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.
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.
Join me, won’t you, for a quick drive up a couple blocks of State Street?
If you live in Michigan, you have no doubt stored beverages on your patio or deck, in your garage, or otherwise taken advantage of the winter climate to rapidly chill them. And you know what it’s like – if it’s warm enough or you don’t forget about them for too long, it’s nice and cold. If it’s too cold for too long, they freeze up and burst. But once in a while you manage to dance the line between liquid and frozen, and when you open the super-cooled drink it instantly chills into a slush right in the bottle. There are YouTube videos about this but leave it to the innovative beverage scientists at Coke to reproduce this effect on demand: behold, the Arctic Coke Machine.
This skirting of the laws of physics is now available as a value-add for Coke, Sprite, and Powerade at the State and Ellsworth Speedway store. It is right next to 12 taps of ICEE beverages, including Coke, but I guess sometimes it’s worth extra to drink it out of a plastic bottle? Oooookay. At least you get the science-experiment part.
Across Ellsworth from Speedway, at the northeast corner of the roundabout, a lot was accidentally left vacant when Tim Horton’s and Belle Tire crammed into the area behind the oil change place. Fortunately, this oversight is quickly being corrected. A sign at the Jimmy John’s driveway says “Join Jimmy John’s and Pearle Vision,” so count on Pearle showing up in this building when it’s finished, and possibly leaving Briarwood? Pearle is currently next to Apple; does Apple take the empty Pearle shell over and finally get that Somerset-size store? …nah.
This small, lit “Burger King” sign recently showed up by the side of State Street. While the Hyatt Place sign behind it is right next to the new Hyatt’s driveway, this Burger King sign is not really next to anything. (I was near the gas pumps of the overpriced Mobil station here when I snapped this photo.) I believe it was placed here to advertise the presence of a Burger King on Victors Way, behind the Mobil station, but if you tried to turn at this sign, you would be a little lost, because the BK parking lot is not connected to the other parking lots. Not that this would stop Mark Borchardt (warning, language):
Burger King’s investment in a permanent sign, no matter how low-profile, leads me to think its distinctive Victors Way location is here to stay. That building in front of the Hyatt is currently being finished and now displays a “Retail For Lease” sign. No drive-thru. Still not sure what it’s going to be.
I haven’t spent much time in Briarwood lately, although I did photograph a small change to a big part of the mall last time I was there, and friend-of-the-blog Chris was good enough to remind me to mention it. When I first noticed it last month, I thought it was an oversight, or an odd joke — the winking neon “OPEN” sign, in the window of the hollowed-out shell of MC Sports.
However, it turns out the space has been filled with a bouncery and minigolf establishment, Colby Bounce.
Which returns this space’s purpose to, once again, an ephemeral enterainment destination. Can movie screens be far off? Is “bouncery” a real word?
READERS WRITE: Jeremy recently asked what I know about the history of the current Pretzel Bell, on Liberty and Main. You may have realized by now that I pretty much only do research for this thing to find old photos, so hopefully you won’t be too disappointed if I just recall this for a moment.
Prior to the current, less-divey Pretzel Bell, this space was Lena and Habana, a Cuban restaurant upstairs and a bar downstairs. Cafe Habana was originally on Washington Street below the Blue Tractor and proved so popular it was spun out into its own space. I never dined at Lena, but Habana had good chips and salsa and a couple of their own-label beers that were drinkable and I suppose I’m sorry to see them gone.
Before it was Lena and Habana, it was the Parthenon, a Greek restaurant. I took a little ribbing last week for saying UO was open for “zillions” of years on State Street, so I’m going to be more conservative this time and note that Parthenon was open for at least five but not more than one hundred years.
Before that it was a Cunningham Drugs, a Detroit-based chain which, long after this location became the Parthenon, would eventually become part of another Detroit chain, Arbor Drugs. Arbor Drugs would eventually be acquired by CVS Health.
I’m Of A Certain Age and, though I’m largely used to it now, I still can’t quite describe the je-ne-sais-quoi of CVS as a legit drugstore. CVS was originally introduced to the Detroit area as a drugstore substitute in all the local malls. They had the general-merchandise, health-and-beauty, and snack stuff you find in a CVS of today, though they did not have a pharmacy. They are open later than the mall now, and actually fill prescriptions! You kids don’t even know how “okay, I guess” you have it!
Here’s the first Amazon Locker I have observed in Ann Arbor. It’s outside the Speedway fuel station/convenience store at North Maple Road and Miller Avenue, near Skyline High.
You can specify this Locker, one of many throughout the world, as your ship-to location instead of your home or office; when your order is delivered you receive a code via text that lets you open a door and retrieve the shipment at your convenience.
If this sounds familiar to you as an Ann Arbor resident, it’s because you are a patron of the Pittsfield or Malletts Creek branches of AADL, who have offered this service for hold requests for years.
This is Speedway’s latest foray into self-service colocation at one of their always-open stores;; in the twilight of Blockbuster Video a few years back, they placed a Blockbuster Express — essentially a Redbox, but blue — just inside their State and Ellsworth location, near the front door and the ATM. Unlike that kiosk, this Amazon Locker is located outside the building. Its touch screen was not yet operational today, but the protective plastic bubble over its security camera has already been shattered.
UPDATE: Russ Collins, Executive Director and CEO of the Michigan Theater Foundation, believes reports of UO’s departure are exaggerated. His post below:
MTF owns the State Theater upstairs, so Russ has particular insight. He can’t be talking about me, of course — nothing about this site should be construed as journalism — but I stand by the historical portions of my post. Please continue to treat the world-burrito-shops part as speculation. Thank you for reading, A2R.S
I consider this a seismic shift for State Street retail. UO’s space was originally the main floor of the State Theater, a single-giant-screen movie palace built in the early forties, then converted to four screens in the late seventies. (If inside the store, I believe, the giant “URBAN” logo on the back wall is where the big screen used to be.)
Although the ground floor was completely renovated for Urban Outfitters’ opening in the early 90s, the two upstairs theaters were left as-was, and were reopened by Aloha Entertainment as a second-run bargain theater in the 90s.
A few years later they pivoted to more Michigan-Theateresque indie and arthouse fare. I caught “Clerks,” “Kids,” and “The Blair Witch Project” here during their original releases. Those are the first three that come to mind. Finally, they joined the Michigan Theater Foundation and became part of their programming schedule, with additional classic midnight-movie selections.
The State is presently closed for renovation to make it ability-friendly and to restore its original 40s look. I kind of hope they fix it so you don’t have to look slightly to the left at the screen all the time.
Urban Outfitters’ space might be the first in a while big enough to open one of those too-small mini Target stores with no selection, but I can’t imagine how they will manage the deliveries. Apple could make it work, but Briarwood will never let them leave. I predict that it will be divided into at least two storefronts, and each space will be a different regional-cuisine take on the burrito or wrap sandwich. State Street doesn’t have enough sandwich places.
There’s always the possibility these days that U-M or a dot-com will take it for office space too. But I’m still betting on the sandwich places.
It is well worth your time to click through to Mark Maynard’s post, he and his commenters ask some great questions about what’s going to happen to local retail. In general, I predict a continuing shift to services and experiences, the kind of things you can’t get in a box that comes tomorrow from Amazon — though I still think a little Target store will come here eventually, for students who enjoy the shopping experience as well as the unprepared who can’t wait for Prime.
Big changes in a small world, Liberty between downtown and Scio Township: a sudden closing and an omen of things to come.
A reader reports that Pizza Pino is now closed on Liberty at First Street. Despite the name, Pizza Pino was one of those shops that had pretty much everything on the menu, including sandwiches and seafood. They were open until ridiculously late, which made them an ideal after-party destination for nearby bars and clubs.
Their single-slice sales were usually cold pizza under glass, which they would put back in the oven and warm up — not my favorite way to eat pizza, though for some reason I’m usually okay with it when NYPD does it. Still, I will miss this place’s garlic knots at 2am after a good show at the Blind Pig (just like, someday soon, I’m sure I will miss the Blind Pig).
“But their site is still up, B-Dub,” you’re saying. This seems to be a common malady among independently owned takeout shops. Bell’s Pizza has been gone for a year, and yet if you google, there are still sites that will gladly take your money to order from them. The end, no moral.
Pino’s location was apparently a house once upon a time, later a gas station. Eventually it became a paint store, which outlasted its beloved but bygone neighbor Schlenker Hardware on the block, but finally moved to South Industrial. This opened the space for Pizza Pino about ten years back, a harbinger of Downtown’s shift from service businesses to dining and retail.
Depending on how you look at it, Buscemi’s are either party stores with exceptionally good pizza, or very well-stocked pizza and sub shops. There’s been a convenience store here for years. When we were younger, it was called Liberty Market, but was eventually rebranded Buster’s after the owners closed the original Buster’s Market closed at Packard and Platt. (The site is now a Rite Aid.)
I would provide further details, but I have a problem. Every time I turn into this shopping center, I have to go to Chela’s. Sorry.
On the west side, this week’s big announcement: City Council approved LA Fitness joining the discount department stores, and Plum Market, at Maple Village. Their 35,000ish square foot facility will be a new build, on the site of the current English Gardens.
Longtime Detroit area residents know English Gardens is a higher-end garden shop, and Frank’s Nursery was a multi-state discount garden and craft supply chain. Frank’s folded in the late 2000s, and English Gardens assumed its space in Maple Village not too long after. With a covered but open-air area, another garden shop was a logical choice.
English Gardens, according to the Ann Arbor News, is doing great business at Maple Village, but MV’s new owner Brixmor is aggressively making it over. It’s been reported that Radio Shack’s Maple Village store was forced to close – perhaps just hastening an inevitable demise. Sofia’s Tailoring recently told the AA Observer interesting stories of dealing with the management there, as well.
English Gardens hopes to relocate in the Ann Arbor area. They have other locations throughout the Detroit area (West Bloomfield above) and I am confident they will continue their seasonal sales at Briarwood.
The impending destruction of the former Frank’s store at Maple Village signals the end of its retail footprint in Ann Arbor, after Dollar Tree moved into Frank’s old Washtenaw location across from Arborland. Below, see the store before the shopping center was reenvisioned, and its open-air section was flattened to make room on the end for DXL Big & Tall and Olga’s Kitchen.
I’m not exactly sure where the next-closest Frank’s was, or what it is now, but I recently drove past the Frank’s on Haggerty Road in West Bloomfield, and it is still occupied only by temporary stores like fireworks merchants and halloween outfitters. Three moves later, we still use many of the tools we picked up for cheap near the end of that location’s liquidation sale. The below Street View is worth clicking through if you like annoyed geese, as well as a Street View Car selfie courtesy of the store windows.
This is what our good friends in the United Association for Plumbers, Pipefitters, HVAC, etc. are seeing when they descend on State Street this month after their annual training events.
Game vendor Get Your Game On has expanded into phone repair, a niche that is likely underserved by downtown’s existing wireless carrier stores on Liberty, Main, and Fourth-Washington. (Carrier stores mostly want to get you to extend your contract and are less likely to repair existing equipment when they could offer you a new phone with a re-up.) The last phone repair store downtown was on Liberty between Maynard and Division and closed, I think, last year. You may remember its creepy rocking-mannequin porch decoration.
Joining it next door is Roasting Plant coffee, ready to try to crack the State Street block. They have an uphill battle being located between Espresso Royale, Starbucks, and the newly relaunched Michigan Creamery (formerly Stucchi’s), which incorporated Bearclaw Coffee into its new menu.
Sandwiched between them is FICO, also known as Fair Isaac. Fair Isaac is not actually Poor Richard’s fairer brother, but is in fact one of the US’ big three credit reporting agencies. I cannot vouch for the quality of their coffee, and never will.
Restoration and updates continue on the State Theater. The marquee looks shiny and new and some kind of construction is also happening:
Meanwhile, further south near 94, construction continues unabated on Whatever’s Going In Front of The New Hyatt.
I originally thought this was gonna be a restaurant, but the drive-thru lane appears to host a big concrete block with a door behind it instead of a signboard and a window, so I have this pegged as some kind of banking institution now. Most area banks have a location within a block or two of Briarwood already. A number of them are within Briarwood Circle, in fact. But I suppose one could choose a more visible location, or more convenient to the highway, for quicker getaway after a robbery. Banks are about convenience more than ever these days.