If you manage to make your way through the maze of construction barriers that have made Da Edoardo Foxtown Grille in the Fox Theatre building virtually impossible to notice, chances are you’ll find yourself greeted by Rodney. He’ll show you to your seat. Take your drink order. Make menu recommendations. And then he’ll disappear into the kitchen. Not, however, to hand the ticket to the chef, but to actually be the chef. This might sound unheard of in most circumstances, but that’s a reality faced by many of the Woodward corridor’s restaurants, who’ve found themselves snagged by a perfect storm of construction activity for the M-1 Rail project.
“That’s just the cost of becoming beautiful,” says Da Edoardo owner Ann Kolinski, whose family has been in metro Detroit’s restaurant game for going on three generations.
If you think that’s a crazy way to do business, Da Edoardo’s story isn’t unique these days. Belt-tightening has been taking hold of downtown and Midtown staples from the Fox Theatre all the way up until at least the Park Shelton Building. Spots like the Majestic complex, which houses the Majestic Cafe and Theatre, Sgt. Pepperoni, Garden Bowl, and the new electronic-music venue Populux has cut hours for its staff. Union Street is down to a skeleton crew and the once-packed Great Lakes Coffee on Alexandrine is now lighter on its usual daytime traffic.
Susan Mosey, director of Midtown Detroit Inc., says the slump is not across the board. Some restaurants, such as Seva, have actually enjoyed an increase in business. Others, including La Feria, Traffic Jam, Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, and Café 78 in the MOCAD, have continued to experience steady business, given the construction, and others, such as Jolly Pumpkin, HOPCAT, and Great Lakes Coffee, have experienced a 3 percent decrease in revenue.
"Most of the restaurants right on Woodward are hurting the most. These include Union Street, Majestic, Midtown Grille, the Whitney, Falafill, Maccabees, Zeff's, Wasabi. ... Revenues are down in these locations anywhere from 20 to 40 [percent]," Mosey tells Metro Times.
David Zainea, co-owner of the Majestic, says he started to see the writing on the wall that things were going to dramatically change for his Midtown complex within the first three months that construction crew hit his section of Woodward, between Alexandrine and Willis.
"When the café was open, we had a steady 15 staff members throughout the day. That's been cut by about half," Zainea says, adding the restaurant had already ceased lunch service before crews started tearing up the street.
His spot, featuring the large-scale concert hall, bowling alley, pizzeria, bar, and café, has been relatively lucky, though. The Zainea family owns its own parking out back and the concert business remains steady as folks continue buying show tickets — despite the fact that a ravine dug by construction crews has made street parking impossible. What's lacking: "That spontaneity of foot traffic," he told us. "It's really affecting us when you're a guy or a girl and you want to stop in for a slice of pizza. You can't do that when parking has become such a hassle."
Ginger Barris and her husband, George, took over ownership of Union Street three years ago after the former owners went into retirement. Before taking the place over, Barris had worked for 11 years as the manager of the Majestic Café. The couple signed a multi-year lease, revamped the menu and worked to get an outdoor patio going for the summer months — all unaware of what was to come.
"When things weren't all new-construction and pretty, [the Majestic and Union Street] were supporting the community," Barris says. "Now it seems like ... I'm at a loss [for] words." Had they known about the construction, "things would have been different," she says, unsure whether she would have signed the lease if she'd known the impact construction would have.
Mosey says Midtown Detroit Inc. has taken several measures to help businesses along the three-mile stretch of Woodward manage. Some $275,000 in grants to date have been given to assist businesses with marketing, social media, web design, rent assistance, and other support. Bicycle racks have been installed throughout the district. And events, such as Slow Roll on Aug. 17, have been coordinated to help get bodies into the area.
Sommer Woods, vice president of external affairs for the M-1 rail project, tells us construction is on target to conclude as scheduled by 2016, though project organizers last week announced that the public launch has been pushed back to sometime in 2017 so that cars can undergo federally mandated testing.
"We know these businesses have been impacted and we're very sensitive to that," Woods said. "But rest assured, you will have your road back on time."
Woods said her team communicates regularly with the other governmental entities, including Detroit Edison and the Michigan Department of Transportation, both of which are taking advantage of the rail construction to make improvements to utilities and infrastructure, to keep businesses and residents apprised of upcoming closures and detours.
"Keep in mind that there are sections of Woodward that haven't been touched in a century," Woods says.
Finding ways to make it work is something Kolinski's family is used to. The Foxtown location, opened in 2000, has had its moments of success over the years, but has never quite realized a heyday. The kitchen staff serves as the official caterers for the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, which helps, and when the All-Star game and Super Bowl took place in Detroit in the 2000s, they were there to ride that wave. But the success, like most restaurants, has mostly been dependent on the ups and downs of the city's economy. When the Tigers had bad seasons shortly after Comerica opened, the eatery suffered. And in 2008, when the economic downturn hit Detroit the rest of the country, the restaurant struggled along with it.
Now, the trouble isn't so much related to Detroit's problems. The restaurant industry and downtown in general are experiencing a renaissance. When there are games at Comerica or Ford Field, or there's a show at the Fox or Fillmore, it's Da Edoardo that people flock to. What's keeping Kolinski's place from thriving is the constant hassle of construction. When the daytime crowd is slow, the place sometimes closes early. Hanging from the large windows are oversized "open" signs to remind people they're still around. And Kolinski has started offering a number of deals to try to entice couples to make Da Edoardo their choice for date night, despite the glaring views of cranes and road crews right out the window. Still, some things can't be helped: On a recent Tuesday, she got a call saying the water would be shut off for the afternoon, preventing the place from opening for lunch service.
Kolinski said she's optimistic that the restaurant will be able to enjoy the area's revival, and believes the rail line will give Detroiters that added ease of being able to travel up and down Woodward, without having to drive. If only they can hang on long enough to ride through this hump.