Business Owner Spotlight: Adam Lowenstein

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.

Business Spotlight: Downtown Home & Garden

Downtown Home & Garden, a store that carries everything from birdseed to Polish pottery, is a destination in and of itself. In the family of Ann Arbor businesses, Downtown Home & Garden is the grandparent. It sits from its lot on South Ashley Street and watches over the community with its all-knowing eye. It has been meeting the needs of Ann Arbor for over 100 years, and as a thank you, the community continues to tell its story.

Kelly Vore, who owns Downtown Home & Garden, says she hears people telling the story of her business day in and day out: an oral tradition passed on through the generations of Ann Arbor.

“All day long, customers bring people with them to come in and say, ‘This is the store I’ve been wanting to show you.’ I overhear customers tell their guests, ‘…And then there was the horse and buggy through the barn…’ To hear people’s pride in the space is probably my ultimate favorite thing,” Vore shares.

The shortened version of Downtown Home & Garden’s rich, intricate history is as such: It was built in the late 1800s and has sought to meet the immediate needs of the Ann Arbor community ever since. “The building started as Mann and Zeeb grain elevator to support the farm land that was west of us. This was an active railroad track,” Vore explains, gesturing to the space surrounding Downtown Home & Garden. “This was active farmland to the west of us, as far as you could see that’s what it was.”

In 1906, the Hertlers—three brothers and their sister, Emma—bought Mann and Zeeb. “Those guys ran it as the feed store general store. They added the horse barn which was designed for horse and buggy to roll in, not the SUVs that it just happens to very conveniently host,” Vore laughs. “So you could park your horse for 10 cents a day, and then at the base of that barn is where the stalls are that the Hertlers team used to use so they would go out, deliver grain, feed, etc.”

The business was sure to keep step with the city of Ann Arbor as it grew and industrialized, so it was always able to meet the immediate needs of the community.

“Shortly after that, the Model T was developed, so the horse and buggy vein of things started to change quite a bit,” Vore explains. “Carriage Works was across the street, so there was a lot of industry built on horse and buggy that changed radically. The Hertlers, however, went on to run the business to meet the changing needs of the community.”

In 1975, the Hertlers sold the business to Mark Hodesh, under the condition that he would keep serving the needs of the community in the same way the business had been for over half a century. “There were lots of people looking to buy the property to make it a bar or a restaurant, but [Emma Hertler] didn’t want to sell to them,” Vore says.

Over forty years later, Hodesh is still a huge part of the picture. “Mark bought it in the mid 70s, and ran it until 1985 when he and Margaret left and went to Maine, raised their daughter, and had a B&B. [During that time], he sold the business, but he still held onto the property, so he was the landlord…Then Mark and Margaret came back in 1995 and Mark bought the business back, but he didn’t have the name Hertler Brothers, so they had to rename it Downtown Home & Garden. So 1995 is when Downtown Home & Garden as we know it began.”

In 2014, Hodesh sold the business to Vore, who was his employee at the time. However, Hodesh retained ownership of the property as well as ownership of Bill’s Beer Garden, a business that operates on the same property as Downtown Home & Garden.

For Vore, running a business that has faithfully served its community for over a century is both a privilege and a crazy dream. “It’s a small business, but it’s a very large operation. A lot goes on here. Seasonally, we’re always changing. Not very many businesses have seven different entrances and exits, not many have car traffic, kid traffic, stroller traffic, bike traffic, cats, dogs…So there’s just a lot happening here all the time.”

Amidst all of the chaos, Vore never forgets how fortunate she is to live in a community where her business is thoroughly appreciated. “Our customers are our best ambassadors, and Ann Arbor, I think, is a community that does specifically support this kind of business,” she says. “There are lots of communities who would like to have approachable small business, but Ann Arborites legitimately patronize the business. It is not a hobby, we’re not a museum, we’re not an amusement park, we’re a valid business, so people genuinely patronize us, they genuinely want our goods.”

Perhaps this patronage stems from the intimate connection that Ann Arbor customers feel with the business: “We have people who’ve been shopping here for 45 years that still write checks to Hertler Brothers, and the bank will still take them, and then we have people who have never been here before, and everything in between. When Lewis the Cat, who lived here before Wallace the Cat, passed away, I think that Facebook post reached around 50,000 people worldwide. There are employees who have been here 20 years, 16 years, 18 years, there’s lots of long-time staff, Mark is still around, there’s a lot of recognizable faces. We’re all in this business together, and the community is just as much a part of our strength and existence as the staff who work here.”

Ann Arbor has grown a lot since the birth of Downtown Home & Garden. The city has had its painful growth spurts, its angsty teen years, and its blissful, idyllic years—and through it all, Downtown Home & Garden has remained on its seat on South Ashley Street between Washington and Liberty, quietly, graciously providing for the needs of its community. In a city that’s constantly evolving, it’s comforting to know that some things never change.

Business Spotlight: Thistle & Bess

In 2010, Diana Marsh was an elementary school science teacher in New York City. Her school, PS 58, was in Carroll Gardens, a little neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s known for its Italian shops and cafes. During the day, Marsh ran the school garden and told children about the wonders of things like the water cycle and photosynthesis.

One day, Marsh decided to start a side gig. She had always had an interest in antique and vintage jewelry, and she dreamed of opening up a shop someday. So after school, she began collecting antique jewelry pieces and selling them on Etsy. It was a fun project that brought in a little extra revenue, but, most importantly, it brought Marsh a step closer to pursuing her dream.

Marsh is not originally from New York City. She’s from Ann Arbor, a little town in Michigan that has just a fraction of New York’s population, and yet its small-town borders are so chock full with style and culture and personality that it feels as though it’s about to burst at the seams.

“Ann Arbor and Brooklyn have some definite similar vibes, especially the smaller neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” Marsh explains. “But I just knew that Ann Arbor was home, so I wanted to be back here.”

Marsh was visiting family in Ann Arbor over Christmas and found herself in Kerrytown, the charming historic neighborhood on the northside of downtown that houses the Farmers Market and and many restaurants, shops, and cafes. However, this trip proved to be more than just an average visit to Kerrytown—perhaps fate played a role, because after this visit, Marsh’s vision for her future store began to take a concrete shape.

“I walked by this storefront, and I knew opening a store was something that I had wanted to do, but this location specifically was pretty perfect,” Marsh recalls, “so I jumped everything and moved forward.”

And so was born Thistle & Bess, Marsh’s shop in Kerrytown. The next several years were a whirlwind for Marsh. She relocated to Ann Arbor and began collecting an assortment of items for her shop, from fine jewelry to bath and beauty products to home accessories to children’s clothing and toys.

“We head to London at least once a year to buy antiques, which is great,” Marsh explains. “We have some vintage barware and things like that. I would say at least a quarter of our merchandise is local. A lot made in Detroit, a lot of it Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti artists. We work with a Japanese artist, who’s one of our favorites, a lot of things in England in general, and a lot of US. We work with mostly independent designers, and we have relationships with most of our designers.”

This eclectic assortment proved to strike a chord with the ever-curious Ann Arbor community, and, soon enough, Marsh was the owner of a successful downtown business.

“Ann Arbor’s very well-known for the fact that we do have a lot of amazing independent businesses,” Marsh recognizes. “The people who are following their dreams and opening these businesses makes the community thrive. I think shoppers in Ann Arbor are looking for something different and well-made. Stuff that they’re not going to find just in any chain store.”

Anyone who grew up in Ann Arbor knows that local shoppers have a different taste than mainstream culture. However, not many people know what goes on behind-the-scenes of these distinctive downtown shops. For Marsh, it was a pleasant surprise.

“Business owners here are so wonderful,” Marsh gushes. “Wanting to collaborate and do things that benefit all of our businesses together. I don’t think you would find that in New York at all. We all work very closely, and our goal is to make this whole neighborhood be successful and busy and thriving. That means pulling everybody up together. I think that’s been the most amazing part of this, just to meet all these wonderful people, to come together to work on larger projects and work on the neighborhood together. I could not ask for anything else; it’s been wonderful.”

Not many people move to New York City with aspirations of moving back to their hometown someday, but if your hometown is Ann Arbor, that’s exactly what you do. Marsh’s story is proof that when you choose Ann Arbor as the stage for you to follow your dreams, it makes the city more magical for all of us.

Business Spotlight: Bløm Meadworks

According to Norse mythology, if you drink one sip of the Mead of Poetry, you will transform into a poet and a scholar. Unfortunately, before you go searching for it on your supermarket shelves, you should know that it was created the way things tend to be created in Norse mythology: murder, magic, and vengeance of the gods.

However, if your search is simply for some delicious mead, and you’re indifferent as to whether it should turn you into a poet and a scholar, then you simply need to head to 4th Avenue, near the intersection of 4th and Huron. There you’ll find Bløm Meadworks, downtown Ann Arbor’s first meadery. The mead at Bløm may not have the same dramatic backstory as the Norse Mead of Poetry, but it has a story to tell all the same. Rather than the vengeance of the gods, mead in Ann Arbor was born of the modern-day equivalent: a gluten allergy.

“Seven or eight years ago, Matt opened a brewery in Chicago with two business partners who were friends of his,” Lauren Bloom explains. Matt Ritchey, Bloom’s husband, co-owns Bløm Meadworks with her. “Matt was the head brewer for probably four or five years before he found out he had a gluten allergy. So that was kind of his trigger for realizing he couldn’t stay on as head brewer at the brewery anymore. He couldn’t drink beer.”

At the same time, Bloom was working in the nonprofit sector, but she had a growing interest in local food advocacy. “I was trying to figure out a way to build more time in my life for working on local food production, local food advocacy, and helping to develop those relationships between farmers and consumers,” she recalls. “Matt really wanted to stay in fermentation, brewing of sorts. But he wanted to focus on something that was naturally gluten-free, and we wanted something that would stand on its own. So if someone needed a gluten-free option, this was safe for them. If they didn’t need a gluten-free option, they might not ever know it’s gluten-free.”

Bloom and Ritchey eventually decided to focus on meads and ciders, which are two naturally gluten-free drinks. The meads and ciders that Bloom and Ritchey create, however, are significantly different from the sweet, highly alcoholic meads that the Vikings might have drank.

“We wanted to tweak both meads and ciders in a way that they were versions that we really loved, something that to us felt casual, something that people would come together around, something that felt accessible both in a style and a price range for people who might be new to mead,” Bloom explains. “So we kept honing our recipes until we found something that we really loved. We call that session mead, but it just means it’s a style that’s lower in alcohol than traditional meads, it’s quite dry, and it’s carbonated. So you’d drink maybe a pint of it at a time. It drinks almost like a dry cider or a beer.”

The physical space of Bløm Meadworks encapsulates the hip, trendy aesthetic of the Main Street district in downtown Ann Arbor. The space is bright and open with white walls, wooden accents, and green plants adding a pop of color. A card on the bar reads “Hell Yes!” Adjacent to the tap room is Bløm community room, which is used for yoga classes, a bike co-op, and a private event rental space. This community aspect is what makes Bløm Meadworks a perfect fit for Ann Arbor; or, rather, it is what makes Ann Arbor a perfect fit for Bløm Meadworks.

“We knew we wanted to be in a walking or biking location for people, or be in a city with public transportation, since it is an alcohol-based business and we wanted to keep people safe,” Bloom explains. “And we really wanted to be downtown, because mead is something that’s new to a lot of people. It needed to be something that people could just kind of stumble across and try.”

Bloom and Ritchey both grew up in Michigan (Fenton and Holly), so they have long been familiar with the qualities of the state that draw people back in and make them decide to put down their roots here. Those of us who grew up in Michigan can list off these qualities like we can list off our multiplication tables: weekend trips up north, cider and donuts in the cool of October, grilling hotdogs in a parking lot before a football game. These memories are ingrained in the back of every native Michigander’s mind, and they’re enough to make you forget about the dead, grey winters that drove you away in the first place.

Bloom and Ritchey moved from Chicago to Ann Arbor in the thick sunshine of early summer, when not only is the entire state of Michigan giddy with the promise of Tigers games and road trips to Lake Michigan, but Ann Arbor itself is the most Ann Arbor it will be all year.

“There were so many events going on, and it was just like, all these people together in one place,” Bloom recalls. “It had this mix of some of the pieces of a big city, with the events that were going on, but the neighborhoodiness of a small town, all in one place. And seeing that people were willing to donate to it to keep it going and appreciated the fact that it takes a lot to put on.”

The beauty of Ann Arbor is indeed most prominent in the summer, when the sun comes out after long months of hiding, and everyone emerges from their homes to celebrate in the streets with events like Summerfest and Art Fair. But perhaps what makes Ann Arbor unique is that it doesn’t lose its flavor in the winter, even when restaurants on Main Street bring their beloved patio furniture inside to hibernate, even when every step you take is padded with a thick layer of snow. No matter when you visit Ann Arbor, it’s still Ann Arbor, still vibrant and lively and full of culture. That’s exactly the home Bloom and Ritchey needed for their meadery.

“We were coming from Chicago, so we wanted to be in a place that had and appreciated diversity and culture,” Bloom explains. “We wanted to be in a place where people are curious eaters and curious drinkers, and we really wanted and needed to be in a place where residents are supportive of local businesses and a place where people want their downtown to be filled with independent businesses. We kind of need that loyalty: people who want to come out of their homes and support a small business.”

That’s Ann Arbor, Bloom and Ritchey soon came to realize. That’s Ann Arbor to a tee. But the unique culture wasn’t the only thing to lure Bloom and Ritchey to Ann Arbor. They were also lured by the local produce.

“Something that’s been important to us is sourcing all of our ingredients from Michigan. Mead and cider are things where we can source all of the ingredients from Michigan. With beer, it’s a little more challenging because most of the grains are grown in Canada. Not all of them, but most of them,” Bloom explains. “So, with honey and pressed apples, those are obviously two big agricultural products here in Michigan.”

Bloom and Ritchey choose to source their ingredients locally for a number of reasons. “The more obvious answer is that it keeps that money in the Michigan economy and it supports Michigan farmers and producers,” she says. But Bloom and Ritchey’s jobs are more than just jobs, and, to them, the ingredients for their drinks are more than goods in the economy.

“Our job every day is better and happier when we’re calling up people who we’ve met, we know what their farm looks like, we know who their partners are and who their kids are,” she says with a smile. “We’re calling and talking to them instead of just getting online and placing an order and, you know, choosing our delivery option. We’re working long hours, we’re putting a lot of time into this, and those interactions and those relationships make everyday happier. It doesn’t feel like you’re gonna burn out if you have those relationships.”

Bløm Meadworks is, in every sense, a place that builds relationships. Bloom and Ritchey have ensured that from the very beginning: from implementing game nights, to creating a designated community space, to building their business in a community-oriented town like Ann Arbor, Michigan. After all, when you wish to create a business that will bring people together over good drinks, where else would you put it?

People-Friendly Streets Update

People-Friendly Streets is an initiative to improve the comfort and safety of streets for users of all ages and abilities. We know that nobody understands the term “people-friendly” better than the people of Ann Arbor themselves. That’s why, as we plan improvements to William Street, Huron Street, and First and Ashley Streets, we recognize that the most valuable resource we have is the perspective of the very people who use those streets.

The week of June 4th-7th, we held our second round of public meetings and stakeholder meetings with the goal of working together to gain an understanding of how the streets are currently used and where stakeholders’ priorities lie. We were able to engage with over 100 people throughout the course of the week. At each meeting, we heard the feedback of Ann Arbor residents, property owners, business owners, employees, and employers, and actively worked with them to ensure that our improvements make the streets more people-friendly for everybody.

The First and Ashley Project will restore First and Ashley streets to two-way, which will improve the overall safety and comfort of the streets, support business access and visibility, increase foot traffic, give motorists better wayfinding and easier navigation to downtown streets, support existing and future transit service, and encourage reinvestment and vitality.

The First Street improvements and the William Street Bikeway Project will develop the city’s first protected bike lanes, allowing people of all abilities to feel comfortable and safe biking on these streets. The First Street improvements include a two-way protected bike lane on the east side of First Street, where a one-way bike lane exists today. The William Street protected bike lane will be on the north side of the street, from State to First, transitioning to an advisory bike lane in the residential area from First to Third. This will give residents more options for travelling to, from, and around downtown Ann Arbor, and allow bicyclists to enjoy safer and more comfortable streets.

Parking will be impacted on First Street, between Kingsley Street and Miller, and on the north side of William Street between State and First. There is the potential for parking gains in other blocks of First and on the south side of William, this continues to be studied. The anticipated overall impact to parking is a net loss of between 5 and 10 parking spaces. The project team is working to ensure that all loading zones and ADA spaces are being preserved or enhanced.

The Huron Street improvement project seeks to transform the pedestrian experience along this corridor of Huron, Division Street to Third, by creating a safe, comfortable, and desirable streetscape environment.  Some of the elements  of this project include investing in trees and lighting, enhancing crosswalks, accommodating non-rush hour parking, installing a full signal at Chapin/Third, and other traffic improvements. For drivers, the proposed traffic improvements will optimize safety and efficiency at turn signals and crosswalks. Travel time will decrease slightly along the corridor during AM/PM rush hour. If non-rush hour parking is approved, there will be a slight increase, approximately 15 seconds per block during non-rush hour travel.

For more information on any of these projects, please visit www.peoplefriendlystreets.org

Our next step in this project is to seek support from the Transportation Committee on July 18 and City Council on August 9. If you want to share your thoughts and opinions on these projects with City Council, we encourage you to do so by  signing up to speak at the August 9 City Council meeting or by emailing the Mayor and Council at CityCouncil@a2dda.org.