Starting from Scratch
How a new restaurant and nightclub in downtown Royal Oak exceeded its budget, overcame unforeseen municipal requests, and still opened in just 10 months.
Aaron F. Belen, owner of Bistro 82 and Sabrage, converted a former wine store along Main Street in downtown Royal Oak into The Morrie. Opened in August, the 250-seat restaurant offers neighborhood roadhouse cuisine and live entertainment.
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Four years ago, when metro Detroit was still recovering from the global financial crisis, Aaron F. Belen envisioned owning a fine dining restaurant in Royal Oak. Trouble was, the downtown district lacked a large office market to propel sales during the lunch hour, let alone after work. What’s more, the enclave was best known as a popular draw for comfort food, saloons, and nightclubs.
Still, with Royal Oak’s central business district located near the convergence of two major freeways, I-75 and I-696, along with the district’s close proximity to Woodward Avenue, Belen started talking to friends, associates, and potential investors about acquiring the former Sangria restaurant at Fourth and Lafayette, and converting it into a high-end restaurant.
His plan was to close the Spanish eatery and a nightclub above it, strip the structure nearly to its studs, and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in what Belen hoped would be reviewed as a five-star restaurant and an upscale club.
“Every single person I spoke to in 2012 said this (idea) was insane, it was way above market, and the city of Royal Oak (couldn’t) support the concepts (I was) bringing to the market,” says Belen, president and CEO of AFB Investments and AFB Hospitality Group, both in Berkley.
He bought the building anyway, believing there was inherent value to a location next to two of the city’s more substantial office structures. The investment became Bistro 82 — a French-inspired, modern European bistro overseen by executive chef Derik Watson, who joined the organization in February 2013 with a resume that included having cooked for the late Princess Diana.
Since its opening in 2014, the success of Bistro 82 — along with its sister business, Sabrage, a well-appointed nightclub on the second floor — has coincided with the ascension of downtown Royal Oak as a dining destination. Over the past two years, the restaurant has garnered positive reviews from national and local critics and media outlets, including Thrillist, USA Today, Fox News, and The American Genius. “We have people who will drive 45 minutes to eat Derik’s food,” Belen says.
Having succeeded at an investment that some people said was crazy, what was Belen’s next move? It certainly wasn’t going to be basking in the satisfaction of having proved his skeptics wrong. He had another goal: He wanted his budding enterprise to be recognized as one of the region’s top players in the hospitality, food, and beverage business.
Belen quickly realized that to get there, additional investment would be required. “The only way I could do it was to double down,” Belen says. That effort led him to an underperforming wine and general store in downtown Royal Oak on Main Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets.
Where Others Had Failed
The previous owner’s vision for the property, located adjacent to St. Paul Lutheran Church, never quite seemed to match its potential — nor was the owner responsive to what the local market seemed to need. Belen saw greater possibilities.
He didn’t just see a restaurant. He saw a concert venue. He saw a large dance floor. He saw a bustle of activity that connected to the outdoors on warm summer nights, with sliding glass walls that could transform the space in the course of an evening from a unique dining experience to a popular entertainment venue.
The steps that followed demonstrate the challenge of taking a development project from concept through to reality — especially one that flies against convention.
Enter The Morrie, named after Belen’s late grandfather. Starting a year ago, DBusiness chronicled the steps, twists, and turns of the building’s renovation and ultimate completion. This is how that experience unfolded.