Plymouth Road Plaza Opens
Four new shops feed body inside and out
by Sally Mitani
Plymouth Road Plaza, a small, two-story mini-mall, recently opened in what used to be the front parking lot of the Plymouth Road Mall. Embedded in its architecture are some small clues about contemporary fashions in urban planning,
For the less theoretical-minded, here's how you can spend your money there. Two of the four shops--Great Clips and LaVida Massage--service the outside of the body, and two--The Big Salad and Starbucks--feed the inside.
The Starbucks has a drive-thru, and after about 2 p.m. if you order a dark coffee, it's likely to be made fresh, through a single-serving cone filter, rather than pumped from an air pot, because "we just don't get that much call for dark roast in the afternoon," says the considerate counterperson.
The Big Salad is a new chain. Franchisee Kevin Vlazny is new to the game too. Only twenty-six years old, from Dexter, the EMU hotel and restaurant management grad says he wanted a franchise rather than his own restaurant because "I'm young, and I wanted to learn from someone else." He was attracted to the Big Salad because "healthy food is a natural match for Ann Arbor," and "because I didn't want to be store number 200" in a more established chain.
In fact, he's store number five, and only the third franchisee in the chain John and Beth Bornoty started in Grosse Pointe Woods in 2008. If the Bornotys' ambitious plans come to fruition, though, there will be a Store 200--in the year 2020.
Obviously, salad is the thing here. So is the customer-directed assembly line popularized by Subway. Customers choose their lettuce base and call out additions, which plastic-gloved workers pull from stainless-steel wells. Or they can choose from preselected combinations, like--grabbing one at random--the Alaskan King: "crab, broccoli, peas, and chow mein noodles ... gently chopped in a bed of spinach and topped with our wasabi dressing." The menu also offers soups and sandwiches (Vlazny's personal favorite is cranberry turkey, because "it tastes like Thanksgiving").
Other than the convection oven used to bake bread, The Big Salad does no cooking; all the food (except the soup) is cold.
Vlazny says its niche is "healthy food," a less stringent category than "health food." If you want, you can load your lettuce with salami, cheese, and even crushed Doritos, as well as antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken.
The Big Salad, 2793 Plymouth Rd. (Plymouth Road Plaza), 222-8300. Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. thebigsalad.net
Starbucks, 2793 Plymouth Rd. (Plymouth Road Plaza). 332-6118 Mon.-Fri. 5:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 6 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. starbucks.com
"It seemed like a no-brainer to do a project that was infill, as opposed to greenfield," explains Jack Edelstein, one of three owners of Plymouth Road Plaza.
Infill projects, which take advantage of existing infrastructure like roads and sewers, are the style du jour in urban planning, and Edelstein should know--he has a PhD in urban planning from the U-M. The Plaza's other two owners are builder Louis Johnson and Plymouth Mall owner Vern Hutton, who supplied the site.
Edelstein points out a few other features, suggested by city planners, that helped the design move swiftly through the approval process. It's a two-story structure, which gives more infill bang for the buck (the second floor, as yet unrented, is office space). It sits close to the sidewalk, which Edelstein says reflects "the philosophy of making the city more walkable. All four of the ground-floor businesses can be entered either from the parking lot or from the sidewalk side."
Trim, silver-haired, drinking herbal tea and scrolling through his iPhone, Edelstein suggested meeting in the new Starbucks. This is his home turf. He lives and owns rental property in the neighborhood and conceived the idea for the plaza "eight to ten years ago, when the [branch] library and Bello Vino were here. I came to Plymouth Road Mall nearly every day for some reason or other, and I noticed that the parking lot was always empty." Edelstein, who has no ownership in Plymouth Road Mall, says the plaza would have been built in 2007, but he and his partners put it on hold when Pfizer exited and the economy sagged. Last fall the project was dusted off and completed quickly.
Edelstein says that though Hutton, obviously, did eventually agree to his proposal to infill his parking lot, it wasn't quite a no-brainer for him: "Vern was concerned about competition." The old and slightly decrepit Plymouth Road Mall is a haven of mom-and-pop one-of-a-kinds, newly energized in the last few years by the Songbird Cafe and Curry Up. Not only do Starbucks and the Big Salad offer competition, but the two-story structure very effectively blocks most of the mall from view. But Edelstein says: "I did the research. I found evidence that when Starbucks moves in near a mom-and-pop, it boosts business for the mom-and-pop."
And in fact, in the middle of a weekday afternoon shortly after Starbucks' opening, the Songbird was entirely full. Owner Jenny Song said she had no complaints: "We do better and better every month. I don't think any of the food places [in the mall] are worried."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]