How much can a scrappy Detroit restaurant group pivot without getting dizzy and losing sight of its vision? Heirloom Hospitality not only pivoted but the company found itself headed in new and interesting directions as a result of the hardships faced in the pandemic year. Michigan native Jeremy Sasson, who founded Heirloom Hospitality in 2017, saw the pandemic as a continuing set of sink-or-swim options: the restaurant group could “pivot and create, or go down with it.”
Pivots for Heirloom included the launch of an online store, Heirloom Goods, and some clever takeout options (cocktails and wine to-go, a mimosa brunch kit for Mother’s Day and a “Chef at Home” series of pre-measured meal kits).
Heirloom’s Prime + Proper steakhouse concept hatched a curated online butcher shop for the public and even did some in-home chef experiences. When outdoor dining was allowed as Detroit’s cold winter raged on, Heirloom built cozy, heated greenhouses with restaurant-like touches, “to deliver the feeling you can’t get at home,” Sasson said, referring to one of the core reasons people choose to dine out in the first place.
The team has little time to look back, though, moving ahead into the second half of 2021 with the launch of an Italian-California concept Sauce later this year, and the renovation/reopening of their 7,000-square-foot Townhouse Detroit concept. Townhouse is moving away from a dark, masculine and industrial gastropub vibe to a bright, sunny English garden townhouse look. Eventually, Sasson wants to expand beyond Detroit, counting on the group’s evolution to guide its path.
“As with everyone else, this year was a definitive struggle for the entire hospitality industry. It presented challenges and obstacles that none of us could see coming, leaving us to have to pivot and create or go down with it. We had to be creative and attentive to the changing rules, the on-the-fly regulations, while also being mindful of keeping the lights on.
We started by developing Heirloom Goods, which was our online store that we launched to allow our guests to not just get the standard to-go fare, but also items they missed from our other locations. It gave us the ability to create experiences without being present for our supportive guests. Within Heirloom Goods we had an online Butcher Shop, showcasing cuts from Prime + Proper’s dry-aging room, we also put together a bottle shop, with wine offerings and cocktails to-go as well as “take-and-bake” items, so if you weren’t feeling up to fully committing to being the chef at your house, but didn’t want to eat out of boxes again, you could create a hot meal at home and the guesswork was taken out of it.
Days like Mother’s Day, which traditionally is one of the biggest restaurant holidays of the year weren’t the same during lockdown, but we did what we could to still execute a successful experience by creating brunch spreads, with freshly baked items, heating instructions and fresh-pressed juice with the option to add your favorite champagne or wine to the package. That was a huge hit for us. We even launched a ‘Chef at Home’ program, where we would come prepare meals in your house, following all the CDC and state guidance in doing so, so that our team and guests were safe while still having a taste of the hospitality they enjoyed and missed dearly.
When the weather was kind to us, we were able to open our patio and serve outdoors once restrictions allowed this. When it got to that true Michigan winter, we purchased greenhouses as they seemed more open and inviting than the standard igloos, and we made sure not to just put tables in and call it a day. A lot of guests were showing up for us in full winter attire, but we didn’t want people to have to do that, so we made sure we equipped the greenhouses with heaters and welcoming decor, Bluetooth speakers for added ambiance, to try to put back some normalcy into our guests’ (and team’s) routine.
Anyway, when we could find a way to deliver the feeling that you can’t create at home, we did. We didn’t cut corners with that, as we live on the experience we create, so the vibe in the greenhouses had to still be ‘Townhouse’ and not empty/cold, while also being safe. Guests loved them and so did our team, we outfitted our service staff with custom jackets to make sure they were comfortable as well.
In terms of mental state, this isn’t something you can prepare for, but just need to do the best you can with what you have and are able to do. It definitely took a toll on the industry as a whole; two shutdowns didn’t make it easy for our team members to feel confident returning. It created a shaky foundation for the hospitality industry, an industry that has been known to be pretty resilient. People have families to take care of, themselves, futures to plan for … not knowing if another shutdown may be coming with not much help or guidance from the powers that be impacted the employee base of the industry, but we bounce back, we always do.
On remodeling: The “before” look and feel of Townhouse was a bit industrial, masculine if you will. Lots of wood grain/leather and brass touches. While Townhouse Detroit had the atrium to brighten up the overall darker aspects of the brands look, it was still almost a gastropub feel without fully intending on being that. We decided to make a change to an overall brighter, more open, and social feel, that truly spoke to our values and aligned more with our other brands, like Prime + Proper.
We had been toying with the idea of changing some aspects, but the closures allowed for a reset, and also allowed us to really welcome our guests back to something new and exciting, which we think everyone needs right now. As we have grown as a company, and as individuals, our brands are no different. They also must welcome evolution and change so we can continue to deliver to the best experience possible for our guests. Softening our touch while also uplifting our values to the forefront in our design and branding was something that would inevitably happen, we just took this as an opportunity to get it done.
The design firm we partnered with is one we have used in the past. Parini understands our expectations as a brand, and it's always helpful having other minds at the table. At the end of the day, I will always have the final sign-off, and I am very hands-on during the entire process because it's our vision as a company, so we want to make sure that it's executed clearly and speaks Heirloom as a group.
We switched out the sushi bar for a coffee/pastry bar. Sushi is still very much going to be a part of Townhouse Detroit’s DNA and will still be executed in the kitchen. The thought behind the coffee/pastry bar is just another destination spot for our guests to enjoy. We want to give more reason to come see us, not just “you have to have a full meal here.” We have an incredible pastry team that also deserves to be highlighted, and we want to give reasons for guests to enjoy us for more than a sit-down lunch/dinner, we want to be a destination for any occasion.
We made changes to our bars as well, they’re now more socially inviting and beg to gather and enjoy with friends or strangers that will become friends.”