The Stray Hen, at the corner of Division and Washington, opened the day before Art Fair. By the end of the week, it was closing early because it had run out of food.
“It was a mess, and it was awesome,” says owner Chris Fronimos. “It was like a little punch in the face, but it was a good punch in the face.”
The Ann Arbor restaurant shares its name, social media, and a web platform with two restaurants in Chicago, but Fronimos owns and operates it independently.
The choice of Michigan was inspired by his wife, Marika, who’s from West Bloomfield. The pair met in Chicago, where he was a general manager at Eataly, the upscale Italian marketplace, and she worked for Grainger, the business supply and equipment company.
They subsequently had two children and began talking about relocating to be near her parents, since she is able to work from home.
They explored Birmingham, where they liked the lively scene but were deterred by the high rents, and Detroit, where an agent tried to interest them in buying the entire GAR Building, not just renting part of it.
Stopping in Ann Arbor on a drive back to Chicago, Fronimos looked at the corner of Washington and Division, previously home to a series of Sava Farah projects: Babo Market, Fred’s, and finally Wilma’s. By the time he got the keys, “it was a white box,” he says, stripped of seating and decor.
He outfitted it with a black-and-white theme featuring a silhouette of a hen on the windows. The name doesn’t have a backstory, he says, but a number of customers have let him know that they like it because they keep chickens in their backyards.
Guests first check out the menu on printed cards or by scanning a QR code, then go to the counter to order. If dining in, they’re given a number on a Michigan playing card and can choose a table. The Stray Hen offers takeout but not delivery, although Fronimos is working on a plan to offer door drop-offs for residents of the apartments upstairs.
Fronimos is quickly tapping into local ingredients. Suppliers for baked goods include Barry Bagels, Washtenaw Dairy, and DJ’s Bakery. He’s getting challah from a bakery in Detroit–he’s discovered the local version is sweeter and spongier than Chicago challah, which tends to be drier.
Fronimos has already met some members of Ann Arbor’s Greek restaurant community and discovered that the Produce Station is a good spot to find emergency blueberries for pancakes and granola bowls.
Stray Hen’s prices are reasonable by Ann Arbor standards. For breakfast, a wide array of egg dishes and pancakes start at $7, while lunch includes burgers, salads, fish tacos, and grilled cheese sandwiches from $11 to $14.
Most popular by far is the Everything bagel sandwich, with scrambled egg, hand-formed sausage patty, and American cheese, at $5.
One of the most Insta-ready dishes is the $11 waffle flight combo, four mini-waffles with different fruit toppings. “The idea is that it’s really unique,” he says. “Who wants to get a giant waffle with the same ingredients?”
With fewer than a dozen employees, Fronimos doesn’t expect to offer evening service. This way, everyone can work a single eight-hour shift, although he anticipates adding some extra hours during busy seasons.
Though open daily, he plans to close Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and from Christmas Day through January 2. That might disappoint some holiday customers, but he figures his staffers will appreciate the break.
Fronimos speaks at length about the importance of treating his employees well, given the stress caused by Covid and the general pressures of working in restaurants.
“Obviously, money’s great, but being a human being at the end of the day is more important,” he says.
Stray Hen Cafe, 403 E. Washington. (734) 929-2590. Daily 8 a.m.-3 p.m. strayhencafe.com/ann-arbor-menu