A few days ago, Linete and I foud ourselves in Detroit, without kids, poking around Corktown. The plan was to get something warm to drink at Astro Coffee, but it looked too crowded. Linette peaked in, through one of the fogged-up windows, to see if there was space for me. (She can fit most anywhere. I, however, am not so fortunate.) Determining that there wasn’t, we started walking toward The Sugar House, thinking that maybe what the occasion called for wasn’t coffee at all, but a couple of Stagger Lees (Laphroaig Scotch, Bonal Gentiane, Cherry Heering & Vieux Carre Absinthe). Well, as we were turning to go to the bar, who should pop out of Astro and grab us than our old friend Lisa Waud, the owner of Ann Arbor’s most lovely little garden and flower shop, Pot & Box . She’d seen us peaking into Astro, and came to tell us that, despite our fears, we’d fit in. So we followed her, ordered some polenta cake, and talked entrepreneurship for the next hour. What you’re about to read is a highly-edited recreation of that conversation, which Lisa and I have been working on these past few days. I hope you enjoy it… And I hope you all put it on your calendars to go out and visit her on Valentine’s Day, when she officially unveils Pot & Box: Detroit.
MARK: So, the Pot & Box empire is expanding. The current plan, as I understand it, is to keep the location in Ann Arbor, and open one in Detroit, in what was an old gas station on Michigan Avenue. Is that right?
LISA: Heck yeah! I was initially apprehensive about talking about the plan publicly, but, if folks are interested in riding the rollercoaster with me, then step right up. I’ve been yammering on about opening a second location in Detroit for, oh, two years now? And, after a series of serendipitous events, it was time for a little less conversation and a little more action. Just like with all projects — gigantic and tiny, and everywhere in between — there’s never a tidy time to fold it in perfectly. You just pull the trigger.
MARK: I know, about a year or so ago, you were a finalist in the first annual Hatch Detroit retail competition, vying for a $50,000 grant to open a Pot & Box in the City. Unfortunately, you lost out to my friend Joe Posch, who has since used the prize money to reopen Hugh, the store from which he dispenses barware and vintage Playboys to time-traveling bachelors. When I had heard that you were in the running, I thought that it was something of a lark. I didn’t realize, as I’ve since come to find out, that you’ve wanted to open a place in Detroit for a long time. I’m curious… What’s the attraction to the City? Is it all the youthful energy in the entrepreneurial scene there, or is it something else?
LISA: Firstly, I just have to mention how catalyst-y the Hatch competition was for Pot & Box. Our brand awareness catapulted in the city, and I connected with Joe Posch through a clever alliance between two retailers who share the time-traveling bachelor demographic. Secondly, Detroit has been courting me for a while. It started with baseball games, new restaurants, and cool concerts, and then there was the befriending of small business owners, going to loft parties, recognizing people all over town. And, then, all of a sudden, I realized that I was driving over three or four times a week, and I couldn’t get anything done at coffee shops because I’d gotten to know the staff and my fellow regulars. So, yes, it’s totally the youthful energy and the entrepreneurial scene, but it’s more that that. It’s the sum of all the parts. I love driving around until i get lost, figuring out how to navigate the city. I love heated conversations with old friends (and brand-new ones) about the latest absurd or hopeful Detroit-centric plan. I love taking in old buildings, sometimes photographing them, sometimes hearing their stories, mostly making up my own. I love that my family hails from Detroit, and that I’ve made my way back, chasing ghosts.
MARK: The new shop is going to be a few blocks down Michigan Avenue from the economic development engine known as Slows. I’m curious as to why you decided to settle there… at Michigan Avenue and 17th. How extensive was your search, and what was it about this particular gas station that attracted you?
LISA: I guess it sounds odd to some people, but, as long as I’ve wanted to open a flower shop, I’ve wanted to open one in a former gas station. From the first time I pictured throwing open some rusty old doors to reveal a cooler-full of colorful flowers, I couldn’t shake it. I looked seriously at one in Ann Arbor before landing in our current digs in a former factory, but the dream and the drive never faded. I’d been scoping out old service stations in Detroit neighborhoods that I thought were cool and safe for quite a bit. I eyed 2520 Michigan Avenue a while back, but didn’t consider it viable until my friends Dave Landrum & Pete Bailey settled in across the street to open their distillery, Two James. After they landed there, it was appealing that I could help round out commerce to the west of Roosevelt Park.
MARK: Is this the place? After we ran into you the other day, we headed down the street to see if I could find what will be the home of the new Pot & Box, and this was the property that looked the most like what you described.
LISA: That’s her! Isn’t she glorious? Just LOOK at all that raw potential.
MARK: How’d you come to find out about the property, which, I believe you’ve mentioned to me, is owned by Andy Didorosi, the founder of the Detroit Bus Company?
LISA: Our common friend Liz Blondy, of Canine To Five connected me with the gas station owner shortly after the Hatch competition because she knew, though did not necessarily condone (ha!), my vision. (Canine To Five, by the way, is opening a second location this week. In addition to the location on Cass ,in Detroit, there’s now also going to be one in Ferndale. Huzzah!) The owner was indeed, Andy Didorosi, and he explained to me that he was seeking not merely a tenant, not just someone to pay the rent, but someone to fill an unknown need in the neighborhood. I thought that was a different way of going about being a landlord, and quite cool. But, being two busy entrepreneurs, we fell out of touch for a bit. It wasn’t until my dad sent me a Popular Mechanics article about Detroit that featured Andy that I revived our email thread. We met, toured the station, and started the conversation. A month later, we randomly crossed paths in San Francisco (I can’t make this stuff up, people). As it worked out, we both had a brief moment in time in our insanely busy lives, and had a chance to interview one another while enjoying another fabulous city. By the time we got back to Michigan, we had our first collaboration on the books — a Detroit Bus Company tour of Detroit for Ann Arborites that boarded at Pot & Box — and were in negotiations for Pot & Box: Detroit. So that’s how the plans for 2520 Michigan took root.
MARK: How will the new shop be different from the shop in Ann Arbor? Will your product offerings be the same, or do you think that Detroit is looking for something different?
LISA: My vision for the Detroit location is a revisitation of the original vision for the Ann Arbor shop: full-service flower shop with event floral design, garden supplies, including pots and boxes, and spectacular event space… The flower shop offerings will be the same — walk-in shopping, city-wide delivery, and event floral design — with the added bonus of drive-thru pick ups, in the true nature of a service station… After getting to know the particulars of the Ann Arbor shop, I had to choose to cut gardening supplies from our offerings due to space restrictions, and the fact that you can get everything you need up the street at Downtown Home and Garden. At the Detroit shop, we’ll be carrying a line of hand tools, small bags of soil and amendments, seasonal plants, and the like, but, again, nothing that overlaps with our lovely new neighbors at Detroit Farm and Garden. As far as the event space, this is the one thing that will get ultra-magnified. We’ll have just shy of 1,000 square feet inside, and, after three fabulous service bay doors get re-installed, we’ll have the ability to offer as much space outside as well. I’m picturing summer weddings with overflowing flower arrangements, and a billjillion candles on tables in the garden-enveloped parking lot, and it makes me really, really glow-y.
MARK: And your hope is to have something up at running by Valentine’s Day, if not inside the building itself, at least in the parking lot?
LISA: Ah, yes. The pipe dream of being functional by Valentine’s Day. Nope. I’m looking to the holiday season of 2013 as my goal to be open.
Growing up, my family built two houses from the ground-up, and remodeled constantly, which is certainly why I’m not only comfortable, but tend to thrive in sawdust-coated, half-painted transitional environments. I also know that everything takes eons longer and heaps more money than you want it to. Once I nest in the new space, it’ll be forever-ish, so I’ve dealt with this by purchasing an old ice cream truck, from which I’ll push petals out into the city. We’re taking flowers the way of the food truck — mobile!
Speaking of Valentine’s Day, the mobile flower truck, and the space… the new truck will be debuting at the pop-up Valentine’s Day market I’ve organized as a second collaboration with our landlord. Andy also owns Paper Street, a business incubator in Ferndale, which has two flash mobile trailers that will also be debuting at the market! So far, we’ve got 20+ vendors confirmed, a couple food trucks, and the buzz is building. The original idea was to merely activate the space at 2025 Michigan, and I think that will happen in spades.
MARK: I know you’ll likely push back a bit at what I’m about to say, and insist that you’ll still be an active part of Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial scene, in spite of moving your base of operations to Detroit, but won’t this move of yours be something of a blow to the young entrepreneurial movement in Ann Arbor, which you’ve been such a force behind, not only through your own business, but through Small & Mighty, the networking group which you co-founded? (Until recently, Small & Mighty was called YEP.) I don’t mean to make you feel bad about leaving, as I think the Detroit project sounds incredible, but, at the same time, I can’t help but think that less Waud is an unfortunate side effect for Ann Arbor.
LISA: Despite my claims that I can maintain an omnipresence, I realize I will be less than 100% in both cities. But, just like my dream of a former-gas-station-turned-flowershop, I have always wanted to have an offshoot of my business that supports me personally and other entrepreneurs in a nurturing, non-networky way. Small & Mighty started just like its name, but has grown into a really important being. I’ve always been a sheepdog, herding people together, and I think the group is no exception. Between the Small & Mighty co-founders (Jean Henry, Helen Harding, and myself), I’m confident that we can host events that are meaningful enough to draw Detroiters to Ann Arbor, and vice versa.
And you never know, Mark… with the color-coded Google calendar I spoke of in our previous interview, maybe I can figure out how to be everywhere all at once.
MARK: What kind of research did you do before deciding to take this most recent leap? Or is the cost of doing business in Detroit just so low that you didn’t have to think about the risk? In other words, did you canvas the local restaurants, and wedding venues before making the decision to open a location in Detroit, in an attempt to determine whether there would be steady, recurring work, or did you just say to yourself, “I can get a place in Detroit for a few hundred bucks a month, and I’m sure that I can find a way to cover that and make a profit?”
LISA: My move into Detroit was gradual, then sudden. Like I said earlier, I just started hanging out, talking to people — mostly small business owners — about what it was like to live and work in the city. Then, one day, a bolt struck me, and I knew I actually really did want to live and work there. I remember the moment it happened: I saw Emily Linn from City Bird and she asked me if I was OK. I must have looked stunned. I told her, “I want to move to Detroit.” She stood up, hugged me, then asked what she could do to help. And, you know what? That’s pretty much how things work there.
MARK: I’m not super well acquainted with that stretch of Michigan Avenue, but, there seems to be a lot going on. In addition to Slows, and Sugar House, and Astro Coffee, there’s the Two James Distillery, and the Mercury Bar… What am I missing? What else is going on along those few blocks?
LISA: In addition to Two James Distillery, which is opening in a few months, there’s also Greening of Detroit, Xavier’s, and Izzy’s. Down on the bustling block, east of Rooselvelt Park, we can’t forget Honor & Folly, an apartment available for short-term rentals, curated by the lovely Meghan Mcewen. And on the coming-soon list: Gold Cash Gold, a second restaurant from the Slows family and something sure-to-be fabulous in the former Duncan’s Speedometer Shop — a space I also considered for Pot & Box: Detroit. Off the main stretch of Michigan, there’s also St. Cece’s, Mudgie’s Deli, Le Petite Zinc, Green Dot Stables, Detroit Farm & Garden, and Gallery 555. Go to all of them. Often.
MARK: How difficult is it to break into the Detroit entrepreneurial scene? I know you must have connections, having gone through the Hatch competition, but I’m curious as to how welcoming people are outside of that context, and how willing they are to share information, contacts, leads, tips, etc. Also, I’m curious to know if there’s any entrepreneurial infrastructure to speak of. Are there groups in Detroit like the one you started in Ann Arbor?
LISA: Like I said earlier, I’ve been hanging out in Detroit for a couple years now, just getting to know people and places. I think Hatch kicked off a heightened awareness of me, and of Pot & Box, but the due diligence of spending time in the city is what got me to feel comfortable enough to make the leap to living and working in the city. I joke that I will attend any presentation, lecture of event on any Detroit topic, no matter how distant from my profession and interests, but one notable group that was incredibly encouraging is Open City Detroit, a monthly forum for aspiring business that meets at Cliff Bell’s once a month. Founded in 2007, by Claire Nelson (formerly of Bureau of Urban Living, now publisher at Model D) and the aforementioned Liz Blondy, this group could not have been any more tailored to my entrepreneurial needs. I only hope that eventually Small & Mighty can come close to Open City’s attendance and helpfulness.
MARK: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask how thing are going with Pot & Box Ann Arbor… And what are your plans for the future of that space? Will things continue on as usual, or should we expect to see signs of evolution?
LISA: Ah, my baby. I couldn’t be happier with the evolution thus far of Pot & Box: Ann Arbor. Our presence in the community has spread, and we’ve been busier every year, and we’re busier every day.
I don’t doubt for a second that it would have been possible without my right-hand woman, Katherine Yates, who has been with Pot & Box since before we moved into our space on Felch Street. She’s coming on full-time this spring to fill a management position as we begin our transition to becoming a two-location operation. Katherine’s hard work and enthusiasm, as well as that of Rachel Parke and all the other Pot & Box crew, that really runs the place. We’re feeling organized and inspired for 2013, and poised and ready to add Pot & Box: Detroit to our arsenal.
MARK: Damn. I’ve asked a lot of questions. Thanks for answering. Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to say?
LISA: I am really thankful that Pot & Box has made it this far, and that we’re pushing forward to inspire and be inspired by a larger community. I never would have guessed that I would be as fulfilled discussing entrepreneurial endeavors as I am assembling an arrangement of seasonal blooms and textural foliage, but here I am… Onward!