The Power Breakfast

Sharing an eye-opener with Detroit’s business elite can mean an elegant affair at a four-star hotel — or a hideaway meal in a private booth at a neighborhood delicatessen.
Whether it’s the Rugby Grille at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham or The Original Pancake House in Birmingham, the power-breakfast scene is alive and well in metro Detroit. Table topics include everything from a pending deposition to multimillion-dollar business deals. Some business executives can hold court for four hours or more at the same booth with separate clients, which is known in some circles as a “grand slam.” Photographs by Brad Ziegler

You can’t eat when you sleep, though no doubt some dedicated executives have had fevered imaginings about ways to get around this simple truth. But for anyone looking to get ahead in business, the power breakfast is an indisputable way to rise to the top — and stay there.

Because he is who he is, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s first meal of the day is a “power breakfast,” whether he munches his granola in solitude or while doing business with others. Most often, Patterson can be found at Deli Unique in Bloomfield Hills, where he might meet on any given day with, say, Doug Rothwell, president of Detroit Renaissance; John Rakolta Jr., chairman of Walbridge Aldinger Co.; or any number of European or Asian automotive suppliers eager to set their stakes in one of the nation’s most prosperous counties. “Good spot, easily located, good food, so there’s a lot of attraction for me,” Patterson says. “I try to eat a healthy breakfast. I want to live forever.”

On the south side of town, many of the movers and shakers who want to be downtown before the morning traffic jam squeeze into the booths at Detroit’s Breakfast House & Grill, which is specifically geared toward power breakfasts, whatever the time of day.

“We reach out to the business community, as well as [to] the local political community,” says executive chef Jerry Nottage. They also routinely host entertainers, politicians, and religious organizations. “Honestly, we get almost anybody who comes through town,” Nottage says. “Stevie Wonder … Steve Harvey [once] broadcast live from the Breakfast House. We’ve done functions for Gov. Granholm … prominent [people] like Conrad Mallet Jr. from the Detroit Medical Center, [real-estate developer] Henry Hagood and his group, [and United American Healthcare Corp. Chairman] Bill Brooks.”

Seating fewer than 100 in a shoebox-shaped room, the Breakfast House offers an elegant homey setting for dining on French toast stuffed with cinnamon apples and cream cheese; the old Harlem favorite, chicken and waffles; and omelets a half-dozen ways, including a jambalaya version, which Nottage had taken off the menu but then restored when customers made clear it was a grievous lapse in judgment.

Some metro Detroit power-breakfast venues are more circumspect in chatting about their clientele. At Steve’s Deli, on Telegraph at Maple in Bloomfield Township, an employee who cryptically identifies herself only as “Shelley” and offers the bookkeeper’s name if her comments must be attributed to someone, explains:

“They come here, they’re having a power breakfast and don’t want everybody to know they’re in here. There are always influential people walking in and out. We have many attorneys, lots of doctors, a lot of politicians, sports people all the time from the Pistons and Red Wings, and we even have our local celebrities for TV and music.”

Shelley says no special accommodations are made for the big shots, although a large booth at the back of the place offers a little more privacy than the rest of the room.
Privacy is also on the extensive menu at the venerable Stage Deli in West Bloomfield Township, says attorney/owner Steve Goldberg, who offers “just discretion and great service and great food. We’re a family-owned business, very hands-on, and [we] know what professionals need.

“A lot of businesspeople sit for a long time and schmooze … kibitz … negotiate — attorneys, judges, doctors, government officials, stockbrokers, real-estate brokers, television personalities.”

Their orders, Goldberg says, are across the board. “Simple bacon and eggs … smoked fishes from New York … our chocolate-chip banana waffle. They seem to like eggs Benedict and [a] nice strong espresso to jump-start the morning.”

Sometimes, Goldberg says, “the breakfast meetings turn into lunch meetings … turn into afternoon snacks. The same person will hold three or four meetings at the same table and people will come and go.”

While reviewers sometimes poke the Stage for being pricey, Goldberg demurs. “I think we have the right price point and a level of comfort where it’s almost a refuge for people in challenging times. Thank God, business is good.”

And while some may quibble about the prices at the Stage, there’s no debate about one of the metro area’s most elegant power parlors, in this case literally an English-style sitting room in the heart of downtown Birmingham. Chirping groupies and celeb-gawkers with disposable cameras are known to cluster outside the Townsend Hotel, which houses the Rugby Grille, when word gets around that this or that rock star is holed up there when his concert tour passes through, or that film stars have moved in for a month or two while shooting a movie attracted to Michigan’s new tax cuts for the industry.

Morning supervisor Rocco Cercone won’t say who they are; employees have to sign confidentiality agreements to protect guest privacy. But he does allow that less recognizable folks from nearby financial outfits JPMorgan Chase and Munder Capital Management exercise power over breakfast.

While most celebrities, especially superstars like Madonna or the Rolling Stones, most often order room service (meaning lunch), breakfast diners include a host of local and international business luminaries, including Daimler AG Chairman Dieter Zetsche, Penske Corp. Chairman Roger Penske, or General Motors Corp. Chairman Rick Wagoner.

The same goes for the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, though one company often dominates. Since Henry Ford owned the property, it was only natural that the automaker would eventually develop a prestigious hotel near its world headquarters and obviously adorn it with an elegant restaurant. Morning diners have included every Ford chairman since the hotel was built in 1989, including Red Poling, the late Alex Trotman, and William Clay Ford Jr., to name a few. There are also execs and players from the Detroit Lions, financial experts from large institutions, and any manner of politicians, such as U.S. Rep. John Dingell.

Business types, too, are among the power bunch breaking their fast with other regulars who’ve made mornings at the Original Pancake House a near ritual in Grosse Pointe Woods. But it’s almost an annex to nearby St. John Hospital.

“They’ll bring in parties of 10 or 15 people and have meetings,” says manager Grace Meier. “We might have the radiology department one day, surgeons the next, then something else. I’ve been here about six years and have seen anything from interviews to just people having their meetings.”

Nothing overt is done to encourage power breakfasting here, Meier says. “But we don’t hurry people up. They sit in their booths, we give them their privacy, what they want, and a good product.”