It's been a tremendous year for culinary upstart Nikita Sanches. Twelve months ago, he was slinging his Rock City Pies at Rust Belt Market in Ferndale, all while putting the finishing touches on his highly anticipated Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck. Now, a year later, the pies are just a part of the menu at his successful venture on Joseph Campau, along with affordably priced craft cocktails and inventive small plates. And, if all that weren't enough, this week he's reopening the recently shuttered Campau Tower, one of the remaining outposts of the White Tower chain that dotted Detroit in the 1940s.
Born in Moscow, Sanches moved here at 12, and grew up all over metro Detroit. He took a culinary class at Andover "as a blow-off class" and "kinda got sucked into it." At just 29 years old, he's mature beyond his years, approachable, gracious, soft-spoken, and conscientious. Though he's aware some saw him as an interloper when he opened Rock City last year, he takes pains to show respect for the town he's located his business in. Today, he's even wearing a Planet Ant T-shirt, for instance. But appealing to the denizens of this meat-and-potatoes burg has been, as he puts it, a challenge.
"I tried to make it a priority to make products as affordable as possible. At the end of the day, I still do have to make a little bit of money to keep things going, but I try to be as fair as possible. ... We get locals in here sometimes, they see weird things on the menu, and they're like, 'We're outta here.' I feel that with Campau Tower, we can attract more of a local crowd."
A staple on the town's main drag for generations, the old burger joint near the corner of Joseph Campau and Caniff couldn't possibly be any less intimidating. And where others simply mourned its passing, Sanches saw possibilities in the greasy spoon.
"It was almost a fluke," Sanches says. "I was walking by and I was like, 'Oh, Campau Tower. They closed down. Everything's in there. I wonder if they want to sublease it to me or something.' And I talked with the owner, Sandy Bakic, and she's super-nice, a very nice lady, and we agreed on the terms. She even told me, 'We didn't even need an alarm system because we were never closed.'"
The former all-day, all-night diner, however, will have different hours. "Right now the goal is to do lunch," Sanches says. "I think we should get a local lunch crowd. But it's also a great neighborhood late-late-night joint, because this is the bar capital of the world, there's a bar on every corner, so our goal is to stay open till 4 a.m."
Longtime fans of the cool little diner will be pleased to hear that the décor will remain the same. "We're not changing anything," Sanches says. "We just patched up some holes, replaced some stools, and had to replace a few pieces of equipment. We're trying to make it feel like what it might have looked like 30 years ago. And we're going to try to clean up the front of the building as well. It was requested by a few residents in this area, who said, 'Can you please clean the front of the building? It's such a good-looking building.'"
Much like many Detroit musicians who are in at least two bands, it seems restaurateurs are now running more than one establishment. A few weeks ago, we spoke with Green Dot's Jacques Driscoll, who's now opening Johnny's Noodle King. We bring it up with Sanches, who laughs.
"Everybody who works here lives in Hamtramck, and they're all in bands," he says. "Some three, four, five. They start a new one every other week.
"For me, though, it just kinda made sense because it's right down the street. We're only doing lunch here (at Rock City) three days a week, and we're going to stop doing it and move it over there. We'll just focus on prepping for both places because there's isn't a whole lot of room to prep over there."
On the day we speak, he's using Rock City to test market his Tower Burger, which is slated for the menu at Campau Tower. Burgers will be the order of the day, of course — with a few twists.
"We're going to tweak the menu a bit," he says. "We'll do a Five Guys meets Bagger Dave's, so to speak, where you can have your basic hamburger or cheeseburger. A quarter-pounder will be $5, like $5.50 with cheese. A double will be like $8, a triple about $11. But if you're on the more adventurous side, there's a bunch of toppings you can add for 25 or 50 cents. We'll do milk shakes, we'll have a variety of hot dogs. And because I have to do my own thing, we'll have a few bao buns, Asian-style soft-shell tacos for $3 a pop or something like that.
Bao buns? Is it heresy to offer the street food popularized by none other than New York's Momofuku at the humble enamel-steel burger joint? Sanches explains: "I feel like we will get a lot of out-of-towners also. And I don't want to disappoint those people, have them say, 'Oh, we drove all the way down from Troy, and we're getting a greasy spoon burger for $5.' I want to make it a little bit more interesting for those people."
Again, the thoughtful young entrepreneur wants to appeal to out-of-towners and locals, which in Hamtramck can be a tall order.
"It's a fine balance," he says. "It's tough, trying to figure out. I'm hoping Campau Tower will allow me to kind of bring back some of the locals who, like I said, kind of got intimidated by Rock City. It kind of bums me out, because I feel that most of my clientele are people who are driving into Hamtramck, like Royal Oak, Troy, Ferndale, and we don't get a whole lot of the locals. It kinda sucks, but it is what it is."
But with the sort of name Sanches has made for himself, those are likely the people who will mob his new restaurant as soon as it opens. The fact that the humblest of burger joints is attracting so much attention from the fine-dining set amuses and perplexes him.
"The fact that it's getting so much attention is kinda crazy to me," he says. "I'm just reopening this tiny little spot, and it's getting so much attention. Eater is like, 'This is the No. 1 most anticipated place to open.' Andy Hollyday of Selden Standard was No. 2. And I'm like, 'OK, sure. Whatever you say.'"