Ann Arbor can be described in a number of ways: It’s the most educated city in America, it’s home of the top public university in the country. It’s the best city to raise a family in. It’s a vibrant city with a sweet, small-town feel where people come from all over the world to experience a world-class culture and education.
But when the last class of the evening lets out and the downtown shops lock up for the night, Ann Arbor becomes something new. It becomes Adam Lowenstein’s canvas, where he paints the downtown streets into the backdrop of one of the most fun and vibrant nightlife experiences in the world.
As owner of five of Ann Arbor’s most popular bars and one of the most famous late-night restaurants, Adam Lowenstein plays perhaps one of the most pivotal roles in orchestrating downtown nightlife. But he isn’t some unapproachable executive who sits up in an office and buys local bars. Instead, he’s an invested member of the community, someone who loves the city and has a unique eye for seeing exactly what could make midnights in Ann Arbor a little more fun. After all, what would nightlife in Ann Arbor be if it weren’t for BTB Burrito, Good Time Charley’s, Cantina, Alley Bar, Live, and The Last Word?
Lowenstein first began designing his creative vision for the Ann Arbor night life in 2004. “I started Big Ten Burrito, as it was called back then,” he explains. “I would’ve been a senior at Michigan, but I took time off. It was me and two other guys.”
Taking time off of college to open a counter-service burrito joint is a risky move, but even as an undergraduate student, Lowenstein demonstrated a deep understanding of exactly what the downtown community craved. In this instance, it craved a good late-night burrito.
“Coming from Cali, I felt like there was really a need for Mexican food here and the only burrito place at the time was basically Panchero’s, so that was a huge opportunity,” he recalls. “[My business partner Justin Herrick and I] knew each other from boarding school in California, and then went to Michigan, and, yeah, we started the burrito place and it took off.”
To say the burrito place, which is now called BTB Burrito, “took off” is a vast understatement. To this day, the counter-service late night burrito place on State Street is one of the finer points of campus nightlife. To this point: When Brian McKelvey, an artist best known for his “Pubs Of Your City” series, created a poster called “Pubs of Ann Arbor”, BTB was recognized among several clubs and bars.
“He takes all the different restaurants and bars and he puts them up on a big caricature poster,” Lowenstein explains. “BTB, out of all the different places, is the only place on there that doesn’t have liquor, and he put it on there because it’s so integral to the culture of the night life of Ann Arbor. I thought that was cool.”
Opening BTB was the first time that Lowenstein put his mark on the nightlife of Ann Arbor, but it certainly wasn’t the last. After opening two more locations of BTB that he eventually shut down, Lowenstein realized his vision for what student nightlife could be on South University.
“We would hang out and go out and come to South University,” he remembers. “We would go to Brown Jug and look across the street, and Charley’s wasn’t busy or popular at all at the time. Our question was, why not? We had the idea to do a burger place, so we kind of put the two together.”
In 2007, Lowenstein and his partner bought Good Time Charley’s and transformed it into the popular student venue it is today.
“We made the jump from BTB, which is a counter service late night burrito place, to a full-service bar and restaurant with Good Time Charley’s,” he recalls. “That was a crazy adjustment….There’s a huge tradition at Charley’s. It’s been here since 1979, so we were just lucky to be able to be part of that. It’s been here 39 years and we’ve had it for 11 of the 39. We’re slowly carving our names into the legacy of Charley’s.”
In 2008, a year after buying Good Time Charley’s, Lowenstein played off the massive success of BTB and opened up Cantina, a taqueria and bar adjacent to Charley’s. “In our opinion, it was gonna be BTB plus a bar. We thought adding in a bar, that would be fantastic.”
Perhaps this was the moment that Ann Arbor nightlife became Lowenstein’s canvas. After all, any University of Michigan student can tell tell you that nightlife is far less vibrant if you subtract BTB, Charley’s, and Cantina from the equation. But that wasn’t it for Lowenstein’s creative vision: he still had yet to tackle Main Street.
After the massive success of his campus-area business, Lowenstein recalls, “We partnered with a couple of other guys on the Main Street side of town, and we opened up Alley Bar, Live, and The Last Word, all within the period between 2010 and 2012.”
With that, Lowenstein had made his mark on all aspects of Ann Arbor nightlife: he had one foot on campus, and the other on Main Street, where the post-college sector of the Ann Arbor community often finds itself at night.
Lowenstein saw huge success no matter which side of downtown his businesses were on.
“Good Time Charley’s and Cantina, which is one business in the state’s eyes, and The Last Word and Live, which also count as one business in the state’s eyes, have been #1 and #2 in terms of liquor purchases in Washtenaw County for the past five or six years,” Lowenstein says. “So that’s pretty cool.”
Lowenstein wouldn’t be able to have such a monstrous effect on the Ann Arbor community if he wasn’t an instrumental part of the community himself.
“Ann Arbor is a fantastic place to be a small business owner. The community is just really supportive of small businesses, and it always has been. We depend on the Ann Arbor community every single day, we try and to give back in any way we can,” he says. “At Alley Bar, we have a promotion called Give Back Thursdays where we pick a different charitable organization and we partner with them every month and donate a portion of our sales on different days to that organization. And we do tons of stuff with student groups at BTB and Charley’s and Cantina.”
Why is the Ann Arbor community so important to him? “When we franchised up in East Lansing, we really felt like the community up there didn’t care if you were an independent business or if you were Taco Bell or you were Chipotle. That wasn’t a discerning characteristic in terms of the competition. A huge difference is that, in Ann Arbor if people have the opportunity, they’re gonna wanna go to the unique icon that only Ann Arbor has.”
The Ann Arbor community certainly is eager to support local businesses. Perhaps that’s because it’s a city of relationships: Lowenstein invests in the community by creating unique, enjoyable venues, and the community invests back in him by supporting these venues. Everyone wins in this relationship: Lowenstein gets to exert his creativity on Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor gets to enjoy a thriving nightlife experience.