Author Archives: Maura Thomson

Community Spotlight: Ann Arbor Farmers Market

Starting May 1st, the Wednesday Farmers Market is officially back. (The Farmers Market runs on Saturdays year-round, and runs on both Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer.) After a particularly dark and cold winter, the return of the Wednesday Farmers Market is the light at the end of the tunnel. Stephanie Willette, the market manager, describes the Farmers Market as a “hub of fresh local food”, citing the wide variety of products and vendors that could come on any given market day.

 

This year, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Willette explains that the market began in 1919, and it was originally located on Fourth Avenue near the courthouse. “Then, in 30s, it moved to its current location [in Kerrytown],” Willette says. “This [location] actually used to be a lumber company. They sold it to the Farmers Market, so we set up shop here in the 30s and have been here ever since.”

Given its longevity, the Farmers Market is deeply rooted in tradition. “We have some vendors who have been here for several generations,” Willette says. “Their parents and their grandparents started here. Same with customers; customers come in and they have their favorite vendors that they just have these long standing relationships with.”

One of Willette’s favorite stories that highlights this tradition is about Jeff Nemeth of Nemeth

Greenhouse & Farms, a farm that has been part of the Ann Arbor community since the 1930s. “One of our farmers, Jeff Nemeth, used to come with his parents and his grandparents for selling here,” Willette explains. “They had a t-shirt for him when he was a kid that would say ‘If found, return to stall #20’ and now he has his own kids that he brings. He’s actually got twins on the way.”

Over its one hundred year lifespan, the Farmers Market has become an integral part of the community. The first Wednesday of every month from May to October, the Farmers Market hosts a Food Truck Rally, which Willette describes as “another way to highlight local food businesses.”

Part of the reason a Farmers Market can thrive so well in a city like Ann Arbor is its positive impact on the environment. “Ann Arbor is more eco-friendly and really trying at several levels to be more conscious of the environment,” Willette explains. “[When you purchase food from the Farmers Market], your food is coming from at most a hundred or so miles away, whereas the average food will travel thousands of miles to get to your dinner plate.” Willette also notes that the farming practices at local farms are often more environmentally friendly than those used on larger scale or commodity farms.

The Farmers Market also has a positive impact on its neighborhood: “Everything you spend here, the money is kept inside of our community. People who come to the market also shop around at the neighborhood businesses and coffee shops, so we’re supporting our whole neighborhood– and vice versa. When people come to Kerrytown to go to Zingerman’s, they’ll stop over here at the market.”

The Ann Arbor Farmers Market distinguishes itself from other farmers markets by enforcing a “producer only” policy. “All of our vendors grow and make their own products,” Willette explains. “A lot of other farmers markets, for example, allow you to buy fruits and vegetables and then resell it on the market. We don’t allow that. We have on-farm inspections for every single vendor where we’ll go out to their farm and we’ll see what they’re growing and make sure that it is what they’re selling. We try to be really careful about that.”

The Farmers Market is kicking off the summer on May 1st with the market from 7am-3pm and a Food Truck Rally from 5-8pm. For more events, including Guest Chef Cooking Demos and Kids Activities, check out their website.

Community Spotlight: Museum of Natural History

The Ann Arbor community deeply values knowledge. Take for example the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, which is located right within the borders of downtown: “There are twenty million items in the natural science collections at the University of Michigan,” Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, says. “I like to say they go from mites to mastadons, or mammoths, if you want.”

The Museum of Natural History isn’t just a museum, of course. It’s a living, breathing member of the community. It’s a bridge that connects university faculty with students with all those who live, work, and play downtown.

“The museum can be a social outing,” Harris explains. “We’ve heard about students who like to come here on first dates. We heard one person say that it’s a good way to find out if the other person is an interesting person. But then when they’re here they might realize that they could work in those labs. So it’s an entree into recognizing that students are doing research all over campus and that they’re really welcome and invited to be part of that.”

But the Ann Arbor community is constantly evolving, and, therefore, the museum must evolve with it. The Museum of Natural history was originally built in 1928, but on April 14th, 2019, it will be reopening in its new and improved space in the Biological Sciences Building. According to Harris, this space will provide the museum with increased avenues to strengthen and redefine its role as a member of the community.

“The old museum was in a 90-year-old building, so built in 1928. It was actually built to be a museum, so it was state-of-the-art then, but over ninety years without any thorough updating, it really kind of fell behind the needs of the museum,” Harris says.

A lot changes in ninety years. The old building had very few women’s bathrooms, which may have been the norm in 1928, but simply doesn’t work in a modern environment with plenty of female researchers and museum visitors. The old museum also lacked adequate climate control, and didn’t have air conditioning in the galleries. In order to serve the needs of a community that thirsts for knowledge, the museum was due for a major upgrade.

“This space is about a third bigger than the old one, and we have some really fantastic new spaces that we didn’t have at the old museum,” Harris says. “We’re putting science on display by giving visitors an opportunity to look into real working labs and seeing scientists at work.”

One of the primary focuses of the new building is interactive elements. The University of Michigan, one of the world’s top research institutions, is located right in downtown Ann Arbor, and the museum provides an avenue for community members to claim an active role in groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

“We’re trying to get away from the ‘finished science’ feel of older museums to more of an ‘active research’ feel,” Harris explains. “Science is a process and it’s ongoing and you can be part of it.”

The entire museum is founded upon this concept of “active research.” Instead of just displaying research that has been completed, it centers current innovation, showcases researchers, and encourages community members to engage in research. This interactiveness consists of active involvement from all members of the museum community.

“When researchers are trying to get funding for their research, they write proposals, and one of the major funders is the National Science Foundation,” Harris explains. “They require that researchers do some form of educational outreach. They can do a whole range of things, but one possibility is to work with us, and we’ve been doing a lot of that.”

The museum supports these researchers through a variety of programs. For example, one of the programs is a “science communication training program for faculty graduate students and postdocs, and we’re going to expand that to undergraduates. So we give them the skills of how to talk to someone in the public who doesn’t know anything about science. How can they explain and engage in a conversation about what they’re doing and why it matters.”

Another goal of the museum is to utilize the inquisitiveness of the Ann Arbor community by creating avenues for community members to contribute to research. Part of this goal is reached by allowing visitors to watch researchers work in their labs. Another component of this process is Citizen Science, which allows community members to actively participate in research.

“Members of the public can actually contribute to real research projects by helping either to gather data or analyze data,” Harris explains. “A good example is, here at U of M, we have a researcher who puts cameras on trees in the woods and when they’re motion activated so an animal walks by a picture gets taken, data gets sent to Ann Arbor. She’s got thousands and thousands of photos and she needs help to identify what’s in all those photos, so she’s got a web based platform where anybody in the community can help identify those animals using a key.”

The museum catalyzes community engagement in Citizen Science by creating a space where visitors can learn about the process and try it firsthand.

Harris says the new museum provides “a twenty-first century updated set of opportunities, where the community can learn about the research that’s happening at this top-of-the-line research university in their own hometown. They can get a sense that science isn’t finished. It’s an ongoing process that they can get involved in, and I think that’s really exciting.”

The Museum of Natural History opens on April 14th, 2019 in the University of Michigan Biological Sciences Building.

Business Spotlight: Real Irish & Conor O’Neill’s

Ann Arbor doesn’t lack much when it comes to sports. It is, after all, a football town before anything else– a town where shops post hours on their doors for “football Saturdays”, a town where people walking down the street smile a little more brightly the week after a Wolverines win. Football isn’t the only sport in Ann Arbor, of course. Anyone who was within a ten-mile radius of South University Avenue after the basketball team made it to the national championship game can tell you that. Summers in Ann Arbor are marked by drives to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers and walks to Vets Park to watch future Tigers put it all on the line for their Little League teams. If you’re a sports fan in Ann Arbor, you know you live in a bit of a haven.

If you’re a sports fan, though, you also know that alliances to certain teams are often formed when you’re young and impressionable, and can’t be broken even after decades living away from your team. Across the Atlantic, about 3600 miles from Ann Arbor, is a city called Manchester, England that boasts a soccer team called Manchester United Football Club. In England, fans breathe Manchester United the way Ann Arborites breathe Michigan football: with an all-consuming, undying love for the team.

On January 1st, 1993, Stuart Marley, who was born and raised in Wales by Irish parents, moved to Ann Arbor with his wife. “I didn’t know anything about Michigan at all, so my wife said we’re going to move to Ann Arbor, it’s the only place [in Michigan] we’re going to live,” he says.

Ann Arbor turned out to be the perfect place for Marley to build his life. He worked at Zingerman’s, played soccer at Fuller Park, and had two kids who would both go on to attend the University of Michigan. However, as crazy as Ann Arbor is about Michigan football, Marley never lost his love for the team he grew up rooting for. So when Manchester United had a game, Marley found himself cheering them on at an Irish pub on Main Street called Conor O’Neill’s.

“Now I can watch games on my phone, which is crazy,” Marley explains. “Twenty years ago, we would go to Conor O’Neill’s, because Conor O’Neill’s has got the games.”
“We’re probably one of the most popular pubs in Michigan for soccer,” says Tom Murray, the owner of Conor O’Neills. “The other day, we had Champions League and Liverpool was playing Bayern FC, and around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we probably had fifty or sixty people in here watching the game. People come from all over to watch soccer.”

Marley has stories about the connections he made at Conor O’Neills. Jon Wilson, for example, originally hails from Manchester, and he used to play soccer with Marley at Fuller Park. They’re about the same age, so when they realized they both grew up following Manchester United, they began to compare experiences.

“So I said, ‘For this game, where were you?’” Marley explains, “And he’d say, ‘I was there,’ and I said, ‘I was in that part of the crowd too, we could’ve been standing next to each other.’”

Sports or no sports, that’s the kind of place Ann Arbor is. It’s a place where you build connections; you could’ve stood next to someone in a crowd a million times, but it takes a place like Ann Arbor for you to finally say hello.

Tom Murray, the owner of Conor O’Neill’s, has the privilege of watching these connections form every day. “Last Saturday night, I was talking to a couple celebrating their anniversary, and they said they met fifteen years ago at the bar at Conor’s,” Murray shares. “About half an hour later ,somebody else came in, a gal with three of her girlfriends. She was telling her girlfriends, she met her husband twelve years ago at Conor’s too.”

This convivial atmosphere is exactly what Murray had in mind when he opened Conor O’Neill’s. “For pubs in Ireland, it’s not just drinking, it’s really a social experience,” he explains. “So that’s what we always try to do.”

Murray’s family owned a pub in Ireland, and he remembers visiting it during summer trips to Ireland. For some time, he lived in Ireland and worked at the pub, before working at some Irish pubs in Detroit. Murray understands the authentic Irish experience, and uses it to create an environment that caters to Ann Arbor’s diverse population.

“The stone is in the fireplace here is from Ireland,” he explains. “The bar itself came from Ireland. We had painters come out from Ireland and do all the special painting work. Then we have little themes throughout, Irish literature, Irish music, Irish sports. We have traditional Irish music every Sunday evening at around 7:30. That’s really common, if you were to go on vacation in Ireland, every town you go to you could find an Irish session. Musicians just come in, sit in a circle and play music.”

Meanwhile, after living in Ann Arbor for over twenty-five years, Stuart Marley has opened up his own little piece of Ireland: an Irish gift store on Fourth Avenue called Real Irish. For years, Marley has run various shops and kiosks that sell Irish goodies, but this is his first storefront in downtown Ann Arbor.

“We meet people from all over the world,” Marley says of downtown. “We’ve got two major hospitals, the university, the three motor companies. So we’ve got people living in Ann Arbor who are connected to all these. I’ve met people from Ireland, from Scotland, from England, from Wales, and from all over who live here.”

The cosmopolitan nature of downtown Ann Arbor means it’s incredibly receptive to businesses like Real Irish and Conor O’Neills that cater to an international culture. This quality of Ann Arbor is particularly important to Marley, who focuses the majority of his energy on running tours of Ireland.

“A lot of people [in Ann Arbor] have been to Ireland even if they’re not Irish, because Ireland is a place where people are friendly, they speak English, it’s very welcoming, and it’s beautiful,” Marley says. “Giving tours of Ireland is something that I am passionate about.”

Marley gives several tours each year, and his storefront on Fourth Avenue serves primarily as a physical presence to his tour business. He plans the tours himself, hires the tour guide, books the hotels, and ensures that each person on the tour is able to experience Ireland in an authentic manner. The population of Ann Arbor, he has found, is particularly receptive to these tours.

Not every town in Michigan, or in any other state for that matter, would be as eager to celebrate an authentic Irish experience. Ann Arbor is a great place for these cultural experiences, not necessarily because it has a particularly large Irish-American population, but because it’s home to a diverse group of people who are eager to find community and build connection, and who appreciate the role that culture plays in community. In the end, Ann Arbor is a place where people from all over the world come together and share their passions and experiences. Conor O’Neill’s and Real Irish came to life in a town that is excited to celebrate Irish culture, even if the majority of the population doesn’t have any Irish background.

After all, Manchester United is a team that’s based 3600 miles away, and yet if you want to a place to celebrate them, you need not look farther than our very own Main Street. Don’t believe me? Next time they play, let’s grab a drink at Conor O’Neill’s.

Business Spotlight: The Getup Vintage

“Everyone wants Ann Arbor to be funky.”

This is the proclamation of Lindsey Leyland, one of the two owners of The Getup Vintage, a small vintage boutique sandwiched between Totoro Japanese Restaurant and Taste of India on State Street. The boutique boasts an eye-catching storefront (bright purple with turquoise daisies painted around the logo), but the inside of the store, decorated with bright colors and peace signs and a sign that says “You Can Dig It”, is even more…well…funky.

“We need to keep Ann Arbor funky,” Kaylan Mitchell, Leyland’s co-owner, proclaims with a laugh. “Us being here, we’re…”

“We’re one of the last places you can go and get, like, a disco outfit,” Leyland finishes Mitchell’s thought without missing a beat. “There’s so many fun events in Ann Arbor and everyone wants this town to remain hip and that type of thing, but you have to come out and support these types of places or they won’t exist anymore.”

It’s true; as Ann Arbor grows in size, it would be easy for it to lose the eccentric culture that makes it Ann Arbor in the first place. The primary reason that it retains this culture is the efforts of small shops like The Getup. These shops are, essentially, the cornerstone of Ann Arbor’s unique vibe. As soon as people start to overlook them, we lose the trendy, offbeat town we know and celebrate.

The Getup Vintage was founded in 2005 by Kelly and Paul McLeod, and it found its home in a cozy attic space. Leyland was the first employee, and when she left to run a store in Chicago for a little while, Mitchell was hired in the interim. In 2010, the store moved into the lower-level space it calls home today, and in 2015, the McLeods transferred ownership to Leyland and Mitchell. Since then, Leyland and Mitchell have streamlined the store to cater to vintage clothing buyers. Every item in the store is hand-selected and washed by Leyland and Mitchell, meaning that the store is essentially the exact opposite of a thrift store, where you might have to dig for hours to find something of value.

“It used to be a lot more packed full of stuff, which in its own, is really interesting, but in a college town, we felt like streamlining vintage is probably the best way to go,” Leyland explains.

“We wanted to create just like a bright welcoming space that like all these items, like they’re super special, but you should be able to see them and appreciate them,” adds Mitchell.

Mitchell and Leyland have curated an eye-catching assortment of clothing items and accessories. Every item stands proudly on display, giving the small store a bright, fun appearance. Stepping into the store feels a bit like stepping each of your feet into the best part of a different decade. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and exciting.

The Getup is a haven for all sorts of shoppers, whether they’re lifelong vintage-lovers or they were just drawn in by the bright storefront. Mitchell specifically cites “18-34 year olds” as their target market, but the two fondly reminisce about their shoppers of all ages, including, apparently, Ryan Gosling and the “total government dude” who often stops in to buy cufflinks.

“Madonna’s daughter, I dressed her a bunch of times when she went to U of M,” Leyland adds nonchalantly. “I altered a bunch of clothing for her, she bought a bunch of stuff here… You don’t just see one type of person, we get to interact and be around every type of person and that I think that’s really special. This type of store draws all types of people. We like to have a little sanctuary for the little punk kids to come, for the sorority girls to find Champion sweatshirts.”

The Getup is in a unique position to come across such an eclectic consumer base. After all, it’s located right on State Street, and you would be hard-pressed to find an out-of-town visitor who doesn’t pass by the storefront at least once. Leyland and Mitchell note that the hospital brings a lot of their customers, as people explore downtown after their appointments. They also cite the Michigan Theater, which is just across the street, as a huge driver of sales. Apparently, bands like to stop in The Getup to get some shopping done after sound check.

When it comes to the logistics of keeping Ann Arbor funky, Leyland and Mitchell have it down to a science, thanks in part to their differing backgrounds. Although they’re both creative, Leyland’s creativity translates more directly to the clothing, while Mitchell’s creativity runs the business side of things.

“I always was obsessed with vintage at a very young age,” Leyland recalls. “I was a theatre costumer for a long time. I just really loved the quality, the sustainability, the designs…It was always my dream that I would have a boutique, and then I found Kaylan and I wrangled her into it.”

Mitchell laughs, not appearing to have been wrangled into anything. “I was working both here and at the Michigan Theater, and my strengths were in business management, so I just kind of took everything I learned over there,” she explains.

“Every small business needs a Kaylan!” Leyland exclaims. “We both come with two very strong creative background but they’re different enough that they complement each other.”

Beneath the stylish storefront and their lighthearted demeanors, Mitchell and Leyland both have deeply-seeded reasons for their passions for vintage.

“Ann Arbor is a very environmentally conscious town and buying second hand is wonderful for the environment,” Leyland says. “Every time you purchase something secondhand, you’re doing the environment a wonderful deed.”

Leyland and Mitchell take their environmentally consciousness seriously. In addition to selling secondhand clothes, they hand make all of their soaps and detergents from sustainable ingredients, and they run the store on solar power. In all of their actions, they demonstrate a keen awareness that in order to keep Ann Arbor funky, they must first keep it healthy.

“It’s not weird to buy second hand,” Leyland says. “It shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable. So we try to go out and find these special treasures that have so many lives left in them. We hope people come in and find things to add to their wardrobe, and in the same breath you’re doing our planet a wonderful service and keeping Ann Arbor cool.”

Business Spotlight: Pacific Rim

When Duc Tang received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Yale, he didn’t plan to use it to become the chef at a pan-Asian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. But, as Tang has discovered time and time again, there is only so much you can plan for in life. Most of the time, you just have to take what life throws at you and decide how you’ll respond to it.

Tang’s restaurant, Pacific Rim, originated as Kana, which was a small, family-owned Korean restaurant that opened in the early 1980s near the University of Michigan medical school. In a 1992 issue of the Ann Arbor News, one columnist wrote, “Kana is run by Byung Dok and Kun Hi Ko, fervent believers in the power of faith and the wisdom of ensuring customer satisfaction.” The column commends the “fun” nature of Korean food and mentions that that the restaurant emits an “enticing aroma.”

However, the year that column was written, Tang didn’t know Byung Dok or Kun Hi Ko. Nor did he know that he was heir to their restaurant. For all he knew, his life was setting him up to become a doctor and work in the medical field in underserved areas. At the time, that was his goal.

Tang is a Vietnamese immigrant who was born of Chinese-Vietnamese parents. His childhood fostered a curiosity for global foods and cultures. “I grew up with Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines,” he notes fondly. “Our family fled the country after the war. We were boat refugees and we lived in refugee camps in Hong Kong and the Philippines, so we were exposed to different cuisines, different areas. We finally immigrated to California in 1980 when I was almost nine years old.”

Restaurant Interior Photo

Tang attended Yale for undergrad and then pursued a graduate degree in theology, with the intent of attending med school shortly thereafter. However, he “took a detour” and came to Ann Arbor with Y.B. Ko, one of his friends from graduate school– who happened to be the son of Byung Dok and Kun Hi Ko, the owners of Kana.

“His parents retired in 2000 or ‘99, and he came back to Ann Arbor to take it over,” Tang explains. “He wanted to revitalize it so he thought to expand the cuisine to encompass other Asian cuisines like Vietnamese, Thai, and other southeast Asian cuisine. He remembered from grad school that I liked to cook. My two roommates and I, we cooked every night and invited friends over and had these large food parties.”

When Ko contacted Tang to ask if he would help him open Pacific Rim, Tang said yes because it “sounded like an adventure.”

“I had absolutely zero experience, but at the same time, I wasn’t quite ready to go to medical school, so I thought, okay let’s do it for two years and then maybe go to med school.” Tang laughs. “And it’s turned into eighteen years.”

As it turns out, Tang’s life path prepared him rather perfectly to run a restaurant. He loves to solve problems, which is what sparked his interest in medicine in the first place, but that translates quite well to the high-stress restaurant culture. Additionally, his childhood exposure to various Asian cuisines put him in a unique position to cultivate Pacific Rim’s Asian fusion cuisine, despite his lack of formal culinary training.

Food Photo

“[Pacific Rim] started out as a very more modest operation with more authentic Asian dishes, but after a little while, I got a little bored of that and wanted to be more creative,” he explains. “So it evolved from more modest to more fine dining.”

Pacific Rim began serving wine and Tang began playing around with the menu until it evolved into its current iteration, which Tang describes as “contemporary pan Asian cuisine.”

“It’s more of a reflection of my background, in terms of authentic Asian flavors but in a more contemporary context. Because I grew up mostly in California, so it has more western of sensibilities but authentic Asian flavors. It’s fine dining with lots of Asian ingredients. But it’s not just accents,” he is quick to clarify. “Oftentimes you’ll see a lot of dishes with little Asian accents. I wanted to keep the flavors more authentic, so I think of a dish I grew up eating and, say how how can I reinterpret it for Ann Arbor?”

Not only does Tang’s cultural background help shape the restaurant, but so does his passion for serving others.

“I feel like most people really feel something intangible when they eat here, and that’s because of our philosophy of offering hospitality, not just fine service,” he says. “That hospitality comes from authenticity in our interactions with the staff. They love working here, so the interactions with guests are very genuine, very friendly.”

This sort of hospitality doesn’t just come naturally. Tang works to ensure that the entire staff feels as passionately as he does about the restaurant.

“We do things to cultivate that sense of ownership,” he explains. “We have a staff meal every night where the whole staff sits around a table together. That’s kind of a loss in the restaurant world nowadays. We have the servers share the tips, so there’s no competition among them and they work together collaboratively. They tip out the kitchen, too, so there’s an appreciation for the kitchen from the front of the house and vice versa, so they work well together.”
Of course, this level of hospitality wouldn’t be appreciated just anywhere.

“Part of the restaurant’s success is because it’s in Ann Arbor,” Tang recognizes. “I think it has been well-received in Ann Arbor because people here definitely recognize the authenticity of the servers and respond well to it.”

People in Ann Arbor have a keen appreciation for “genuineness and authenticity” as Tang notes, as well as a palette for global cuisine.

“Oftentimes, people move here from big cities, East Coast or West Coast, so they feel at home here because there’s more culture in the food,” he explains. “For example, we get lots of faculty eating here, bringing their guest speakers or candidates for jobs. We always get comments that they like bringing them here because they want to impress that person, to say, hey, we have culture in Ann Arbor, we have good food.”

For Tang, running Pacific Rim doesn’t feel like he gave up his dream to go to med school. In fact, it’s just the opposite: He’s found a new dream, one he didn’t even know he had.

“In Ann Arbor, what I love is the ability for my family to integrate family life with work life and community life,” he says fondly. “We live just a few blocks down the street. My wife homeschools our kids, so they’re around all the time, and she’ll visit with them. They’ll walk downtown and we’ll eat together.”

That dynamic is what makes Ann Arbor so special, and it’s the reason that any small business owner in Ann Arbor can tell you that working in Ann Arbor isn’t a stepping stone on the way to your dreams– it is the dream. You never know where life is going to put you, but if it puts you in Ann Arbor, you’re pretty lucky. Just ask Duc Tang.