The LaFontaine Touch
Dealership as a village meeting place
by Sally Mitani
LaFontaine Chevrolet, located exactly on the corner where the March tornado veered north to rip through Dexter's Huron Farms subdivision, has just been completely rebuilt. But this is not a tornado story. The project was planned years before the tornado, started months before the tornado, and was more or less unharmed by the tornado.
Which isn't to say the tornado passed unnoticed. General manager Shadrick Bennett was on site at the time: "It was a little scary, because we didn't have anywhere to go--there's no basement or anything. But we were lucky. The tornado followed the valley. Our old building was still up," protecting the new building from the winds. The next day, franchise owner Matt LaFontaine started the Dexter Relief Fund that raised over $200,000.
Bennett graciously denies that running the relief fund delayed the opening of the new building, but he does acknowledge that attending to all the hail-damaged cars on the lot did. In late August, much landscaping and outside paving work remained, and the restaurant was way behind schedule.
Restaurant? Yes, and it's not their first. The LaFontaine family's flagship Cadillac dealership in Highland (roughly halfway between Flint and Ann Arbor) not only has a cafe, but a nail-and-hair salon and a boutique.
There's been a Chevy dealer in this spot since 1962--first Groh's Chevrolet, then Dexter Chevy, both heavily emphasizing the used-car side of the business. When the LaFontaines bought the franchise and the property in 2005, the tiny sales room didn't even have inside space for new cars, and they immediately began plans for an ambitious remake.
In late August, Bennett was showing off the LEED silver-certified building that recycles its car wash water and uses passive solar ("with all the skylights, half the time we don't even have the lights on"). He says they are considering putting in a solar charging station for Chevy Volts, which are selling like hotcakes: "I just ordered another thirty of them."
The restaurant and conference room are designed to
be symbiotic. At press time, Bennett couldn't yet say whether the restaurant would have a name, and what the menu would be, but he specifically mentioned omelets, paninis (the presses had just been delivered), pizza, salads, baked goods, and fresh-ground coffee. The conference room down the hall, which seats about fifty, has "a drop-down screen and all the [data] connections." The plan--details are not yet worked out--is that local organizations can use the room for free, a service that Bennett thinks will be supported by sales of snacks, coffee, and an occasional car.
LaFontaine Chevy, 7120 Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd., 426-4677. Showroom hours, Mon. & Thurs. 9 a.m-9 p.m., Tues., Wed., & Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Sun. lafontainechevy.com
[Originally published in October, 2012.]