The Godfather of Main Street
How Dennis Serras reinvented downtown
by Sally Mitani
From the October, 2011 issue
Restaurateur Dennis Serras has springy, iron-gray hair, deep-set eyes, and a bristling moustache that makes him look a little formidable when he's not smiling. He often is smiling, though, and his toothy grin removes some of the gravitas from his countenance.
Serras, sixty-four, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this past May. After radiation and surgery, he was still somewhat slowed in August, which intensified the godfather effect: conducting business from his favorite booth of the Real Seafood Company, he lets people come to him.
Periodically well-wishers rush over and grab his hand or mention a father or mother having worked there. One day, in a scene that seemed right out of The Godfather, he concluded his interview with me while Washtenaw circuit court judge Don Shelton stood by waiting to join him for lunch. A few minutes earlier a longtime waitress had grabbed his hand, held it to her lips, and genuflected.
Real Seafood Company is now run by Mainstreet Ventures, in which Serras is a partner, and which operates sixteen restaurants in five states. Four of those are at the south end of the 300 block of Main Street: Real Seafood, Palio, Gratzi, and the Chop House (along with its dessert annex, La Dolce Vita).
The Chop House is a posh and pricey steakhouse--what Serras, who grew up in the trade, calls a "meat house." The others are all large, happy-sounding, full-service restaurants, whose customers on any day range from groups celebrating special occasions to pairs of jeans-clad drop-ins. MSV restaurants are not cheap, but they compensate by offering generous portions and friendly, down-to-earth service. All four restaurants are quite different in menu and tone. Mainstreet Ventures is not a manufacturer of cookie-cutter chain restaurants but a crafter of higher-end "concept restaurants."
The restaurants materialized at regular intervals from 1975 to 1998 like beads on a string, and many people believe they pulled Main Street back from the brink of extinction. More than any other factor, they turned Main Street
into a sophisticated nighttime entertainment district--where the main entertainment is dinner.
Dying downtowns were such a widely recognized problem that in 1975 Michigan passed the Downtown Development Authority Act, giving cities a legal framework by which they could fix themselves. But when Serras opened Real Seafood that same year, he didn't know about any of that; he chose his location, he says, because he's "always been a downtown person."
Susan Pollay, director of the Ann Arbor DDA since 1996, says the DDA didn't see restaurants coming either. When it was established in 1982, the economic focus was still on shopping; the hope was that if downtown had better parking and more attractive sidewalks, people would stop spending so much time and money at Briarwood. (Pollay, who came to Ann Arbor in 1983 as a grad student from San Francisco, immediately noticed that downtown Ann Arbor lacked a restaurant and cafe culture, but she wasn't in the position to do much about it then.)
Developer Ed Shaffran also recognized the charm of downtown's brick storefronts--he bought his first one in 1982. But Shaffran (now a good friend of Serras, though he didn't know him then) says it's important to remember that, though a lot of people jumped on board later, "it was Dennis who bought into downtown when no one else would."
After opening Real Seafood, Serras opened Maude's on Fourth Avenue in 1977. He and Mike Gibbons opened Mantel's at the Briarwood Hilton in 1979, and he, Gibbons, and Dieter Boehm--Serras's old boss at the Muer Corporation--added D. Dennison's in Farmington Hills in 1981, organizing Mainstreet Ventures the same year. (They later added a fourth partner, Simon Pesusich; Boehm is now retired, and Gibbons is MSV's president.)
Serras had drifted by happenstance to Ann Arbor in the late 1960s from Schenectady, New York. Son of Greek immigrants who owned a couple of diners, he knew the trade, but he had no idea of starting a restaurant empire. He claims not to have had much ambition. Though he enrolled half-heartedly at one time or another at EMU to avoid the draft, he says: "I never thought that I wouldn't be in the restaurant business." A hard partier, he easily fell in with the local Greek community, working night shifts in their bars and pizza joints. "I was a short-order cook at the Lamplighter. I made pizzas at Cottage Inn. I was night manager at the Brown Jug, tended bar at Golden Falcon [which later became Maude's], managed the Pin Room [now CUBS' A.C.]." But it was when he moved off the Greek circuit and in 1973 finagled a job managing the Gandy Dancer, a Chuck Muer restaurant, that the lights went on.
The 1970s were the great era of concept restaurants, which aimed not to provide just a meal but an experience. They came in both highbrow and lowbrow flavors, and Serras loved them all: "Houlihan's, Rusty Scupper, Tequila Willy's, Boar's Head, Starboard Tack. There were dozens of them. It was exciting. I remember [TGI] Friday's had cartoons in the margins of this handwritten menu, and it was printed on spiral notepads. Victoria's Station--their thing was to gang together old railroad cars, and they served prime rib. They were a meat house." Though from a restaurant family himself, he didn't know eating could be so much fun. "When I was a kid, you'd go out to eat with your parents. There was a menu, but you knew if you ordered anything but chopped sirloin, they'd slap you."
Compared to that, the Gandy Dancer in the mid-1970s was delightfully, subversively casual. Conspicuously absent were starched white tablecloths. The best seller, says Serras, was the Bucket, a tin pail of shellfish and corn on the cob that diners ate with their hands. Serras remembers that when a train came through, "the help had to drop what they were doing and sing a chorus of 'I've Been Workin' on the Railroad.'"
After watching Muer's restaurants for a few years, Serras wanted his own: a high-quality fish-focused menu in a casual setting. The name and theme echoed Boston's Legal Seafood chain, but locally the competition was the Gandy Dancer. So Serras made a few strategic changes to widen the customer base. "At the Gandy, they had a salad bar, and you'd get your own loaf of bread. I was serving coleslaw and Greek bread from Greektown, so I could charge $3 or $4 less per person." The downtown renaissance was launched, on coleslaw and Greek bread.
Most people today probably don't recognize such classic fixtures of the Ann Arbor restaurant scene as Real Seafood and Gandy Dancer as concept restaurants--a creaky phrase that calls to mind heavy-handed theme parks like Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood--but that in itself speaks volumes. The remarkable idea that instantly resonated with Serras in the 1970s was that a restaurant could take you to another time or place and create a microculture.
In Mainstreet Ventures' early years--and, to a lesser extent, to this day--some self-styled restaurant connoisseurs snubbed its creations as inauthentic. But it's now rare to find a serious downtown restaurant that doesn't employ a concept. Consider the following recent, high-profile entrants: Mani Osteria (upscale wood-fired pizza with an open kitchen), Ravens Club (Art Deco, fancy cocktails), and Frita Batidos (Cuban-American street food).
If Serras and his partners have a direct successor, though, it would be Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell, whose large, casual, thematic Grizzly Peak, Cafe Habana, and Blue Tractor are similarly clustered along Washington. A major difference is that Carlson and Lobdell came in with an explicit intent to rehab downtown buildings (see "A Taxing Question," p. 23). Serras in the 1970s had no mission, just a sense of fun.
For his part, Jon Carlson gladly credits Serras's pioneering efforts. "None of us would be down in the Main Street area without Mainstreet Ventures," he says. "They have been fantastic. The simplest way to put it is that we would not be down here, doing what we do, without them."
Not everything MSV tried succeeded. Mantel's didn't last long. Maude's, backing up to the Main Street bulwark on Fourth, drew a loyal but insufficient clientele; even a strolling mariachi band couldn't save its successor, Arriba! But MSV's only failure on Main Street itself was the Quality Bar in the 1980s.
It came about, Serras says, because "my kids were always saying 'Daddy, let's go to Old McDonald's.' I was sick of it." He envisioned the Quality, named after the Quality Bakery that had long stood on its spot, as a place where kids could get a burger and parents could get a beer, but the partners soon found they'd crossed into the saloon business and didn't like it. Gibbons remembers the night someone jumped off the roof (for fun, and miraculously wasn't badly hurt). Ellie Serras, Dennis's wife, recalls the night "we walked in after a movie and saw a guy throwing up on a booth."
"That weekend I wrote a business plan for Palio," says Dennis. The Tuscan-themed restaurant opened a year or two later. It's been there ever since--right across the street from MSV's slightly older and more expensive Italian place, Gratzi.
Serras says he spelled the Italian word for "thank you" phonetically by mistake. "I just thought that's the way it was spelled, but it turned out to be brilliant. It allowed us to trademark it." Gratzi opened in 1987, when most people still associated Italian food with inexpensive pizza and spaghetti. Its more sophisticated take--"urban, upscale, northern Italian"--was an immediate hit.
As MSV's bulwark took shape, some people were worried that Serras had revived downtown only to dominate it. In September 1998, shortly before the Chop House opened, a story in Laura McReynolds' Marketplace Changes column was headlined: "Some People Are Asking If the Restaurant Boom Has Gone Too Far."
Ed Shaffran says what was more notable was Serras's restraint: "I know of other concepts they thought about downtown. I won't tell you where they were, but they would have been successful, and he held off because he thought this was the appropriate number."
Serras himself says that "opening four restaurants across the street from each other was stupid-smart." He had intuitively felt his way into it, realizing only afterward that "people were just coming down to this corner--they didn't necessarily have a specific restaurant in mind."
He had stumbled on the principle of critical mass. Ellie, whom he met in 1977 and married a few years later, concurs that his genius is intuitive rather than administrative: "He was so far ahead of the curve. What he knew about downtown was that if you give people a reason to come and give them a memorable experience, they will come back." Also, she adds a strange, shrewd business secret: "He knew he didn't want to spend twenty-three hours a day in a restaurant. He didn't want a restaurant to run him. His idea was that if he opened multiple places, he could become unaccountable for his time. He likes a lot of freedom, and he's a great delegator."
The Serrases are a little sensitive to the suggestion that Main Street was easy pickings, with no giveback--a suggestion no one makes to their faces but that Ellie feels is sometimes in the air.
In the early 1990s Ellie became head of the Main Street Area Assocation, delegated by Dennis, who saw in Ellie (then a "PTO commando") qualities of a superb administrator. She took it seriously, lifting the job from occasional volunteer coordinator into a real marketing position, which she held until 2008. "We knew that even if some of these events or promotions didn't ring our own cash register, what was good for the retailers was ultimately good for the restaurants, and vice versa," she says.
MSV has also developed its own partnerships with countless nonprofits. "You have no idea the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's given away," Shaffran says. "Every frickin' organization that wants a coupon gets one. I try to protect him from his generosity. When people ask me if I can get them some deal for their organization, I say, 'Call him yourself.'"
MSV runs an exceptionally generous tuition reimbursement program for all full-time employees. Informally, its restaurants themselves have been a school for many Ann Arbor chefs and restaurateurs, among them Brandon Johns at the Grange and Zingerman's partners Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw.
By the time Mainstreet Ventures opened the Chop House in 1998, money was flowing, and restaurants lined the streets. People were even hanging out downtown in the daytime again, courtesy of the latest food trend, the coffeehouse. An opulent, old-fashioned steakhouse, the Chop House recalls the white-tablecloth restaurants of Serras's youth.
MSV has since opened three more Chop Houses, in Grand Rapids, MI, Annapolis, MD, and Charleston, WV. But its only new restaurant in Ann Arbor since then is Carson's American Bistro, on Plymouth Rd.
Serras notes that while restaurants continue to pop up downtown, "openings don't happen like they used to anymore. There are so many, they don't have the impact. When we opened Gratzi, [architect] Bill Hobbs was in there every night for seven weeks."
Trend watchers might want to note that Serras has now turned to real estate. He and Ed Shaffran together own a number of commercial properties. What he doesn't own are any of the buildings that house his famous restaurants: "I've been making landlords rich for years," Serras laughs.
[Originally published in October, 2011.]
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