Carpenter and Ellsworth Facade update; Party Store Part 3: They Thought U Wouldn’t Notice

Work continues on Arbor Square Plaza, the small shopping center at Carpenter and Ellsworth. All stores appear still to be open. I had heard from a blog friend that Bread Basket Deli was closed, but maybe that was temporary, because they appeared to be open today (we had eaten already).

Arbor Square Plaza shopping center, facade work facing west. (C)A2RS.
Arbor Square Plaza shopping center storefronts. Bread Basket at left, Lai Lai at right, a bunch of other stores. (C)A2RS

Subway is still kicking here too. How does a Subway survive, two doors down from Bread Basket? Does Bread Basket get a line at lunchtime that scares some people away, and they say “heck with it, I’m getting A SANDWICH, I don’t care where?”

Following up on the ongoing saga of Party Stores That Imply Affiliation With U-M: the two stores I highlighted in September have both walked it back.

Stadium Liquor facing south. The sign is stars-&-stripes instead of U-M colors. (C)A2RS

Stadium Liquor’s helmet sign has reinstalled its red/white/blue livery. I sort of wonder if they don’t just maize it up for game weekends. How easy is it to replace the lenses in these backlit signs?

“Mike’s Big House of Liquor,” the party store inside the Exxon station at Packard and Platt, has almost completely debadged, leaving behind a handsome brick building known simply as “OF LIQUOR.”

Remember the halcyon days when gasolline was only 2.45 a gallon? Feels like only a couple of weeks ago. (C)A2RS

This is only about a block and a half away from “I ❤️ LIQUOR,” of course. I look forward to all SoPac merchants eventually assuming this brutalist naming convention. Fraser Bicycle rechristens itself as “BICYCLE,” Pointless Brewery tries on “DRINK IMPROV,” The TV Warehouse becomes “TV WAREHOUSE.” Banfield’s is exempt from everything, of course.

Sincerely,
🌌 RETAIL

Packard Pharm closure, new Victors Way roadside signage for Hyatt, a closer look at Xfinity Store

It’s hard out here for an indy pharmacy trying to make a go of it in SoPac. It was surrounded by chain and other specialty pharmacies (Rite Aid a block west, CVS not much further away to the east, not to mention Kroger, Meijer, and CVS Inside Target a little ways south. I haven’t even gotten to Walgreens and Clark Pharmacy, to the north.

Exterior of pharmacy on Packard Road, Golam Produce at right. (C)A2RS

The pharmacy opened last winter emphasizing service and a personal touch that would differentiate them from the chains. Unfortunately the competition may have been too much. I hope it was a soft landing, there’s certainly no shortage of demand for pharmacists.

In lighter news, remember when I noticed the low-profile Burger King sign by the Hyatt on State Street? It has a counterpart on Victors Way now:

Exterior of Executive Burger King, with new “Hyatt Place” sign in foreground. (C)A2RS

This all makes sense now because the parking lots for Burger King and Hyatt Place have been connected. Finally you can get a king-size Hyatt bed AND flame broiling without having to navigate State Street traffic.

Xterior, Xfinity Xtore. (C)A2RS

An exit to the West off of I-94, the Xfinity Store has opened in Oak Valley shopping center. It’s near Target, between Men’s Wearhouse and Sally Beauty Supply. (Previously, this spot was Famous Footwear for decades.)

I’m still not super-comfortable taking photos inside a store, like some kind of creep, so instead I hung out by a planter and zoomed in on the windows, like some kind of bigger creep.

Interior of Xfinity Xtore, xhot from the xterior. (C)A2RS

In the window you can see that, although there is plenty of TV and internet information to be had, a lot of the store is devoted to wireless phones and accessories, Xfinity’s newest service. With the recent launch of Xfinity Mobile,  it was clear that Comcast needed more of a retail presence than the service counter in their longtime transmission facility on South Industrial.

Xfinity Mobile is what is known in the industry as a Virtual Network Operator — that’s when another company resells service from one of the big wireless companies like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, or T-Mobile. Sometimes they pass their volume savings onto the customer as a cheaper alternative to the Big Four, like Ting, Cricket, or Straight Talk do. In other cases there are value-adds like assurances of charitable giving, as Credo Mobile does, or extra timely sports content, like when Disney offered ESPN Mobile a few years ago. Once you start researching these things for yourself you can easily wind up down a rabbit-hole of obscure prepaid vendors and ad-hoc “family plans” that makes Cord Cutting look mainstream. (I am personally a Cricket customer — they are actually a division of AT&T, they use AT&T’s network, and they work fine for the price. Let me know if you want to sign up, it works out well for both of us and is an excellent way to support citizen journal-ish.)

In Xfinity Mobile’s case, they offer the convenience of bundling your mobile service with your cable bill (and resell Verizon’s service). One slightly controversial aspect of their service is that you have to buy your phone from them. You can’t buy your phone from somewhere else, even if it’s the same kind of phone, and just put an Xfinity SIM in it. They say this is to ensure compatibility and reduce troubleshooting, and I’m sure that’s part of it, but I think they want some of that sweet, sweet phone hardware money, too.

They are two doors down from Target, who has this handsome display to get you to sign up for Xfinity home internet service, but does not offer Xfinity Mobile service at this time.

Xfinity internet xervice dixplay inxide Target. (C)A2RS

See that Netgear cable modem in the above photo? (Not an affiliate link, just for information.) It costs $180.00. It has twice as many channels as my Arris, but costs three times as much. Honestly, though? Still probably cheaper than renting your cable modem, in the long run.

Maple Village Outlot exterior work

Something new happening at Maple Village — the outlot building facing Maple Road is being heavily revamped.

Wall of Maple Village outlot building, facing south. (C)A2RS.
Front of Maple Village outlot building, facing East. (C)A2R.S.

This building was once the auto and tire center for Kmart, a longtime Maple Village resident until its closure three years ago. After that, it was the last Radio Shack store in Ann Arbor until that chain’s bankruptcy and contraction.

Are they doing something new and dramatic, or did Radio Shack’s closure just give the management an opportunity to update the facade of the building? When I know, I will write something here, but don’t hold your breath waiting for me to ask someone.

P.S. I went to Sierra Trading Post recently. It was fine. Looked like there were some good deals there, but I was looking for a specific thing and they didn’t have any.

Larrytown Dairy Queen has closed for the season

Blizzards in a blizzard. (C)A2RS

Tonight I noticed that the big shutters are up on the windows at the Dairy Queen on Packard, just south of Stadium, signifying closure for the winter season — a particularly early closure by their standards.

This particular location is famous for staying open late into the fall, weeks or months after the Stadium location calls it a year. (I talked it up earlier this year, which seems like a mistake in retrospect.) I typically try to make it there on or near the last day of the season, for the novelty of it. On November 22, 2015, I was the stand’s final customer – a cold, dreary Sunday night when I brought frozen treats home to my family.

I don’t know how long the Dexter location stays open. It’s an outdoor stand like the Packard and Stadium locations, and I would imagine it weatherproofed itself a few weeks back. But I can tell you where you can go right now for a Dilly Bar.

The Ypsilanti location near EMU has plenty of seating, a full menu, and is open nearly year-round. (They usually close from around Christmas until February.)

If the Ypsi store’s too far, or if you’re reading this on New Year’s Day or something and need to get your Peanut Buster on, then you have but one choice: the Saline Dairy Queen on Michigan Avenue. It has an indoor counter, albeit minimal seating, and is open even on nights it probably shouldn’t be open.

 

State Street & Oak Valley latest

South of I-94 on State Street, work continues on Black Rock Bar & Grill. Here’s the exterior as it appeared this weekend, before the past two days of rain.

This site was a Chi-Chi’s for decades, before Chi-Chi’s succumbed to debt and a Hepatitis scare in the early 2000s. After Chi-Chi’s retreated to supermarket shelves and, um, Belgium, the space became a Japanese restaurant called Cherry Blossom for a brief time. Finally, a coat of blue paint on the adobe facade signaled the arrival of Passport, an ambitious world-cuisine concept from beloved campus Chinese take-out spot Lucky Kitchen. After Passport’s border closed, the space was blue and still until Black Rock arrived.

Black Rock originally opened in Hartland, about an hour north of this location, a few years back, and quickly expanded to several locations around Detroit and, in parallel, Orlando, Florida. A friend who has visited one explained to me that the name comes from a stone slab, heated to a high temperature and presented alongside your meal . Then, you use the stone and its retained heat to cook your steak, so each bite is “hot off the grill.” (They offer pre-cooked entrees also.)

Spotted at Oak Valley: the former Famous Footwear space near Target is Xfinity. In many Comcast markets, the local service centers are located in shopping centers and take the form of Xfinity Store, a casual shopping experience, rather than the traditional South Industrial waiting room where you may have gotten your new cable box from in the past. Here, they can also get you signed up for Xfinity Mobile, their wireless phone plan. (Although Xfinity branded, it is secretly Verizon, so you know it will be consistent nationwide, even in markets where other cable companies have the monopoly. I didn’t get a picture because it was grey and rainy tonight, sorry.

To answer a question frequently asked this summer: it doesn’t look like they did much of anything to the corner of Waters Road and Ann Arbor-Saline Road, except introduce a lane out of the parking lot directly onto southbound Saline Road. For decades, the only ways out have been either onto Waters Road near Target, or driving behind Chuck E. Cheese and getting onto Oak Valley Drive, so I guess I consider this an improvement, because what was all that stupid foliage doing there anyway? Time to pound sand, plants.

Finally, an update on the Hyatt Place lot. The hotel is now open for business (travelers), but the outlot building in front is still unoccupied and apparently available for lease. My owl friend Arbor Annie recently took a closer look and confided to me that the small, solar-roofed accessory structure by the street is a bike lock, and there is also one of those adorable water fountains that have one bowl for people and one bowl for dogs. Which, cool, but I still have no idea what this building is supposed to be. I can already tell that this will keep me up all ni💤

Updates from east side and downtown

Sorry about the lack of recent posts. Something something irons, something something fire. Here are some developments I noticed on Carpenter Road, and was told about at 4th and Liberty downtown.

Carpenter And Ellsworth’s shopping center is getting a new facade. This was snapped a few weeks back, the work has progressed since then. The stores that were previously open all appear to still be open.

The former Pier 1 Imports on Carpenter Road has been split into two storefronts. One of them is now open — an Aspen Dental location (a chain, like Subway, only for dentists, not Sandwich Artists).

The other store was still stripped to the walls when I took this photo, but there were literally people in there making plans, so expect something soon. Last year this was a pop-up Halloween store, so this is something like progress.

The photos below, from the Fourth and Liberty corridor, were provided by Lex, a Friend of A2RS.

Le Bon Macaron is an eastward expansion of a bakery and coffeehouse with previous locations in Grand Rapids and Lansing. Though their pride is their Macaron, the french sandwich cookie, they are sadly unaffiliated with the lead singer or any other members of the band Duran Duran. (“Le Bon” literally means “The Good” in French. I didn’t even have to look that up.)

La Taqueria arrives on Liberty in the back section of the former Selo/Shevel Gallery, a spot recently occupied by Maize & Blue Delicatessen’s ill-fated expansion into Shinolaville. People love tacos and if the bar is good and the prices decent, this should be a winner.

Drought is a Detroit-based raw juice company with six retail locations.
Lex has some thoughts on this particular store:

Although it’s nice that some Detroit-based businesses are successful enough to branch out to other locations, I can’t say that I will be utilizing the Ann Arbor location of “Drought” anytime soon. The premise is that there is a clean, stark store with a case of expensive juice. The juice isn’t made in the store. It’s literally just a case of juice. It comes in glass bottles, and most of the bottles seem to be around $9-13 each bottle.

Maybe I am just getting old, but I found the concept of having an entire empty store with just a case of juice to be incredibly bizarre. Another thing is this isn’t on Main Street, or even Liberty Street, it’s on Washington Street — not exactly a high traffic area. I wish them luck, of course, because I am not a jerk, but I just don’t think they’ll make it.

I welcome your thoughts via the usual channels.

Mahalo to UO

Today from @TreeDowntown, an account that didn’t make my radar before today but which is so relevant to my readers’ interest that I probably wouldn’t have started this if I’d known about it:

It looks like Mark Maynard was correct after all. Farewell Urban Outfitters – hate to see you go, but love to watch you move out.

Carpenter Road update with a couple of photos tomorrow or Saturday.

Buffett Is My Co-Pilot

Huge news today out of Knoxville as Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s firm, announces a buy into Pilot Flying J, a chain of travel centers — not travel agencies, another industry nearly driven out of existence by online, but “travel centers,” which is a high-falutin’ word for truck stops.

Pilot and Flying J stores can be found lining the major interstates in the Midwest and throughout the country. The farthest away I’ve encountered one is in Arizona, near the Meteor Crater. The closest ones to Ann Arbor are in Dexter off of I-94, at either side of the Baker Road exit. Yes, there are Pilots on either side of I-94 at the same exit. The northern one was a Speedway fuel station years ago, albeit an oversized one that catered to truckers — Speedway sold their truck-stop business to Pilot a few years before Pilot merged with Flying J.

Today’s travel centers tend to have at least one restaurant attached, sometimes a whole food court. They cultivate brand loyalty among professional drivers with fuel discounts, wifi memberships, and free showers. Their convenience stores are more like mini department stores for the professional driver, selling everything from roller-grill hot dogs, to furniture and entertainment equipment for the little bedroom inside your truck, to cheap toys and local gift merchandise to pick up for your family on the way home.

This seems like a brave time for BH to get into roadside services, as the freight industry begins to experiment with electric and self-driving trucks. So why is Warren Buffett investing in Pilot Flying J? The answer, I suspect, is simpler than you might think.

Buffett chose to acquire Dairy Queen because he loved Dairy Queen, but that’s not the only thing he and I have in common. We also both love Cherry Coca-Cola. Buffett is famous for drinking several cans every day. BH is a Coca-Cola investor and last year, when Coke finally introduced Cherry Coke in China, they put a cartoon of him on the packaging.

Cherry Coke packaging from China, where Warren Buffett is also considered a rockstar. (C) The Coca-Cola Company

I used to drink a lot of fountain Coke. I mean, a lot of fountain Coke. The first time I ever visited a Flying J I bought a giant, ludicrous, 52oz. trucker mug to increase my Coke consumption. It was unsustainable; I have retired it and switched to smaller servings, mostly of of Coke Zero Sugar.

But when I’m out on the interstate, and even sometimes just on the west side of town, I still want a Cherry Coke from a Pilot or a Flying J, because they have the best cherry syrup in the known universe. It is bright red, super sweet with that wild-cherry flavor you usually encounter in second-tier bubble gums, and just a little viscous. They let you put in as much as you want. You could fill the whole cup with cherry syrup, although that would be really gross. It doesn’t have a medicinal aftertaste the way some other chains’ cherry syrup add-ins do (looking at you, Speedway). The right kind of cherry syrup makes all the difference.

Warren, if you ever read this, I am a fraternity brother of your cousin Jimmy and I would love to drink a Cherry Coke with you. We don’t even have to talk shop.

Houses of the Wholly Hydrated

A few weeks back we covered local party stores that had branded themselves to indicate an affiliation with U-M that wasn’t actually there, then walked it back after obviously receiving a letter from South Campus.

I have come to realize that two, AND POSSIBLY MORE, party stores in town are not avid A2R.S readers.

“Big House Of Liquors,” Stadium Blvd. (C)A2R.S

This past Saturday we discovered that one of the stores we profiled has gotten bold and redone their sign. In recent years this sign has been a red-white-and-blue motif with a generic helmet-shaped object, but now it’s fully winged once again.

Meanwhile, down in SoPac:

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The recently reopened Exxon station has gone in hard on the Block M. I could kind of understand this at the West Stadium location above, which is actually a short walk from Michigan Stadium, but Packard and Platt is kind of a hike for tailgating! Though the parking rates have to be pretty reasonable.

At this point it’s up to the Packard and Stadium Circle K store to raise the ante. Over the summer they suggested that the rebuilding would begin in September, but now that they can sell beer, I think they’re waiting until football season is over.

SPECIAL COMMENT: alcohol consumption actually dehydrates you. I know this, but I had to go for that alliterative headline.

My business, my business: Mark’s Carts Roll Out

Next month it’s time to say goodbye to Mark’s Carts, the food-truck court located off Washington Street between Ashley and First — not just for the winter, like most years, but forever. The space is going to be converted to overflow seating for Bill’s Beer Garden and display space for Downtown Home and Garden, to which Mark’s Carts are physically connected. (All three businesses are Mark Hodesh projects; he sold DHG to an employee a few years back to concentrate on the carts and the beer garden, while still maintaining its continuity.)

While many of Mark’s mainstays were dedicated to truck life, several of them grew out of the court and into permanent locations, including eat. (now a Packard Road mainstay), San Street (now Miss Kim in Kerrytown), and The Lunch Room, which has expanded to two Lunch Room locations and the Detroit Street Filling Station. Other local restaurants, like Hut-K Cha’ats and Satchel’s BBQ, used Mark’s to reach into downtown from their permanent locations.

Where will the food trucks park now? Sometimes they pop up around town before football games and other specials (they were an advertised feature at a recent Michigan Soccer event). After the old Pinball Pete’s building burned down, there was a plan at one point to locate trucks in the resulting alley between Middle Earth and University Towers. Before all of these things, though, you know what this town had? Food courts.

Ann Arbor’s longest-running food court, of course, is the basement of the Michigan Union, a popular crash pad for all U-M students, and some of the staff, not that I would know, har-har-har.

The Michigan Union. (C) The Regents of the University of Michigan

The Union is home to a bevy of quick-service (the alternative phrasing for “fast food”) restaurants, including a Wendy’s that has a breakfast menu (but does not sell Kids’ Meals) and the World’s Busiest Subway Restaurant. (Every school of a certain size makes this claim, especially Notre Dame. What do you want, a medal?) It has been this way since at least the 80s.

Upstairs there has been a coffee shop of some sort for at least a generation. A few years ago, Amer’s (of the delis on State Street and Church Street) left in a rush and was quickly replaced with Starbucks; its neighbor on the same floor, the U-Club buffet restaurant, was closed with great fanfare and replaced with an Au Bon Pain. This was a win-win because:

  • the U-Club’s dining room was reserved for patrons and only open during the restaurant’s hours; the new design opened up a lot of flexible study space in a high traffic area
  • The nearest Panera is, like, a block away, and that’s a bit of a hike

(Although this is an Ann Arbor-focused blog, I need to pay tribute to Eastern Michigan University’s well-appointed food courts. When I was a student, lo those many years ago, we had all kinds of options, many of them names you would recognize. U-M can’t keep one afloat, but at EMU we had two Taco Bells — one on the north side of campus near residence halls and the other on the south side of campus near Cross Street — and a “Domino’s Pizzazz” experimental store that sold personal-sized pizzas. Thor may be able to summon lightning from the sky with his mighty hammer, but thanks to the A&W restaurant in Hill Hall, I could use my EMU Dining plan to buy a freshly poured gallon-sized jug of A&W Root Beer whenever I wanted. FROST GIANTS? FROSTY MUGS? I ASK YOU, SON OF ODIN, WHO IS THE TRUE HERO NOW?

Today’s Eagles may be thrilled about their new Chik-Fil-A, but what do they do on Sundays? Probably their laundry, at their parents’ house, same as it ever was.)

Anyway, north of the Union and east of Mark’s Carts, Ann Arbor made a tentative step into downtown indoor retail when Tally Hall opened in the 80s, sort of modeled after a successful indoor mall in Farmington Hills by the same name.

“Tally Hall Food Court, July 23, 1986.” (C) The Ann Arbor News.

Tally Hall never achieved full occupancy, and nearly half the food court’s tenants closed within a year. A name change, to Liberty Square, didn’t help. After the original retailers and the food court closed, the ground floor became a pop-art gallery, and eventually U-M offices; the basement, where the above photo was originally taken thirty one years ago, is today shared by Menlo Innovations and TechArb.

On South University, the Galleria opened a couple of years later, with a food court as well. The basement hosted several quick-service food counters, but the only one I remember was Cretan Cafe, which originally the gyro counter at Arborland when Arborland. This attempt at underground dining also never took off, and the space was eventually hollowed out to fill with arcade machines when Pinball Pete’s consolidated its William St., Packard St., and South University locations in the space.

As mentioned above, Arborland had an often-vibrant food court during its years as an enclosed mall. The only names I remember anymore, though, have pleasing alliteration, like Cretan Cafe and Kruse’s Kreamy Kreations. Am I imagining that there was an Arby’s in there? (I’ll update this when someone tells me in my Facebook comments.)

Briarwood Center Court, undated. (C)VCC Global IP, NO COPYRIGHT INTENDED ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO TEH HOLDER

Finally, Briarwood. Briarwood has always had an interesting lineup of restaurants, including a Farrell’s and a Sanders (and I know it had an Arby’s), but it’s never had a food court. When the fountains were removed in the late ’00s, food stands were introduced into center court to create a food-court vibe, but it never really achieved the density you expect from a Detroit-area food court. Most of the tenants — Starbucks, Mrs. Fields, Wetzel’s Pretzels, Pinkberry, Tatsu Sushi — are more like pick-me-ups or snacks than proper meals (though I did enjoy many one-dollar hot dogs from Fruit Monster Smoothies, when that was a thing).

Friend of the Blog Josh Charson recently posited in my comments that the time was right for a Food Hall in Ann Arbor. After reading this Eater article, I am pleased to report that Josh’s never-wrong streak remains unbroken. Please feel free to comment below, or find me elsewhere online to share your thoughts.