Restaurant owners finding strong appetites in Detroit

In this Friday, Nov. 17, 2017 photo, founders of the Galley Group, Ben Mantica, left, and Tyler Benson pose in their Smallman Galley in the Strip section of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh-based company that develops and manages food halls is eying Detroit as one of the newest locations for the trendy food service concept. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A resurgent downtown Detroit has become somewhat of a magnet for small startup companies, corporate headquarters and even fine cuisine

DETROIT — A resurgent downtown Detroit has become something of a magnet for small startup companies, corporate headquarters and even fine cuisine.

A Pittsburgh-based company that develops and manages food halls is eyeing the Motor City as one of the newest locations for the trendy food service concept.

The Galley Group provides kitchen space for chefs and is scouting spots in the downtown business district and Midtown and Corktown neighborhoods. But it faces competition in satisfying the palates of people choosing from eating options that didn't exist even a decade ago.

"Detroit is a city that's on the move right now. It's amazingly undervalued," said Tyler Benson, a Galley Group partner. "There is so much happening there. There is a remarkable driving spirit behind the development."

After emerging from bankruptcy in late 2014, the former manufacturing and car-making city is to some extent remaking itself into a technology hub attracting workers and visitors with varied dining tastes.

The Greektown neighborhood long had been Detroit's entertainment destination, but central downtown has become home to Joe Muer Seafood and national chains like the Hard Rock Cafe and Texas de Brazil steakhouse.

Restaurants that opened over the past few years include the upscale Prime + Proper steakhouse and neighborhood eatery Grey Ghost Detroit. Shake Shack and Wahlburgers also opened their first Michigan locations downtown.

More are expected when work is completed on a planned 50-block entertainment district anchored by a new professional hockey and basketball arena that opened last summer just north of downtown.

"The restaurant scene is getting bigger and bigger it seems by the day," said Deanna Majchrzak, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "New restaurants are coming on board soon. Others will be opening in the new hotels coming this year. They are believing in the comeback that's taking place. The fact that all these people are investing so much in the city, it means something. It means they believe Detroit is moving in the right direction."

Lonely Planet Magazine recently was in Detroit to recognize it among Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel Top 10 Cities" list. Detroit is No. 2 on the list, but is the only city from the continental United States to make it. Seville, Spain, topped the list.

But two decades ago, parts of downtown Detroit mostly were still and quiet after 5 p.m. on weekdays when office workers went home.

"A lot of big chains didn't want to come to the city," said Herasanna Richards, director of the Detroit Restaurant Association.

Later, companies like Quicken Loans moved their headquarters and staffs downtown and encouraged employees to live in or near the city's business center.

Now "you look at Detroit and it's a playground for culinary arts," Richards said. "You see so many unique chef-owned restaurants, creating their menus."

Richards attributed much of the change to economic development. "You have an influx of people, especially young people, who are coming to Detroit, going to Wayne State (University), working downtown," Richards said.

The Galley Group's Benson and co-owner Ben Mantica envision a "high-volume food hall space" once a location is found in Detroit.

They're also looking to open a similar food hall model in Cleveland. Each will act as a restaurant incubator with new chefs coming on every 12 months. Each kitchen space would be run by a chef-owner and connected to a central bar. A new class of chefs also will be joining the company's Smallman Galley in Pittsburgh.

Calls for applications already have gone out online .

"It's a revenue share. We get 30 percent and cover all the overhead," Benson said. "The whole essence of our place is driven by community and creating new businesses. We're growing local businesses with local talent."

Detroit allows chefs and prospective restaurant owners to realize their dreams at a lower financial cost than other places, like New York, according to chef Maxcel Hardy, owner of the River Bistro in northwest Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.

"If you had a passion and a dream to open a restaurant, Detroit is one of those areas where you can do it and at a decent price," said Hardy, 33.

River Bistro opened this summer. Hardy plans to open another restaurant, Coop Detroit, in January in Midtown. He is a Detroit native and has partnered with restaurants in places like Harlem and Miami.

"Detroit truly is a community and family-based," Hardy said. "Everyone says it's a 'small big city.' For chefs, it's really hot. There's a new synergy and energy in the city. The city never has been known as a food Mecca. Now, it's a revolving culinary community."

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