A few years ago, Abbey Markell and Jason Frenkel were living in Miami Beach. Around the corner from their flat, there was a deli that was always busy. "It was really, really fresh, really simple, but super tasty, really high quality-and always really fast," Markell notes. It was the type of place, she says, where someone could go in and eat well on short notice. "We'd eat there every day and say, ‘You know this is what Detroit needs.'"
Feeding one's self is often a pleasure. But in an era where time is a commodity, it can also become a chore. Part of the remedy might be Markell and Frenkel's new restaurant Rubbed, the understated Michigan Avenue sandwich and charcuterie shop.
Rubbed opened just over a month ago, but already Markell and Frenkel are looking to improve their repertoire, updating the menu and expanding hours, while focusing on quick service. "One thing we've gotten a lot of good feedback on is our wait time," Markell says. "You can come in here, order a sandwich, sit down, and eat it, and be gone in 15 minutes."
Now open seven days a week, Rubbed's new offerings incorporate vegetarian and vegan options, new signature sandwiches, baked goods, retail products, and charcuterie in what Markell refers to as "Lunchables."
These, she says, are a riff on a traditional English Ploughman's platter that incorporates breads, meats, cheeses, and fruit. The made-to-order lunches are assembled in an eight-inch pizza box and include charcuterie, cheeses, veggies, bread, and crackers.
The owners note that during their soft opening period, they're trying to be responsive to the needs and wants of their clientele. Although cured meats are the restaurant's signature offering "we want it to be for the community and we know that there are tons of people in the community who are vegan and vegetarian or have other dietary restrictions or needs," she says. To meet that demand, Frenkel and Markell have added hummus, baba ghanoush, smoked mushrooms, and gravlax (in-house cured salmon) to the full menu.
The restaurant is not set up to cure meats; however, as much as they can, the owners source ingredients locally. Their bread in particular has received positive reviews. Markell says that they source their loaves from a bakery Dearborn, but for proprietary reasons she won't disclose its name. "What we don't get locally or make ourselves, we're sourcing from a European import market," Markell says.
As partners, Markell and Frenkel have a combined 25 years of food industry experience between them, she in the front of the house and he in the back. Frenkel, also the founder of Alley Taco, is the mastermind behind Rubbed's menu. The two entrepreneurs met nearly 10 years ago while working at Board Room (now Wa-Hoo), and have been planning a restaurant together for at least the past 4 years. They initially looked at taking on a lease in Eastern Market, but decided against it. Then, Frenkel moved to San Francisco for work.
After a few years, he returned to Detroit, and they began actively pursuing the business again. This time, the pair was met with more roadblocks in the form of a booming market for retail spaces, Markell says. Leases would get snatched up as quickly as they found them.
When they finally discovered the Michigan Avenue location— a former hair salon that shares a wall with an automotive repair shop— they leapt at it. "We looked at this place and called the realtor later that day and said, ‘We want to sign the lease today,' because we knew it was going to be gone. And he called back and said, "Well, we have two other parties that want the place. So let me talk to the landlord,'" Markell says. "The decision was made that we would all submit proposals to the landlord on what we wanted do with the space and they would choose between them." The landlord eventually approved their proposal for the deli last summer, but it wasn't until the following winter that the pair actually got started on the renovations.
"From August last year until about January or February we did about $40 or $50,000 in catering revenue in that period," Markell recalls. "Then in like January or February we were like, ‘Ok, look. We've really got to get back to this.'"
The pair pieced together plans for the space on a shoestring budget, while navigating the complexities of the City of Detroit permitting processes. "We were our own architect, we were our own contractor. We hired out all the subcontractors and managed them for every job," Markell says. She even designed the countertop bar that houses Rubbed's scarlet-hued meat slicer, a cast-off from the MGM Grand Casino purchased at auction. Each small project, from the hand-scrawled butcher paper menu hanging from the wall to the carefully designed Open sign adds to the restaurant's clean, cozy feel. "It was a hands-on project the whole time," she notes.
Markell is looking forward to the coming months as well, as they secure a liquor license, reintroduce their small plates dinner service, and begin to diversify the restaurant's retail offerings. Among the items they plan on rolling out: chip mix and homemade pop-tarts.
"I'm glad to see how people are responding to the projects we've been wanting to do for a long time that are now coming to fruition," she says.