Small business Warriors

Throughout metro Detroit, Wayne State University alumni and students are building unique enterprises that continue to boost the economy. These independent Warriors are dreaming big — and making a major impact on the Motor City.

Great eats and smooth beats

Digging in

During the 2008 financial crisis, Dave Mancini took out a business loan to open Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market, trading his stable job as a physical therapist for an uncertain future in a city that boasted the nation’s worst economy.

“It felt like jumping off a cliff into water,” says Mancini, who had gotten a taste of the restaurant business while supporting himself through Wayne State. Although he had earned his bachelor’s and master’s from the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Mancini ultimately dreamed of owning his own restaurant. “You come home smelling like food,” he observes, “but I loved the business. It was always in my head that someday I would do it myself.”

I loved the restaurant business. It was always in my head that someday I would do it myself.

Dave Mancini

With great determination, he did. In Supino Pizzeria’s early days, Mancini often found himself staying overnight so he could do a 3 a.m. check on the pizza dough he had set to rise. His survival strategy? Make the best pizza and rely on word-of-mouth advertising.

Mancini’s plan worked. Just one year after Supino Pizzeria opened, the Detroit Free Press named it the region’s best. After that, recalls Mancini, “business was like night and day.”

Looking back, Mancini says, “If I didn’t do it, I knew I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life. It was what I had always wanted to do.”

 

Jazzed up

You’ve got to go double or nothing. At Cliff Bell’s, we decided to go for it.

Carolyn Howard

In 1935, Cliff Bell’s made its splashy debut in an Albert Kahn-designed building in downtown Detroit. The jazz club — designed by Charles Agree, the visionary architect behind buildings such as the Belcrest and the Whittier — was the height of luxury with its mahogany and brass décor.

Times changed, though, and in 1985 the venue closed and would remain empty for 20 years. Then, in late 2005, Carolyn Howard (CLAS ’90, M. Urb. Labor ’95), her husband Scott Lowell (Business ’93) and her brother Paul Howard (who attended Wayne State) took over the part of the property that housed the long-shuttered club.  

Following a six-month renovation, the three entrepreneurs — who also own Traffic Jam & Snug and the Bronx Bar — reopened Cliff Bell’s in 2006. Within walking distance of the Fox Theatre, the Fillmore Detroit, the Detroit Opera House and the city’s stadiums, the club’s original Park Avenue location seemed primed for instant success.

Still, the early going was not without its challenges. “Things go wrong,” Howard observes. “By the time you open, you’ve spent a lot more money than you intended. Then you’re faced with a dilemma. You’ve got to go double or nothing. At Cliff Bell’s, we decided to go for it.” With the thriving club now recognized as one of the city’s premier destinations for jazz, the trio’s leap of faith has paid off.

 

Goods and threads

Style and savvy

A graduate of the Mike Ilitch School of Business, Jordette Singleton is the founder of contemporary womenswear destination UnitedFront. The boutique operates out of North End Collective, a retail incubator located in New Center.

UnitedFront was born out of Singleton’s desire to apply the strategies she had learned while earning her bachelor’s in marketing from Wayne State. She believes that her experience in the Ilitch School of Business was crucial to her becoming an entrepreneur and cites her former professor Richard Beltramini as playing an influential role.

I am trained to automatically think like the customer.

Jordette Singleton

“He was my first introduction to the real world,” Singleton reflects. “Going to his class was like going to work. He taught us that we needed to be experts in our fields and that business was not to be taken lightly.” Had it not been for her education, Singleton says she wouldn’t be where she is now. “I am trained to automatically think like the customer,” she observes.

Singleton urges current students and aspiring entrepreneurs alike to network. “Find a tribe of like-minded people,” she says. “They will be your best assets.”

Singleton also recommends embracing the potential for failure. “You have to do it at some point,” she notes. “Don’t take it personally. Get up and try again. What do you have to lose?”

 

Taking flight

While earning her master of fine arts from Wayne State’s James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Emily Linn launched the label City Bird to sell unique items at fairs, trade shows and galleries. With her brother Andy, she opened the City Bird boutique in 2009. Today, the Midtown destination is known for its curated selection of handmade goods (think candles, jewelry, cards and gifts) crafted by more than 200 artists throughout the Great Lakes region.

Detroit is a great place to follow a creative career path.

Emily Linn

“Detroit is a great place to follow a creative career path,” says Linn, who is a member of the Board of Visitors for WSU’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. “We’ve received great support from other businesses in the neighborhood.”

Indeed, the siblings cemented their presence in Midtown with a second storefront in 2011. Adjacent to City Bird, Nest offers an edited assortment of items including plants, home décor and gifts.

Through their made-with-love approach to retail, the sister-brother duo is playing an active role in the Motor City renaissance. “Andy and I believe in the city,” says Linn, a seventh-generation Detroiter. “We value its vibrancy. It’s inspiring to be able to contribute.”

A Motor City message

Tommey Walker first observed Detroit’s far-reaching impact when the Kwame Kilpatrick trial dominated headline news.

Walker — who attended Wayne State from 2004 to 2007— had established a graphic design career that saw him creating record albums and posters for more than 200 clients, including Def Jam Recordings. While traveling, he encountered negative perceptions of his hometown and its chance of revitalization.

“I immediately thought what holds true for individuals also holds true for cities,” recalls Walker, who at the time was in the midst of his own personal renaissance. “Detroiters have to love Detroit; they have to have pride and be unapologetic in it. You can’t be with us and against us at the same time.”

In 2012, Walker invested in screen-printing equipment and began inking hoodies with a seemingly simple message: Detroit vs. Everybody. Today, the brand — which has been worn by celebrities including Big Sean, Keith Urban and Eminem — has grown to include T-shirts, hats and accessories, which are sold online and at Detroit vs. Everybody outposts in Greektown, Eastern Market, Southfield and Dearborn.

Detroiters have to love Detroit; they have to have pride and be unapologetic in it. You can’t be with us and against us at the same time.

Tommey Walker

Beyond honoring his hometown, Walker notes that his brand shares a connection with WSU. “Detroit vs. Everybody represents a city pride we can call our own, and virtually everyone from this city has a connection to Wayne State,” he observes. “Whether you went here or not, everyone is rooting for Wayne State and feels some sense of pride.”