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.
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We Have a Deal
AFB Hospitality Group was the first company Belen would solely own. His previous work with partners had taught him a great deal — “some bad stuff, some good stuff” — but, at this point in his career, he was ready to steer his own ship. He wanted to build a company around his two downtown Royal Oak enterprises, Bistro 82 and Sabrage.
The acquisition of the 511 S. Main property that would become The Morrie was completed in September 2015. Belen says he paid roughly $2 million for the building, along with an adjacent parking lot. “This place wasn’t in bankruptcy, but it was on the one-yard-line of bankruptcy,” he says. “What I was looking to do was bring destination nightlife to the market. The barriers to do that in Royal Oak are high. Royal Oak is notoriously known for not approving these scenarios, so you basically have to go in and buy an existing place (with a liquor license).”
Given that the property previously served as a retail operation, Belen knew he would have to make a sizeable investment just to give his project a fighting chance. The challenge didn’t faze him. “I’m willing to put in exponentially more than the guy across the street,” he says. “I’m willing to go 100 extra miles.”
At the start, Belen hosted weekly planning sessions at Bistro 82 with executive chef Watson; Scott Sadoff, director of operations; and publicist Rachel Lachover.
Belen also took the time to meet with his new neighbors — the clergy leaders at St. Paul Lutheran Church — as a way to build goodwill. “We went in with the previous owner, the broker, and myself,” Belen recalls. “I wasn’t sure how it would go. I wanted to handle it in a professional way. I wanted to make sure they had the facts, because rumors were flying. I don’t think anyone was maliciously saying anything, but people assume what they don’t know.”
Soon after, Belen hired architect Kevin Biddison, principal of Biddison Architecture and Design in Birmingham, to handle the design. The team began to interview general contractors in preparation for demolition. The goal was to open The Morrie in June 2016.
“A big hurdle was (dealing with) the health department, and making sure we had ample time to get our plans to them,” Sadoff says. “Realistically, our timeline for construction following demolition was 120 days at the most. So if we could pull that off and work within those 120 days, we could hit our desired timeline.”
Hurry Up and Wait
The design plans were submitted to the health department the first week of December. “It takes about six weeks to really have them go through the plans and get everything approved,” Sadoff says. “The general contractors we interviewed all told us (we were) looking at the small side of a 14-week to 17-week build, which put us right around that late spring opening time.”
Weeks later, the team selected Ronnisch Construction Group in Birmingham, and the goal was to have demolition permits in place by the end of January.
Then, another issue arose. The city determined a water line entering the building wasn’t large enough to accommodate the projected demand, and requested that it be replaced. Even with the delay, Belen was confident AFB Hospitality could begin training employees in May and host a soft opening in early June.
An unexpected request from the city to add a “family restroom” and several other previously unplanned amenities made the timeline and budget more challenging.
Despite the unforeseen additions, construction barricades were erected in March. Soon after, the street and sidewalk were torn up to accommodate the new water line, while demolition commenced on the interior.
From there, the concrete floor was ground down to prepare for a new finish, while electrical and plumbing upgrades were made. “The building was in really bad shape,” Biddison says, “but once you get right down to it, it’s got some great bones (steel beams) — just look at those bow trusses.”
To those great bones, the construction team attached materials and components it expects will “tune into the roughness of the rock ’n’ roll.” The lighting elements were designed with an industrial feel, strangely achieved by the installation of chandeliers from Ireland.
By mid-April, the interior of the building was taking shape. A solid wall was used as the backdrop for a stage that will host live bands after 10 p.m. Behind it, the skeleton of a robust kitchen was coming together, and Biddison began to plan the seating layout. “Every seat in the house will be able to see what’s going on in the front,” he maintains.
To glean ideas for the layout, amenities, and décor, Biddison and his team visited close to 20 venues in Chicago that combine live music with a dining room and a dance floor. “Bar food and rock ’n’ roll doesn’t necessarily make you feel you’re going to get good service,” Biddison acknowledges.
Even so, Belen was determined that The Morrie should combine the two — not only for the customers but for the bands, as well, which is why he footed the bill for a green room upstairs that includes a full kitchen. “You’re not going to get the caliber of talent we want to attract here without a great green room,” Belen says, citing his conversations with booking professionals in the music industry.