Closings Hit Campus
State Street area feels pain and rebirth
by Tony McReynolds & Sally Mitani
An eviction notice on the door of Earl of Sandwich, on State Street, pretty much explained everything, but former employee Andrew Schaeferle, on site cleaning up, rounded out the picture. He began with the two words on everyone's lips these days: "The economy." Then he gestured up and down campus's main street. "As you can tell, there are a lot less people on the street. Joe's [Sub Shop] is gone, the place around the corner next to White's Market [Rio Wraps] is gone." And they were. Phones for both were disconnected, and the owners couldn't be reached.
Of course it's not just food places that are hurting: on North University, Beanie June, the girly but hip mother-daughter-owned women's clothing boutique, closed recently. It was the third State Street area clothing store to fall this school year-Ana Banana went down last fall, followed by Steve & Barry's.
But even with "the economy," some hardy souls are still betting on the campus district. Two closed businesses are being revived under new ownership: local maize-and-blue specialist the M-Den is taking Steve & Barry's two-story space on State, and the Jamaican Jerk Pit reopened in April next door to Panera.
While the Jerk Pit looks the same-it's mainly a subterranean spot, with a haphazard, orange-and-green paint job and a reggae soundtrack-the menu has jumped a couple of rungs upmarket. New owner Robert Campbell grew up in Jamaica and owns the Irie Caribbean Kitchen in Canton. Pit employees Glendon Dixon and Della Styles say the new menu is a slightly streamlined version of Irie's offerings. Full plates of goat curry or escovitch tilapia with sides of rice, peas, and vegetables aren't exceedingly expensive at $10 to $12, but the fare is more elaborate than the snacky street-food menu of the old Pit. Wraps and fritters are on it too, in the $6-$7 range.
Campbell, thirty-six, is a busy guy. In addition to owning the Irie, he works full-time at EMU as a food service
manager and has worked the last four Olympics putting on special events for U.S. medal winners. What possessed him to take on the Jamaican Jerk Pit too? "Because I'm crazy," he sighs. "No, uh, wait, because I have a passion for this kind of cooking and I wanted to bring it to more people. . . ." He seemed to be struggling to find some sort of press-release answer that wasn't in his nature.
Campbell says he's planning on trying for a liquor license for the Jerk Pit, but until then the nonalcoholic drinks are plenty enticing: Della points out the soursop nectar, coconut wa-ter, guava carrot juice, ginger beer, and more ambiguously flavored concoctions named Vitamalt, Cola Champagne, and Reggae Medley. All under $3, they're cheaper and rarer than a pina colada.
Next door, at the corner of Thayer and North University, Panera Bread opened its fifth Ann Arbor location in mid-March. It's there because Sam Roumanis got tired of cooking.
Roumanis, sixty-five and a longtime Ann Arbor restaurateur, has deep roots in the city's homegrown restaurant scene. He used to own Cottage Inn, he still has a hand in res-taurants as diverse as Gratzi, the Chop House, and Carlyle Grill, and he's more than paid his dues in the kitchen.
So when he and his brother Tom bought the former Comerica Bank building at 777 North University in 2006, they briefly considered opening another restaurant of their own. Briefly. "We worked restaurants our whole lives," Tom says. "Enough is enough." So instead, he went looking for a tenant. After considering many different chains, he picked Pan-era because he thought it was onto something with its menu of soups, salads, deli sandwiches on house-baked bread, and host of baked goods from Danishes to bear claws and stru-del-plus lots of different coffees and free wi-fi.
Jamaican Jerk Pit, 314 S. Thayer. 585-5278. Mon.-Thurs. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. noon-10 p.m. Closed Sun.
Panera Bread, 777 North University. 332-3402. Mon.- Sat. 7 a.m.- 9 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. www.panerabread.com.
[Originally published in May, 2009.]