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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.”
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.
“[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.
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.
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.
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.