A Michigan Restaurant Group is Out to Give History New Life
Mapping a timeline of the buildings that house Michigan restaurant group Union Joints’ seven concepts is much like chronicling the development of an entire community.
You could start with the Baptist church constructed in the 1840s and then note one of the oldest family-owned garages before highlighting the fire hall constructed in 1938. All spaces served a purpose in their former life, and all have been given a chance to again serve residents in a different way. Each Union Joints restaurant located in one of these historic structures is as much the product of the building as it is a culinary concept from owners and married couple Curt Catallo and Ann Stevenson.
“What has always attracted us is a building that was built to serve one purpose but is destined to serve another,” Catallo says. “Part of our purpose is repurposing. The opportunities we’ve had—whether it be a church or a service station or a fire hall—all of these structures always served their original intent until we came along.”
Union Joints started in 1995, after Catallo’s parents purchased the Baptist church in their hometown of Clarkston, Michigan, to save it from disrepair. But his parents weren’t sure what to do with it until Catallo and Stevenson decided to move forward with the idea of making it into a restaurant.
“We were silly and young enough to think it was a good idea,” Stevenson says. “It was a bigger undertaking than we would have thought, for sure.”
Sometime in the 1970s, the church’s congregation attempted to “modernize” the building, which meant structural changes like covering up the stained glass. Stevenson, who leads the Union Joints design process, wanted to be sure the restaurant they opened, Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen, reflected the building’s original design.
Built around a menu of American comfort food with a Mediterranean twist—and the now famous Union Joints mac and cheese, which has been ordered more than 1 million times—the restaurant capitalizes on a casual, community-focused setting that is reminiscent of the church’s past, but with beer and air conditioning this time.
“(The church) wouldn’t immediately call to mind a place for food, but what I could see was the potential of it being well-designed, with these gorgeous high cathedral ceilings and natural light,” Stevenson says.
“When I look at a space, I’m thinking about preserving the layers of history that are there. The idea of whitewashing everything, making it flat, and nullifying any of its backstory is heartbreaking,” she continues. “The idea of being able to preserve that history while telling its new narrative, as a restaurant, is the incredible challenge that I feel fortunate to have with each space.”
In developing the church, Union Joints also preserved the parsonage next door by making it into a modern-day general store with home goods, house-made cupcakes and other sweets, and bath and body products.
Stevenson and Catallo have gone on to develop five more foodservice concepts in the past 22 years, along with operating an advertising agency called Union AdWorks.
When developing Vinsetta Garage in the former site of a family-owned automobile shop that was built in 1919, Union Joints wanted to create a menu reminiscent of what the mechanics might have eaten on a lunch break. Now, Catallo notes, those mechanics who worked in the garage even come back for what’s called the “wrenches reunion,” where they dine in what used to be the breakroom while telling stories with friends and family.
“The food would’ve been just as at home when they were eating it back in the day as it is now; you’re eating hamburgers and pizza and food that belongs in that building,” Catallo says. “We’re just doing it in an elevated preparation and trying to give something you’d expect, but still surprise you with the way we do it.”
When a fire station in Fenton, Michigan, became too small for the needs of the fire department, the building went dormant until the city asked for restaurant proposals for the space.
The Fenton Downtown Development Authority chose Union Joints to fill the space with its Fenton Fire Hall concept, which centers on a menu of wood-fired dishes. The group also developed the original water pumphouse, which is adjacent to the restaurant, into a dessert concept serving house-made liquid nitrogen frozen custard, sundaes, shakes, and Faygo slushies. The city’s development organization provided a $100,000 incentive for the concepts.
But even when a historic building hasn’t ended its useful life, Catallo and Stevenson will assist in the continuation of the services it once provided. In creating its Latin street food restaurant Honcho, Union Joints selected a former gas station that had the tanks removed and wasn’t as useful to its current tenant. So, Union Joints purchased another vintage gas station and restored it for that tenant while using the space for Honcho.
“I think there’s something really foundational about our appreciation of these buildings; we’ve never gone out in search of the buildings. There’s no Venn diagram that we follow to say this is our perfect spot,” Stevenson says. “We’re not creating that. We’re following the buildings and creating our world off of that. We’re in pursuit of buildings, and [their history] informs us as far as what we can do with the concept, not the other way around.”
With this approach to establishing new locations, Union Joints admittedly takes its time, and not everything is easy. Investment costs can be high, and sometimes they may deal with customer-experience issues, like parking, that would be easier to manage in a traditional restaurant space. Union Joints also employs a full-time contractor. “We’re definitely in these for the long haul; there’s a reason a lot of restaurants are built on pad sites or in a mall, because it’s definitely a different undertaking when you do something the way we do it,” Catallo says, “You have to go into it knowing that these historic structures are born to give you challenges, and they never disappoint.”
For its next project, the group will develop a restaurant in a former art deco radio station built in 1936 in Oak Park, Michigan.
“(Catallo) does justice to every building and property I have seen him work with,” says Ron Campbell, principal planner and preservation architect for Oakland County, Michigan, which neighbors Detroit and is home to many of the Union Joints concepts. “He has this remarkable ability to understand a building, respect it and its history, and then interpret it in a way that is fresh and appealing. You wish more people would take heed in how he approaches a project and how he makes the architecture part of his business plan.”
And while it seems that this approach to preservation could be adopted by other restaurant groups across the country, Stevenson and Catallo are quick to point to the power of their team and the sentiment of the greater Detroit area in which they operate: “There’s something about being in the Midwest,” Stevenson says. “It has this history of production and manufacturing that we just continue on with by serving and producing in a different way.”