Written by guest author, Sandy Levine
When I started in the restaurant industry at the ripe old age of 11, I was already a really competitive kid. I loved sports and hated losing. It seemed natural that in the coming years, as I moved my way up through the ranks in kitchens and dining rooms, that other nearby restaurants with similar concepts were viewed by my bosses as the enemy (or at least the opposition). Whether it was a deli, a pizza place, a burger joint, or a steakhouse, I was always very loyal to where I worked and ready to tell a guest why we were better than somebody else.
In the early 2000s, I moved to Philadelphia, and my eyes were opened to a completely different culture. It seemed not only that restaurant owners (and managers, servers, bartenders, etc) communicated with one another, they often acted as champions of one another’s places. In many cases, they would hold events at their competitors’ venues, or team up with other chefs for charity events. It wasn’t rare if we happened to overbook, that we’d call another restaurant down the street, asking if they could squeeze in a guest we didn’t have room for. The drastic difference in restaurant/bar industry climate in 1990s Detroit vs. 2000s Philly wasn’t lost on me. Being so close to New York, we noticed that the bar scene had a similar communal aspect, with bartenders working one or two nights a week at a few different bars. Everyone sang everyone else’s praises to whoever would listen.
This is the climate that has been building in the Detroit area over the last few years, and it’s
intoxicating. My wife and I signed a lease on a space in downtown Ferndale just over 4 years ago that became “The Oakland,” a craft cocktail bar. At the time, it was a very new concept that not a lot of people understood (or necessarily cared to). We were really nervous about how a bar with such a different concept would be received, but something special happened.
For the first month or two we were open, our guests consisted almost entirely of restaurant/bar industry and retail people, who not only liked what we were doing, but told lots of other people about us. Our business has increased steadily since we’ve opened, and we’ve relied completely on word-of-mouth rather than traditional advertising. The community of Detroit area service industry professionals is growing and strengthening.
I’ve called other owners to borrow ice when our machine was down, to send a free round to our regulars who we knew were there, asked for a bottle of something we ran out of. We’ve also done the same for several other places near us. If a guest mentions that they’re headed to one of our friend’s establishments, we’ve been known to send a “special delivery” (read: shot) to the bartender on duty.
If we have a guest who walks out on their bill or is unruly, or if underage kids try to drink at our bar, we send out a text to our neighbors warning them. I’ve discussed systems and strategies dozens of times with a bar owner that we’re compared to constantly. All of this lends itself to each establishment improving, our city’s food and drink culture growing, and ultimately a better experience for the guest. The proof is in the pudding – GQ named Detroit the “Best Bar City in America” in their Bars Issue last August.
We were at a soft opening for a new restaurant the night before this post was written that knocked our socks off. I counted at least 10 separate tables with owners or managers of food or drink establishments, all of whom were cheering on this new establishment. They all raved about the new place on social media, too.