhile, the bakehouse, Roadhouse, coffee, candy and mail order parts of the Zingerman’s empire are constantly tweaking their offerings. The ZingTrain management training component continues to school outsiders in the Zingerman’s way. If you have a thing for, say, bacon, or maybe olive oil, you can join seminars like Camp Bacon or do a meet-and-greet with the Italian woman whose family supplies a certain brand of olive oil for Zingerman’s.
With a total sales projection of $45 million for the current fiscal year, lots of local love and glowing national reviews, life must be good for Saginaw and co-founder Ari Weinzweig and their managing partners. But the question becomes: How do you keep an enterprise vibrant after 31 years?
The answer, Saginaw says, is to have a vision, chart the steps to make it happen, solicit employee input, share financial and other company details with employees, and stay active in the community. Zingerman’s contributes 10 percent of its profits to Washtenaw County nonprofits and puts 5 percent of its profits into an employee emergency relief fund.
The company is headed toward becoming a worker-owned cooperative. “We have been working on a way that allows our employees to have an equity stake in the whole organization,” Saginaw said. “We believe that we are very close to rolling that initiative out.”
Zingerman’s follows the template that Saginaw calls “an attractive, long-range, widely-shared, achievable vision that defines what success looks like for us in the year 2020.
“It describes what our future will be and it lets our co-workers know what’s in it for them. Our vision talks about the continued improvements that we will make and what innovations we will create.
“We have a set of guiding principles that describes the levels of excellence we are attempting to achieve and the culture in which we will operate. It is our promise to everyone that works here that it will be the reality within this organization without exception. Keeping that promise builds a trust that allows us to be great and have fun doing it.”
Owner: Richard Sheridan
Computer software as a purveyor of joy
Rich Sheridan wanted to build a better mousetrap and he has.
Except his mousetrap is computer software.
Sheridan believed the world’s software development process had gone down the wrong road almost since the inception of computers. The method for creating software was put in the hands of a few brainy programmers who tended to be worlds apart from the people who would use the software. “Users of software were the most forgotten people on the planet,” he says.
Sheridan believed that a better design method up front would lead to better software in the end. The end product should meet customers’ needs exactly and be easy to use immediately. Menlo Innovations, the company he started in 2001, came up with the zen-like mission statement: “To end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.”
And it goes further. The company seeks to achieve its mission by “understanding and exhibiting the business value of joy.”
Sheridan created a different kind of workplace that is receiving so much acclaim in the business community that about 2,000 people a year tour its spacious worksite in the lower level of Liberty Square in downtown Ann Arbor. Employees can bring their pets and babies to work, which gives the place a casual feel, yet there is an air of diligence among the employees who are working in pairs.
The pair strategy is just one part of a regimented, almost assembly-line-like method of identifying what needs to be done, who will do it, how long it will take, who will review the prototype software, who will sign off on the final product. And in a digital age, oddly, much of the progress is monitored on note cards and other paper forms that are physically handled by members of the project team.
Key team members called “high-tech anthropologists” start the development process by going to the customer’s business or industry and talking to employees. They return with feedback from every corner of the customer’s business.
Menlo’s client list ranges from high-tech, life sciences startups in Ann Arbor to well-known national enterprises doing everything from diesel mechanics to organ transplants to book publishing.
Sheridan is writing a book, due out later this year, that will explain his philosophy and methods. Its title? “Joy, Inc.”
Arbor Brewing Company and Corner Brewery
Owners: Matt and Rene Greff
From the edge of bankruptcy to local brewing icon
Business schools and entrepreneurial think tanks often ask Matt and Rene Greff to share their story of taking Arbor Brewing Company from a new-business dream in 1995 to its current status as an iconic Ann Arbor eatery, watering hole and Election Night party host.
It’s not one of those immediate success stories. Three years after they opened the brew pub, the Greffs had $90,000 of debt on their personal credit cards, their savings account was gone and they had drawn down the retirement accounts they built at their previous corporate jobs. They thought their brew pub dream had failed, so they asked a bankruptcy attorney to start the proceedings. He refused, saying they would be indentured servants for 30 years if they chose bankruptcy; he urged them to keep trying to make the business work.
The Greffs gave it another go. They credit their survival to that unselfish attorney, local bankers, friends, contacts made through community involvement and sympathetic customers. The profitability grew slowly, they expanded into two adjacent spaces and began to thrive. They added the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti in 2006 and now bottle and distribute their beer beyond the two brew pubs.
How does an established business stay fresh and ward off complacency? Matt says they now rely more on ideas and decisions by their “amazing, talented” management team and service staff. The collaboration works so well that Rene says she and Matt sometimes feel like they’re running behind a galloping horse, barely able to hold onto the reins.
That approach has led to a third location in a most unusual place: Bangalore, India. The unexpected business arrangement was initiated by a former University of Michigan grad student – and regular ABC customer – who wanted to return to his native India and start an American-style brew pub with his family.
That international interlude aside, the Greffs made sure to keep their focus on the core business in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
“We love being a part of this community and there is truly no greater honor for us than when someone refers to ABC as an Ann Arbor institution,” Rene said. “We have a tremendous respect for local, independent small businesses because we know how hard it is to survive and succeed.”
Owner: Sam Valenti
Ann Arbor record label quietly thrives worldwide
If you walk down Main Street’s restaurant row on a summer evening and ask 100 sidewalk diners if any record companies are based in Ann Arbor, you’ll probably get blank stares from 95 of your survey-takers.
The five in-the-know will be at the table of 20- and 30-something hipsters. “Sure,” they’ll tell you, “there’s a label called Ghostly International here. It was started by a Detroit-area kid in his dorm room at U-M in 1998 or ’99. It’s electronic music with a lot of sub-genres. Their artists perform in clubs and music fests all around the world. They’re also known for the visual artists they hire to design album covers.”
That’s the commonly used summary of Ghostly, but it doesn’t answer the question: Aren’t record companies supposed to be in New York and Los Angeles? Who would start a record label in Ann Arbor and then keep it here once it survives and thrives?
That would be Sam Valenti IV, who came to the University of Michigan to get his degree in art history, but in the process further immersed himself in the electronic music community he had loved as a teen growing up in Bloomfield Hills. Combining his knowledge of the Detroit music scene with Ann Arbor’s vibrant, university-town music culture, he began forming relationships with artists who shared his musical tastes. Soon he was signing them to his record label, the name of which derives from his high school days when he was a party DJ using the moniker “DJ Spaceghost.”
Fifteen or so years later, Valenti splits his time between Ghostly International’s offices in Ann Arbor and New York. In addition to Valenti, the firm has three staffers in Ann Arbor, four in New York, one in Los Angeles and one in Berlin.
Describing the company’s catalog of music and artists is difficult because it is nowhere close to the mainstream pop that most people are familiar with. It resides on the cerebral fringe of the music world, an intellectual cult of cutting-edge artists and intense fans around the globe who share the unique language of electronic music.
The face of Ghostly in Ann Arbor is Jeremy Peters, director of creative licensing and business affairs for Ghostly Songs, one of the divisions the company has created in the model of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. The Ghostly silos include a design store and music subscription service.
Working from a small office in the Tech Brewery, Peters’ job is to collect royalties for the label’s songs, or “compositions” as he calls them. He markets the music for placement in television shows, films and video games. In mid-June, Peters announced a big scoop: Ghostly is partnering with Sony PlayStation to do all the music for a new game called Hohokum.
Peters, a Traverse City native and U-M alum, says Ghostly has stayed in Ann Arbor because Valenti and many of the staff members are from Michigan, as are many of the artists they work with. “We keep offices in Ann Arbor because there is a strong magnetism and history to our time there,” he says. “We were founded on the campus of Michigan and can be proud to say (we) have never left our roots.”
In the digital age of small-world communication, there’s not as much pressure to be physically present in the music capitals. He says Ghostly is an example of how diverse Ann Arbor can develop and keep larger companies – like Barracuda Networks or Truven Health Analytics – that in a previous era might have headed for big cities. “You don’t need to leave to California, New York City or (Chicago) in order to follow and execute your dreams,” he says. “We have the talent and resources … and the culture to keep people here.”
Savor Ann Arbor
Owner: Marcie Greenfield
Passion for Ann Arbor becomes a livelihood
It would be difficult to find someone more appropriate than Marcie Greenfield to represent the community mantra “To know Ann Arbor is to love Ann Arbor.”
Six years ago, Greenfield created a business to share her love of the city. Her one-woman tour guide service, the exquisitely named Savor Ann Arbor, serves visitors from far and wide – and sometimes just locals who realize they haven’t taken advantage of the incredible diversity of riches in their own backyard.
Whether it’s a couple in town a day early for a University of Michigan football game or a group of travel journalists from Hong Kong, Greenfield puts together customized tours that showcase whatever the customer wants. The tour might be focused on history, architecture or art, or it could be a pragmatic driving tour of residential neighborhoods for a family considering a move here from Chicago. More often, customers are served up walking tours of downtown areas that detail the fun and quirky shops and markets, diverse businesses and variety of restaurants.
Greenfield’s tours almost always include food or tastings because, as she points out, “every tour of Ann Arbor is a food tour since there’s a place to eat every few feet.”
“Part of Savor Ann Arbor’s mission is to be Ann Arbor’s ambassador and exude the spirit and essence of Tree Town in every tour,” Greenfield says.
“All tours highlight each local business we pass along the way. Tour guests learn about the history and soul of each business so they feel connected and excited about patronizing it.”
Tour prices range from $40 to $55 depending on food and drink options.
Greenfield’s definition of success for her business ranges from “when guests are laughing and having fun” to hearing longtime local residents say they’ve learned something new to seeing her tourists make a purchase in a local shop.
Ultimately, though, Greenfield points to this best indicator of her job done well: “Success is when guests tell me they can see why I love this town so much.”
Owner: Julia Collins
Forging success one lifestyle change at a time
If Ypsi Studio is a hidden gem, it’s hiding in plain sight.
Julia Collins’ fitness studio is one of the storefronts along Michigan Avenue in downtown Ypsilanti, hardly a secret place. The gem designation is understandable, though, once you step into the historic building and see how Collins has installed a fitness center in and around the old brick walls on the main and lower levels. This is not your strip-mall workout joint. This place has character.
But a fitness studio is ultimately about the people who run it. Collins has lived in Ypsilanti much of her life and chose the downtown location both for the convenience of clients and because she likes the idea of adding diversity to a business district that she believes is making a comeback.
Collins has pragmatic advice to encourage people to exercise: “People say to me all the time, ‘If I work out every single day I’ll get bored.’ I usually have two thoughts in reply. One is that you brush your teeth and shower every day as well. Those things aren’t optional, they’re necessary self-care, and it’s often helpful to think about exercise in the same way. Do it because it’s great for your health, your body and your mind.
“Secondly, I remind people that if you do the same thing every workout – running, lifting weights, indoor cycling – you WILL get bored. Remember to keep an open mind about taking new classes and exploring new types of exercise.”
Classes are set up on a drop-in basis, with a new electronic check-in system. Coaching is offered in both personal and group settings. Classes include indoor cycling, various types of yoga, running, Zumba dance classes, TRX Suspension Trainer, massage, nutrition and a couple of variations of an intensive cardio workout called “willPower & Grace.”
“Our members are mostly professional women and men who have very specific goals,” Collins said. “When we see them meet those goals – finish a half marathon, go to their first Pilates class, lose 100 pounds, participate in a triathlon – and bond with other members creating true lifestyle changes, that’s success to us.”
Owner: Paul Hickman
Giving new purpose to lives while repurposing wood
The “big leap” that Paul Hickman is being recognized for is really a series of leaps that are still a work in progress.
His Urban Ashes project, focused locally and throughout Michigan as it got up and running in its first three years, is now expanding onto the national stage.
Urban Ashes makes picture frames from recycled wood. Originally, it was intended as an outlet for the wood left when the emerald ash borer plague hit Michigan a decade ago, killing millions of trees. The project was eventually expanded to include several other species of wood taken from trees that died in urban areas.
Recently Urban Ashes added yet another dimension to its supply of recycled wood by joining with Reclaim Detroit, the organization that is salvaging material from the thousands of abandoned houses being torn down across Detroit. That collection of wood, which Hickman has labeled Detroit De-Nailed, gives new life to lumber that the home-building industry culled from Michigan’s forests in the early part of the last century. Frames made with this wood come with a tag showing the house, the year it was built and any history it may have.
Hickman’s passion for putting together this environmentally friendly mission is matched by his insistence that it create jobs for Michigan’s transitional/disabled workforce. He paired with Work Skills Corporation, a nonprofit in Brighton, to add a frame-manufacturing department to the array of jobs its clients perform, often for the auto industry.
Urban Ashes fits into the trendy category called “social enterprise” – a venture more concerned with social and environmental value than making a profit – but it’s nonetheless a for-profit business. It needs to make money to survive and that’s been a slow curve in the first three years.
The frames, like most items made by hand, can’t be priced to compete with mass-produced competition. If you want cheap frames, they’re all around you, many imported from China and made of “who knows what kind of wood,” Hickman says. He uses several varieties, each with its own distinctive look, including ash, soft maple, Eastern black walnut, American black cherry, basswood, yellow pine and vertical growth Douglas fir from many of the houses in Detroit. The wood is either made into pre-assembled frames for retailers or sold as strips of moulding to framing stores that then construct their own frames. The various styles of pre-made frames come in three sizes – 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 – and range in price from around $40 to $70.
By early 2012, Urban Ashes frames were in only six retail stores around southeast Michigan. Early this year, Hickman focused on expanding the market. He was thrilled to be part of a what’s-hot buzz when he attended a couple of trade shows. At one in Las Vegas, potential retailers were still crowded around his display table long after his next-door vendors had packed up for the evening. Only a few months later, Urban Ashes frames are in 88 stores in 22 states, and counting.
Then there’s a new deal he’s just announced with Holstee, a poster frame manufacturer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hickman says 2013 will be a critical year in making Urban Ashes sustainable. Regardless of the financial outcome, he says it’s been gratifying to put together a wide network of collaborators, almost all of them in Michigan, to achieve a worthy goal. He’s particularly proud of creating jobs for people who need them most.
“Urban Ashes defines success in seeing our various crews responsible … taking tremendous pride and enjoyment in what they are creating,” Hickman said. “In too many cases, this may be the first time in their lives they have this opportunity to truly feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they are doing.”
The Ann Arbor Chronicle
Owners: Mary Morgan and David Askins
Chronicling government requires hard work and a dash of idealism
In the past five years, Mary Morgan and David Askins have created a vast archive of journalism documenting public governance in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle website they launched in September 2008 is creating what is arguably the most comprehensive record of public issues, debate and decision-making of any era in the history of the city and county. They focus on the Ann Arbor City Council and selected city boards, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and a few other public bodies.
Whether it be for current residents reading the latest news or for future historians investigating bygone public policy decades from now, The Chronicle provides a cross-referenced compendium of what city councils and county boards talked about; how the debates went; the input citizens offered; the meeting motions and votes; maps that show locations and properties involved; and photos that show the players who participated.
Morgan and Askins, a married couple, took a leap of faith in starting The Chronicle nearly a year before The Ann Arbor News closed. They weren’t sure the community would support a news-only media outlet with really long articles emphasizing accuracy and thoroughness rather than speed.
Five years later, The Chronicle sells enough advertising and receives enough reader contributions to stay afloat. But it comes with a personal toll: Morgan and Askins must work nearly all day every day to keep up with the public bodies they follow.
Their idealism continues to drive them. “Informed citizens are the foundation of democracy, and citizens have the most access and ability to influence government at the local level,” Morgan says. “By reading The Chronicle, people in our community can be as informed as the elected officials themselves — perhaps more so. That’s a powerful resource.”
Owner: Eve Aronoff
Fine dining or casual, ‘Top Chef’ has winning recipe
In January 2011, after seven years, Eve Aronoff closed her lower-cased “eve the restaurant,” a popular French-style, fine-dining experience in Kerrytown. The previous month she had opened Frita Batidos – a considerably more casual eatery in a small space on Washington Street downtown. It was a “big leap” from a traditional, formal restaurant to a hip, casual eatery where diners stand at the counter to order their gourmet burgers, then keep an eye out for a spot to sit down when a space opens at communal picnic tables.
Aronoff says her intention was to operate both restaurants, but she changed her mind because she needed to recover from a serious back injury and because she didn’t want to sign a long-term extension for the Kerrytown location, which was too small for the popularity of the restaurant.
Two and a half years later, Frita Batidos’ Cuban- and Latin-influenced food is still drawing diners hungry for Aronoff’s unique portion of the Ann Arbor dining scene. The menu is inspired by Cuban street food, which she experienced as a child during visits to her grandmother in Miami. The restaurant’s name is drawn from two Cuban specialties: A Frita is a burger made with chorizo (spicy sausage) covered with shoestring fries on a bun, and batidos are tropical milkshakes made with fruit and ice. The menu offers lots of variations of each, as well as other specialties made from scratch with seasonal- and local-based ingredients.
A one-time contestant on the “Top Chef” television series, Aronoff has an impressive resume that includes graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris with diplomas in French cuisine and wine and spirits.
That more traditional type of fare and restaurant may still be calling Aronoff. She authorized release of this news flash for fans of her previous restaurant: She’s thinking about recreating another “eve the restaurant.”
Lucy Ann Lance, owner of The Lucy Ann Lance Show
Susan Pollay, executive director, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority
Mark Maynard, owner, markmaynard.com
Sean Duvall, chairman and CEO, Golden International
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
The nine businesses presented here couldn’t do a better job of representing the vibrancy and diversity of Ann Arbor.
We’re among those who sometimes tire of hearing Ann Arbor bragging about itself, but we have to disagree with the cynics fond of saying that Ann Arbor is overrated. It’s not. It’s a great place.
We don’t have the space to do justice to the rich histories and current accomplishments of these nine enterprises, but we hope we’ve tweaked your interest enough that you go to their websites or, even better, visit them to learn more.
They range from the quintessential “one man making a difference” (and one woman and one couple, too) to more long-standing and larger businesses that perhaps started small but are now community institutions.
Taken together, the nine provide a representative slice of the incredible people who make Ann Arbor what it is. And “incredible” is not overstating it.
Abracadabra Jewelry/Gem Gallery
ACE Barnes Hardware
Ann Arbor Cooks!
A2 Fitness Pros
Arbor Brewing Company, Corner Brewery
Ayse’s Turkish Cafe
Bill’s Beer Garden
Bodywise Therapeutic Massage
Bona Sera Cafe
Davies House Inn
Designs In Iron
Designs That Matter
Downtown Home and Garden
Encore Online Resale
Hygeia Center for Healing Arts
Jorn Court Associates
Mix, New and Used, Ypsilanti
Morgan & York
Performance Network Theatre
pot & box
Professional Automotive Technicians
Red Rock Downtown Barbecue
RoosRoast Coffee Works
Savor Ann Arbor
Steve Steeb Services
Sweet Gem Confections
Sweet Heather Anne
The Ann Arbor Chronicle
The Arcadian Antiques
The Beet Box
The Dyer Family Organic Farm
The Lunch Room
Tranquil Being Healing Arts Center
Ugly Mug Cafe & Roastery
Vault of Midnight
Vis-a-Vis Skin Spa & Bodywork
Viva La Diva Events
Washtenaw Children’s Dental Clinic
Yourist Studio Gallery