An hour with Ann Stevenson and Curt Catallo in the open lounge of their newest restaurant, Union Rec, leaves the distinct sense of a soft-power couple comfortably in their element.
They plan to open their long-awaited creative reuse of Fingerle Lumber’s millwork shop to the public November 30.
Catallo, from Clarkston, and Stevenson, a Minnesota native, met at Bennington College in Vermont. Armed with her liberal arts degree, the fine-arts major followed him back to Michigan in 1991 and lived at William and Third, giving private art lessons and teaching pre-K at the Ann Arbor YMCA. They married in 1997 in Minneapolis, then settled in his hometown.
Catallo’s parents had bought an old Baptist church there, mainly to save it from disrepair. The couple turned it into the Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen. It did so well that they began opening more. Their locations are now into the double digits.
“We did not have a business background,” Stevenson notes, “but we’ve developed it over these last twenty-eight years.” Scattered across metro Detroit, their Union Joints restaurants all repurpose existing structures into individually themed culinary community fixtures.
“You know what else makes us a little insane is that we design and build them and brand them ourselves,” Catallo says. The largest and, until now, the newest is the 503-seat Union Assembly on Woodward Ave. in downtown Detroit, which includes a venture named Mom’s Spaghetti, in conjunction with Eminem.
Union Rec—short for “Recreation”—will serve morning coffee and American comfort food and drinks in the former mill off S. Main. Along with the main building, the three-quarter-acre site includes two sheds and a surface parking lot, a rarity in that area. Parking’s free except for football game days, when the ten-minute walk to Michigan Stadium makes it a tantalizing tailgate venue.
Stevenson and her design team, including a contractor on staff, were up for the challenge of reimagining a space that had supplied lumber for all their previous build-outs, by way of local carpenter and longtime friend Cameron Magoon. Ironically, Union Rec is the first Union Joint to be built without Fingerle lumber—the company closed in 2019 after eighty-eight years in business. The Fingerle family sold their main lumberyard to the U-M, but Stevenson and Catallo got the mill.
“It’s a gray concrete box. So the idea is: How do you transform it into something that has a little bit of alchemy to it?” Stevenson reflects. She was inspired by Magoon’s son Cole, who got an early look at the site and saw its potential for “like, the best sleepover.”
“And I said, ‘That’s exactly it’—that folly and that festiveness of having limitless choices. And that was a ton of fun being able to think about a kid designing their own fort.”
They came up with largely open floor plan that includes a lunch counter, bar, a private dining room, and a central fireplace encircled by unmatched chairs. Most were salvaged and reupholstered in “a cacophony of clashing prints—but that gives them that dynamic spirit,” Stevenson says. Concrete structural posts are wrapped in afghan knits and other softening textiles. Large-screen TVs seem to blend into the background inconspicuously when not in use. “It’s gonna be big-spirited food in a big-spirited space,” she says.
The menu shows a similar level of craft, partially flavored by their long familiarity with Ann Arbor (son Cassius is a U-M sophomore; daughter Coco is a freshman at Sarah Lawrence) and by pandemic-era Zoom focus groups with a U-M fraternity house.
Though Union Joints have diverse menus, the couple say, they’re all grounded in a shared concept: It’s food your grandma might have served—whether your grandmother came from Dexter or Ecuador or Tokyo.
“With this community, we had a license to kind of push our comfort food a little further,” says Catallo. “It’s pretty messy and sharable and visceral,” Stevenson adds. “That idea of what American is is really broad, as it should be, right? And so it’s barbecue, but it’s also Latin flavors as well.”
Alcoholic offerings reflect the couple’s affinity for tequila and mezcal, as well as a slushy machine for margaritas and a rum concoction called a Painkiller.
They could’ve used a stiff one back in the pivotal month of March 2020, when Ann Arbor State Bank put off their closing scheduled for the 17th. “And the bank said, let’s wait a week,” Catallo recalls, “That bank was absorbed by Level One, who we have a great relationship with, but they weren’t looking to loan a restaurant any money during a pandemic, and they were already helping us on one.”
Riding to the rescue was none other than investor Roger Penske Jr. “He and his wife Jennifer have been friends for twenty-five years,” Stevenson relates, “And they’re very gracious about being fans of what we do. And they said, ‘Hey, if you ever want a partner, you know, keep us in mind.’
“We definitely were in need, and he came through and just said ‘yep’ without a doubt. We’ve learned a lot from him, and especially just about having really high expectations about how things are done.”
“He wants to be a part of what we’ve been doing for twenty-eight years without changing it,” Catallo says. “What a gift to have in a partner.” It was Penske’s idea to add an employee scholarship program here to incentivize local workers still in school.
Both owners also eagerly share credit with a barback they hired nineteen years ago at their first joint. Julie Lattanzi went on to earn her degree in human resources from Wayne State in 2014 and create their company’s HR department when it grew to need one. Union Joints now employs about 750, Lattanzi reports, including seventy-eight at Union Rec as of November 11. (Forty-four percent live in Ann Arbor and 28 percent in Ypsilanti.)
Lattanzi says they currently have 340 job openings across the company, and will need at least thirty more for Union Rec to realize plans to open for lunch and continue to develop the site’s (including rooftop) potential.
Stevenson praises Lattanzi as a “creative thinker,” citing initiatives like same-day worker pay. Catallo humbly sums it up: “She created the culture.”
“For the record, I would have never gotten into Michigan,” Catallo offers jovially. “My only talent is finding talent. So I’m behind the curtains, and Ann’s building the curtains.”
Union Rec, 545 S. Main St., (734) 636–9999. Opening expected Nov. 30, Wed.–Sat. hours TBD. unionjoints.com