“FCB House of Flavors” is the name of the new business that opened in the formerly vacant spot across from Cafe Ambrosia on Maynard Street. And the business model is perhaps more absurd than the name: the store sells apparently only drinks, dispensed from probably two dozen machines situated along the walls, including a variety of frozen smoothies, and hot drinks – flavored coffees and cappuccino, and others. There is exactly one employee at any one time, the person at the cash register.
If one can get beyond the simple possibility that anyone thought opening a frozen drink store in Ann Arbor in October was a good idea, I predict the operation will fail; most likely close in less than six months. Why? First, this is Ann Arbor: people aren’t buying drinks for the flavor, they want to pay for an experience: the sound of the cappichino machine, a place to sit and read in a place to go to that’s not their house or on campus. Second, in our neo-corporate world what sells is authenticity, not sheer flavor and variety. Whether foods or consumer products, for the modern consumer novelty alone isn’t enough: it must be attached to something intangible. This is why Starbuck’s has a conscious corporate policy to open stores in historic buildings in urban environments, to somehow counteract the karmic effect of all those mall-and-airport shops, and why Potbelly’s desires “Buildings with character and/or unique features” to open new franchises: they know they are selling not just coffee and too-small sandwiches, but also an experience.
What would work? In this city obsessed, like much of America, with the authentic and unusual, America’s most chic products can coexist alongside nonmanufactured authenticities. Along State Street alone, one can purchase Mavi jeans at Bivouac or the latest in stylish eyewear at See, but also buy imported handmade clothes or Fair Trade Coffee. And so, it’s sad to say, but a corporate entity that seeks to aggressively highlight the historic architecture of Nickels Arcade in order to burnish their carefully honed image would most likely succeed, whether a coffee shop or restaurant.
I, of course, would prefer to see a small business there, for social, economic, political, and personal reasons. It might be a sad observation, but I think the market probably could support yet another coffee shop. A business I think might thrive at that location is is something called an “old-world bakery” – IE, a place that, gasp, bakes food! I think that such a place could complement Nickel’s Arcade’s other businesses, which include a luxury men’s clothing shop, imported gift and antique stores, and a shop selling popcorn and candy. I think the clientele frequenting these stores would be more than willing to pay a premium for a fresh, well-made brownie, muffin, or cookie, and a nice place to sit. Also, within a few city blocks is a variety of offices, all which I’m sure would invest in locally produced carbohydrates for special mornings, meetings, and visitors.
I discovered such a shop in Detroit along Cass Avenue near Wayne State University Summer 2002, when, as intern at the ACLU of Michigan, I was sent to buy muffins. After walking three typically deserted Detroit city blocks one morning a little after 7:00AM, entering Avalon Breads I was forced to wait in line with what appeared to be an eclectic combination of suits, students, hipsters, and local residents to buy homemade, organic baked goods. Here’s more about that company:
“Motivated by the grassroots development manifesto promoted by Grace Boggs and others, business partners Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor opened Avalon International Breads in the Corridor in 1996.
“What I really liked about what Jimmy and Grace talked about is that it was a very practical approach to revolutionary concepts,” says Jackie Victor. “They had a big picture vision for the city and planet, but very tangible methods for reaching it. You can actually see the results of your labor after four years, not four decades.”
Serving fresh-baked organic breads, pastries and focaccia pizzas, as well as coffees, Avalon serves area residents, suburbanites, and city restaurants that feature the bakery’s breads on their menus.
Perrault and Victor believe that community-based businesses must economically and spiritually uplift their neighborhoods. The bakery keeps money circulating within the Cass Corridor community by hiring at least 50 percent of its racially diverse staff from the neighborhood. It recycles, and, though it is a small business, offers full-time employees health insurance and average wages of $9.00 an hour.
Perrault and Victor’s success flies in the face of nay-sayers who predicted that the business would fail because of the duo’s insistence on locating it in a rough-and-tumble area of the city and placing a large plate-glass window on the storefront.
“People felt like we were crazy,” says Victor. “Even the landlord said the neighborhood wasn’t ready for windows.” (From “Detroit Renaissance”)