By Tunde Wey
February 13, 2013
The tricky thing about potential is that it doesn’t really matter in itself; what really matters is what it actually becomes. Potential is only truly appreciated once it has grown, transformed from something nascent and inchoate into a splendidness that inspires.
"This space was sitting vacant for at least 15 years and I already had Good Girls down the street, so I thought why not open up a bar next to the DIA," says Torya Blanchard, serial Detroit entrepreneur and owner of the popular Good Girls go to Paris Crepes
and the newly-opened Rodin
, a fine dinning establishment serving French-inspired small plates that opened on the seemingly fortuitous 12/12/12. "It seemed like a perfect location."
In an urban setting, where empty forlorn space and spirited human ingenuity collide, a wondrous magic transpires. This perfect union of space and idea, the very heart of urban revitalization, is an alchemy that bubbles in Detroit, transforming the discarded and valueless into gold. Blanchard, one example among many, is an alchemist, synthesizing potential and action.
Good Girls is Blanchard’s very successful Midtown creperie. Blanchard began Good Girls in April 2008, right after her 30th birthday. Cashing out her 401(k) from her job as a French language teacher, Blanchard began her operation in an impossibly modest 48-square-foot space, in the throes of a recession, growing it to an impressive 2,000-square-foot space (an expansion necessitated by her business’s success) and garnering glowing national press and even recognition from the White House itself as a "Champion of Change" in 2011.
Now 34, Blanchard, along with chef and managing partner Kate Williams, 27, are taking on something quite different with Rodin: French-inspired cuisine in a raw modern space for a city with nothing French about it but its name. And Blanchard has a penchant for the different. Tall with a commanding presence, she possesses a particular kind of boldness germane to entrepreneurs. She is the sort of calculated risk taker that wills things into happening.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I like to take risks. I like to do things that are bold. I could have bistro chairs in here; I could have a traditional French restaurant, but that’s too easy. I like to take things to the next level, to show people something they haven’t seen before. That is just my way. In my mind if I died and went to heaven this is where I would want to go."
It is this characteristic brazenness that is unabashedly on display at Rodin. A large capital R in a bold black font greets patrons as they enter the restaurant. The decor is an eclectic menagerie of color, new wave French movie poster art, and sumptuously red curtains. In keeping with the playful theme, the food is representative of the daring and different perspective Blanchard and Williams have on French fare.
Blanchard says, "The food and the vibe is Left Bank Paris in Detroit, but still staying very true to Detroit, very modern. The food is all French-inspired small plates. I think Chef Kate could have gone the route of traditional French cuisine but I wanted to make it fun and whimsical and not so literal. She did an excellent job of that. The wines are all French wines just like the food. They are from smaller vineyards. We switch up the wine list about once every six weeks."
Blanchard and Williams say the restaurant has been well-received. Along with their staff of 20, they are welcoming guests from all over city. "This bar is unlike any other bar in the city. It brings in a very diverse crowd; different backgrounds," says Blanchard. From the well-heeled patrons of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is just around the corner from Rodin, to a younger late-night crowd, Rodin is as comfortable hosting fine dinners as it is a hip dance party.
Rodin, which is in the famed Park Shelton Building
– a historic high-rise residential building with ground floor retail – had its beginnings in the fall of 2010. "I started in September 2010 with just the idea and securing the space. There were no investors. I thought it would be easy to get investors. Pulling together the resources to build out the space took longer than I expected, but most projects like this do."
Blanchard and Williams credit their family with supporting them financially. They also received loans and grants from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC)
and Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC)
. Midtown Inc
., the local community organization, was also crucial in providing technical support during the building permitting and coding process and the restaurant build-out phase.
With the pieces finally coming together to start Rodin, Blanchard was introduced to Chef Williams, an experienced culinary professional who was returning back to the area to start her own restaurant after working in New York and Chicago.
Blanchard says Chef Williams was an essential part of the development process. "Chef Kate, who is the Executive Chef, is the managing partner; (a) partner in crime. She is the one that oversaw all the construction stuff, who designed the kitchen, problem solved … she is an integral part of the whole process."
For her part, Williams describes her meeting with Blanchard as fortuitous.
"I lived in this building and I was shopping around with other investors for restaurant space and Mike Martorelli, the sales manager of the Park Shelton, said I really should meet Torya. As soon as we talked and met the first time it was what we both wanted."
Like Blanchard, Williams is also clear about the kind of customer experience they wanted to provide their patrons. She says, "We wanted to do something fun, different and approachable. When I was putting together the menu I thought it was important to include things that were new."
The happy hour crowd is about to start coming in. Williams flicks on the OPEN sign and readies to return to the kitchen. Blanchard is flicking through some restaurant documents, examining them in between phone calls to check in on her other restaurant and giving her staff tips on accentuating their work attire. Then she speaks about the power of daring, describing it in a way only she can, as she stares intently from behind her black thick-rimmed glasses. The simplicity and directness of her message is enough to make a believer even out of the most ardent doubter. She says, "Good Girls Go to Paris and Rodin gave me the idea that I could bend reality; how did I open this bar out of nothing? I make my reality my reality, and everyone has that power to do so but how much are you willing to do to make it so? I cashed out my 401(k) for the crepes." When soon all the irony is emptied from the tagline "Detroit, the Paris of the Midwest," we will all have Blanchard to thank for bending reality our way.
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.