When Boston natives Melissa and Robert Jasper decided to sell their popular brunch concept, The Friendly Toast, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last year and were offered an opulent 16,000-square-foot space inside the historic Fisher Building rent-free, they were convinced the stars were aligned for success in opening their new concept, restaurant and tiki bar The Zenith. But business has been spotty in their first six months and the seasoned husband and wife restaurateurs appear to be getting schooled on how risky opening a restaurant in Detroit can be. The New Center location has yet to experience the same type of renewal as other parts of town. Here, Melissa Jasper talks about the lessons she's learned so far and her hopes of moving forward in her family's first year in business in Detroit.
Your previous two restaurants in Cambridge were quite successful. Why change all that and move to Detroit?
My husband and I actually wanted to downsize, we wanted to open a little burrito stand. We were sick of having two restaurants with 100 employees, which is why we wanted to move and change everything. I came out here five times over the course of two years before we actually moved. But we wanted to make sure we were getting something relatively sound, because we were giving up something that was very secure with our two restaurants. We felt like we knew Detroit pretty well. I was just into it. I love the history, and the architecture blew us away.
How did you find a space in the historic Fisher Building?
It kind of picked us. We were just walking down Grand Boulevard by chance— we had never heard of the Fisher Building, and we just stumbled onto the for lease sign in the window. [The real estate agent] talked us into this space because, initially, it was free-rent. The space had been vacant for three years and the owner felt like it wasn't doing the building any good to have a big ground floor space empty.
Even though it's Detroit, they think we should be paying a ton of rent.You don't pay rent?
I do pay rent now, because the bank that owns the building's mortgage didn't understand the idea of free rent. They didn't like it at all. Even though it's Detroit, they seemed to think we should be paying a ton of rent. So it's not really free, no, but it's pretty cheap.
New Center is not brought up often when people talk about going out to eat. What is it like having a restaurant like yours in this neighborhood?
I wish that we didn't come in as the forerunners of New Center's redevelopment, because we're not in a position to afford that kind of thing anymore. With CCS and Wayne State so close and so few restaurants, we felt like this place was in need of a restaurant. But these three buildings are not that occupied, and they're also a little tricky to sell to. The best customers we have are coming from the suburbs. I hate to say that. We've been growing slowly busier as people find us from farther afield.
A lot of people would say, 'Why can't you serve a hamburger?'Other restaurateurs say that about the suburbanites who frequent the newer spots in town. Why is it difficult to appeal to longtime Detroiters?
Most of the people around here, they want normal and they want inexpensive. There's a huge resistance to Mexican food. There's a lot of unfamiliarity with the things on our menu. We've changed our menu several times, really, because people didn't know what chorizo was. I remember arugula being a big issue. Mexican cheeses were freaking people out. A lot of people would say, why can't you serve a hamburger, and I would say, New Center is already full of regular stuff.
What are you hoping for over the next six months?
The Fisher Theater crowd will be the make or break things. I did not think that was going to be the case— that we would be looking to the theater crowd for business. But that's our reality. There's this whole area downstairs too, with a huge kitchen with formal walk-in refrigerators and a 150-seat bar. We're going to open up the bar downstairs and do some heavy metal karaoke or whatever anybody else feels like using it for, with a less formal feel. People find this place too elegant to get drunk in because of its gilded ceilings. We need to find those people who want to sit and drink. A lot of people promised us the liquor license was going to change our life. And we've had it for a month and that hasn't been true at all. There could just be a lot more slow growth still ahead for us. We will have to wait and see.