TT with HD: Todd Leopold
[Ed. note: The website for Leopold Bros. is one way to find out more about
this Ann Arbor institution. Reading the conversation below is another way. Probably the best way
is to just go there. In fact, why don't you print off this Teeter Talk for easy transport and go there right now. Actually, there's WiFi
access there, so if you're working from a wireless-ready laptop, you can skip the printing. You'd need
several pieces of paper, anyway. Thing of it is, you'd still be able to line up the pages of the
print-out end to end with no overlap
at Leopold Bros., because they've got unbelievably long tables.
In the conversation below, there are some references to to material published on ArborUpdate and Ann Arbor is Overrated, two active Ann Arbor blogs to which Todd Leopold frequently contributes. The 'Cahill' to which Todd refers below is David Cahill, a frequent contributor to AU and AAIO as well, but probably more widely known in the Ann Arbor community for his service on the Ann Arbor District Library Board. Various other names (e.g., Juliew,) not immediately recognizable could also be contributors to AU.]
HD: Just before we hopped on the teeter totter, you said that you wouldn't mind if another bar went in basically across the street from you, where the old rug place was, which used to be Great Lakes Cycling and Fitness?
TL: No, not at all. It's actually a common discussion I would have with the Greffs up at Arbor Brewing Company, especially when we were first open. Other people thought we were competing. And we didn't look at it like that at all. We get along with them great, they're just absolutely super people, they have very similar political philosophies, they're very community-oriented. What ended up happening? Their sales kept going right up, our sales kept going right up. It made it so that if you wanted to go brew-pub hopping, well, now you've got three places to go. I'd like to think that we both helped each other. Obviously they've been around for quite a bit longer than we were. But, yeah, absolutely we'd like to have more business down that way. And I think all of us are wondering, whenever Fingerle decides to move on, ...
HD: ... is that your understanding that they're moving on at some point?
TL: At some point just pragmatically speaking. We did not used to have a fork-lift, so we would borrow fork-lifts [from Fingerle's]. They'd send their guys over to come and help us out and off-load some of the larger things that we couldn't off-load by hand. Now we have one, so we don't see them as much. So no, this is not coming from the Fingerle's at all. But what's the large swath of land that isn't developed, and you look at that and you think, Well, how long are they going to be downtown? When we spoke with them, they said as long as they can foresee, so I don't see it happening anytime soon. But one of these days, you gotta kinda figure the downtown location is a little bit strange now to have as centralized place to pick up lumber and whatnot. But they're still busy and they're still doing well. As far as I know, they're doing terrific. We get all our stuff from them ...
HD: ... speaking of large swaths of land, do you want to say your piece about the greenway?
TL: [laugh] Sure!
HD: We'll just get that right out of the way [laugh].
TL: Obviously, we're for green space, but the reason that I don't like the concept of the greenway is they seem to be trying to put it in the wrong place. Margaret Wong, actually, was nice enough to come down--when her name was coming up on ArborUpdate and we were going back and forth on it--to try and straighten some things out. Nice woman, really smart. But what I told her was, the greenway group isn't coming in and saying there aren't enough parks. They aren't saying there's not enough green space. They're not saying this is an overall Ann Arbor problem and we need to solve it. That's not what they're saying at all. What they're saying is, this is where it needs to happen, it doesn't matter if it doesn't make any particular sense. ... ... I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting a really nice greenway next to your home. It makes perfect sense, I understand that. But I'd really like to see them explore some other options. And I saw them going through the task force proceedings and they slammed that Allen Creek name on it, which means they're not going to put together a site-selection process. The site's already been chosen, and I was really disappointed in that.
HD: So as I understand it, the proposed swath, or however it's eventually rendered, would cut pretty close to Leopold Bros., right?
TL: Yes, from what they're saying, but you know ...
HD: ... so you wouldn't necessarily see as a possibility that that amenity itself might funnel some beer drinkers your direction?
TL: Well, it could, but I don't want to make money that way. That's the way corporations function. Corporations take a look at the landscape and the laws and have a team of attorneys who, rather than trying to figure out a way to make a light bulb more efficiently, or better, or market it better, say, Let's screw around with the laws to make it more favorable so that we get tax breaks and all kinds of crazy stuff. I just don't like that way of approaching business. Yeah, I guess it could be a nice amenity. I think Juliew pointed that out one time, Why are you complaining?! This is going to run by your place!! Well, that's great, but that's not any reason to spend millions and millions of dollars. The cleanup costs that they're quoting are a million dollars, and you know how that goes. That's going to end up going higher ...
HD: ... yeah, that could possibly escalate.
TL: And trying to run it next to an active railroad?! If you're the railroad company, can you think of a situation where you think it's a good idea to have kids, dogs, Big Wheels, bikes, whatever, next to a running railroad?! I don't see how their attorneys are not just going to look at them and say, You're out of your mind!! What they're talking about is running it right adjacent and I think they've finally figured out that that isn't right. But the biggest reason I don't like it is: the working class are leaving. I mean we were talking about that before we got started [tottering] here. They're being pushed out and they're being replaced by students. I've been asking that question: if in the last five years, 6000 new staffers and students and grad students and whatnot have been coming in, but the population is the same, what's happening? Well, some of the staff is obviously living outside. The students, because there is a growth engine ...
HD: ... called the University of Michigan.
TL: Yes, and people want to keep ignoring it. People like to call it the elephant in the room or the 600-pound gorilla, but still people keep forgetting about it. So there is this demand for growth. Some people who were frustrated during the Calthorpe exercises said, Well you know you seem to already have made the choice that we're going to go ahead and grow! But you don't have the choice. The question is, Where do you put these people? The work force is leaving and they're being replaced by students, in my mind. I just don't want to turn this into Aspen or even more specifically Boulder. Fighting a developer sounds like a good thing, fighting corporations sounds like a grass roots good thing. The problem is that you're not just focussing on Ann Arbor, you've got to worry about the whole region. And Cahill, just as an example--I like sparring with him, it's fun--but he likes to say that the mayor is in the developers' pockets. Well, you know, the flip side of that is that you are in the developers' pockets for everything surrounding Ann Arbor, where that growth engine is pushing all of the growth. I'm not entirely sure people like thinking about that. To me, it's an easy choice. If I have to choose between a local developer and Pulte for some massive tract home development, and I can figure out a way to put in a couple of extra stories worth of residences in here, as opposed to another cul-de-sac out there, to me that's a no-brainer. Let's keep that as farmland and put the stuff on in-fill. One of the things I think I've learned from being a part of ArborUpdate is, I'm on the fringe. And part of the reason that Scott and I came to Ann Arbor is we really thought that ...
HD: ... this is Scott your brother ...
TL: ... my brother, I'm sorry ...
HD: ... there's a lot of Scotts floating around the local online community.
TL: Yes, Scott Leopold. A lot of the reason that we came here was that we thought they would understand the environmental side of things really well.
HD: Yes, my recollection is when I first heard of the Leopold Bros. concept, it seemed less about beer and spirits and more about, We're going to be environmentally conscious! At the time, I recall there was going to be a hydroponic farm and, to be honest, I just thought it sounded nuts. I thought, only in Ann Arbor could anybody even think that this kind of marketing would work. My sense is that you've moved away from that, is that right? As a marketing approach?
TL: Well, the City made the decision for us. Our building is right up against the floodway. So we had all kinds of problems trying to get the City on board. And this starts my issues with the Planning Commission! You know, we recognize that there aren't too many green-house-factory-restaurant uses, so we give them that! Okay, this is weird. But there is like a J-1, that is a nursery designation? God it's been so long now. They designated the back part, where our kitchen is now, as 'medium hazard storage'. Medium hazard storage?! I mean there's going to be tanks of water back there and tomatoes, what are they, going to explode? You know we're trying ...
HD: ... personally, I don't like tomatoes, so I'd probably sign off on that medium hazard designation.
TL: Well, the reason that we picked the tomatoes is that they suck up a lot of water. Scott got his master's from Stanford in environmental engineering, so we're not just a bunch of crazies. He specialized in water and waste-water treatment. I'm getting sidetracked, though. We originally wanted to put it outside, which is partially in the floodplain, I guess. It's a parking lot. It's okay to park cars, but you can't put just a simple little greenhouse. They denied our ability to do that. So then we had to put it inside and do a bunch of crazy things to get through. Then once you get your plans, then the clock's ticking. We had rent that was due, and we had X amount of time, so we had to scramble and do something else, so that we could open.
HD: So basically it was not an assessment that people don't care about this sustainability stuff or environmentally sound practices, people will care mostly about the beer, so let's just head that direction? It was more not being able to execute in the context of the City code?
TL: Right. I am so happy to hear that they're really cleaning things up there, at the City. Mayor Hieftje, when he came to the little talk at our place, he said, You know, Todd, things have changed and we're really making an effort! And I'm really happy to hear that, because every single business person I've spoken with has said it's just a complete nightmare trying to get anything through the approval process.
HD: Well, part of that is the need to re-write the zoning code for most of downtown, right?
TL: That's part of it. For us it was more of a use issue. And it just wasn't really friendly. We got the feeling, and of course we are, you know, that we were outsiders and we were being treated as outsiders. We thought it was some sort of Cahill-ian X-Files conspiracy thing, where they're trying to shut everybody out. But we started talking to people and it was, Oh, no, that happens all the time! A lot of contractors don't work in Ann Arbor because of all the craziness. Now that we're here, they've been great. The building department comes down to do inspections and I don't mean 'soft', but I mean fair and making sense. Maybe that is part of what Hiefje was talking about with the changes.
HD: So these changes that he's spoken of, you would say are perceptible?
TL: They're perceptible to me in the sense of what they do to come down and maintain things. So they'll come in and check to make sure that everything is electrically safe. They came down a couple of months after the--what the heck was the name of that band that had the night-club fire with all the pyro-techics? Do you know what I'm talking about? White Snake or something weird?
HD: I have only a vague recollection of that.
TL: Anyway, after that I think the fire department decided, Okay, we're going to go through and check all the places with nightclub licenses. We have a nightclub license, or I guess a 'cabaret license' is what it's called.
HD: Oh really? That's actually something I wanted to ask you about. What's the story with live music at Leopold Bros.? There was regular live music for a while, and then it stopped. What I heard was that out of consideration for the neighbors, you just decided to bag all the live music.
TL: We started out having live music on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We started getting complaints. We stopped doing it on Wednesdays and tried just Saturdays. The complaints continued. We decided it was too loud. We had The Gourds come in, Andrew Bird came in. There's another political game. Trying to get these bands to come down to your place when you're not a part of Clear Channel is an interesting adventure. We just decided it just wasn't worth it. You can't have a regional indie act--Postal Service, or whoever it is you want to have come in--have to shut down because the cops are there, so ...
HD: ... oh, so you're saying you wouldn't want to risk having a nationally known act have to pull the plug because of a noise complaint.
TL: Right. So we decided to be good neighbors. We put a little ad in Current saying, We're done, thanks! It really was too loud, and the neighbors were pretty cool about it. And at the time we were about to go before the City for a distilling license and ...
HD: ... and you figured maybe it'd be a good idea to have your nose clean?
TL: That was part of it, but more than anything it was just trying to be a good neighbor, ...
HD: ... yet just recently you hosted the Ear Fair at the conclusion of the Art Fair. I thought maybe that was heralding a new era of live music at Leopold Bros.?
TL: We do live music on pretty much the same days of the year. We figure they can handle four times a year. So we do New Year's--who cares about noise on New Year's? We tried to do a couple of Halloween shows. We've done Valentine's Day, because we're such a couples place, we've found, for some reason.
TL: Well, for Saturday nights, it seems like a date night, I guess.
HD: Huh. My perception is more like that it's a gangs-of-people place where large groups ...
TL: ... oh, absolutely ...
HD: ... you know, people show up in herds as opposed to by couple-by-couple.
TL: Absolutely, very much so. But Saturdays you get a lot of boyfriend-girlfriends, girlfriend-girlfriends, boyfriend-boyfriends showing up. So we've found our Valentine's Day sales aren't so terrific, and the good thing is, all the doors are closed. The biggest problem you have with the noise is in the summer, when everybody's windows are open.
HD: Ah, but in the wintertime in February, you can button the place up ...
TL: ... yeah, it's not as big of an issue. And we've been traditionally doing this stuff on the Art Fair Saturday for some time now.
HD: You characterized you and your brother as 'outsiders'. Where exactly are you from?
TL: Littleton, Colorado. Columbine High School, that usually dials it in for people. That's the high school we went to.
HD: So when you were doing your own site-location selection, did the quality of the Ann Arbor water have anything to do with it?
TL: Yeah, it did.
HD: That's something I learned about for the first time from Joan Lowenstein, when she was here teeter tottering. She was talking about the amazing quality of Ann Arbor water, and before that I hadn't heard of it. But apparently, they use some sort of ozone-based purification process. I was wondering, is that good for brewing beer and distilling spirits? Or is that something that just gets in the way?
TL: No, the ozone is good, because you don't have as much residual chlorine. It's an expensive process, so they're spending quite a bit on that. With brewing, you're more looking for salt concentrations. It's not so much that it's good or that it tastes good--I shouldn't say that that's irrelevant, but it's bordering on irrelevant. What you're worried about is the hardness of the water. In general, the softer the water, the better. All brewers and distillers treat their water.
HD: So whatever comes out of the tap, you've got to run through your own filtration system?
TL: Yeah, so we just run it through a simple carbon filter, and there's a couple other little things that we do. We don't do anything major to it. But you have to take it down as close to zeros as possible in terms of your calcium and magnesium and all that kind of stuff, and then build it back up, so that the beer is consistent. Back in the 1800's and the 1700's, the brewing water was really important, because you didn't have that kind of knowledge. Pilsner Urquell, they have notoriously soft water, that makes a very very different beer than, say, up in England, where you've got the White Cliffs of Dover and all the crazy chalk and the hardness in it. That's why the tea tastes like it does in England.
HD: Well speaking of old times, how close are you to adhering to the German Purity Laws of 1516?
TL: And then some! I don't add any what are called 'kettle finings', I don't filter, I don't ...
HD: ... so really, just water, barley and hops, nothing else?
TL: It's very very simple, very uncomplicated. As close to nature as possible. And it makes for a better beer in my opinion. I don't think it's much fun to filter the heck out of it.
HD: That's what your liver is for.
TL: Yeah, exactly. After I got done with brewing school in Munich, I went and worked in a few breweries. What really sealed it for me was, I tasted the Kellerbier from the tanks, and it was absolutely unbelievable. And then you see it run through a series of filters. They add gelatin. They add a substance called PVPP, which is essentially plastic, little plastic tiny balls that are electrically charged, that will have proteins and other things adhere to it, to help make a larger particle that's easier to filter out. And the resulting beer that you get on the other end doesn't taste anything like what you're getting out of the cellar. The place I worked the most time was in Wuerzburg. When you made a mistake, or when it didn't taste so good, they'd laugh and say, That's for export to America!
HD: [laugh] Nice.
TL: Well, you filter it, you pasteurize it, you do all these things, and that's why people come in and say, Well, Todd, this doesn't taste like a German beer! Well, no, it's not going to taste anything like what you'd get out of the supermarket. My malt master that I get my malt from in Bamberg comes by once a year and he went by one of the local liquor stores. He saw a label for one of the brewers--I won't say which one--that had been phased out. They had made a label change two years previous. And it's been sitting out warm. Beer doesn't do so well warm, in my opinion, more than three or four months. It starts to taste like wet cardboard.
HD: Just out of curiosity, when's the last time you found yourself in a situation where you had no choice but to drink like a pint of Bud Light?
TL: Brewing school?
HD: So you don't manage to work yourself into situations where, in order to just be polite ...
TL: Oh, no, absolutely. I went to a brewing school in Chicago before Munich, and there were guys from Molson and Labatts and all these different places. You learn to appreciate all the different kinds of beer and the different styles. Never turn down a beer. Beer is hospitality. If somebody invites you to their home? I mean, if they know that I'm a brewer, if I come in and I say, No, to something that they offer me, how rude is that? I would never never do that, I don't care what it is. If somebody offers me a beer, unless I have to get in the car, I'm gonna say, Yes!
HD: You were talking about levels of salts and various elements in water, and that reminded me that I wanted to ask you about copper. On your website you talk about this copper pot that you use for distilling and you say that it's small enough that you can literally wrap your arms around it? It's 40 gallons?
HD: Well, I can imagine that you might be able to wrap your arms around it. Is that maybe just your oblique way of saying that you like to hug your pot?
TL: Absolutely! No, we love it. There's nothing quite like having the still running at seven in the morning. It's just you and the still, and it's quiet. You feel ties to the past, it's just such an old way. It's not quite like brewing. I don't get the same feeling out of brewing that I do out of distilling. It just seems a little bit more magical. I mean, you've got something that's a liquid and I can stare at it and see, at the very start of the boil, you can see some of the vapors traveling up. To me, it's just fascinating that you have all of these flavors and aromas and everything drifting its way up in a gaseous form before it re-condenses on the other side.
HD: So are your condensing coils also copper? My understanding that it's key for copper to be in the condensing process as well, in order for the copper ions to bind off all the sulfur?
TL: No, it's much more important that that happens when it's hot. It depends on what you're putting in it. Sulfur compounds will adsorb on the outside of the copper surfaces. I'll clean it off with a citric acid compound. It'll literally just wash right off and have a very distinctive aroma when you finish. It depends on what it is you're making. An eau de vie with a lot of stone fruit--I make a peach liqueur, and the peach liqueur, you'll have some cyanide compounds that you need to get out. So there is a fixed amount of copper that you need to have for a fixed amount of duration to make sure that those compounds are changed over back to a more inert form that won't kill you.
HD: So eventually, the pot's going to wear out, just because all the copper is going to bind ...
TL: ... yes, so a lot of the older places will put patches on it, you can do that. You can replace the whole thing. But no two stills are alike, even if they're off of the line. The one that I got is custom-designed. I went out and traveled in Germany and Austria and worked with a particular gentleman in Austria--the Destillata is like the Great American Beer Festival for spirits for all of Asia and Europe--he was Distiller of the Year three times.
HD: And he made your pot?
TL: No, that's who I worked with. I worked with him and went through and talked about the different features. And he made everything, everything that you can possibly think of that you can get over in Europe. He made quince brandy, he made elderberry! I learned as much as I could from him, and then I went back up to the shop in Germany just outside of Stuttgart and said, Okay, this is what I want. I want the temperature gauge here, and this and that, so that I know how to control it the way I learned from him. The height, the diameter, the plates, the surface area that's in there, it's all very very specific to my still. So if I had to do it again, we have the CAD drawings now, we could get it as close as possible. But even if I buy a second one, it's going to take some adjusting to figure out how to make the product come out as similar as I can.
HD: So if you were to buy a second one, that would be in response to enough demand that you'd need to actually up the production ...?
HD: So the balance of your business, my sense is that you'd like it to be more on the distilling side as opposed to the beer brewing side?
TL: Yesss. You know, we stopped packaging beer in bottles.
HD: Oh, that's why can't get it over there at the Party Center! I asked the guy and he said his distributor told him it was out of stock, but that he could try to special order it. I said, Yeah, do that. But it's never shown up.
TL: Nope, we're finished with distribution off site.
HD: For beer.
TL: For beer.
HD: But you're reaching out to all parts of the union for distilling ...
TL: ... every state! Right now I'm getting ready to go to South Carolina. We do a product launch there and in Georgia. So next Thursday, Friday I'll be in South Carolina doing a launch there. Then I'm going to head down to Hilton Head for a day and do some sales there. Then I'm going to head up into Savannah. Savannah just started this month. And we're on in 29 liquor stores. We just got the report today, and I'm just, Wow! But I'm in a bit of panic, because I leave on Tuesday and they just did this and we're sending out a few pallets at a time of our spirits. It's taking a while to get our distributor to understand that we're not Smirnoff and we can't call our Florida warehouse. So I have peach whiskey, Georgia peach whiskey. All of our peach products that we're making are made with Georgia peaches.
HD: Selling peach whiskey to Georgians, is that a bit like selling ice to Eskimos?
TL: No, because there isn't one. The only peach liqueur that's sold in the Georgia market is DeKuyper. So they're really excited about it, because the way that I make it, I was just about to explain before. I take the eau de vie and I put the peach pits in it and distill it off. If you've had an amaretto before, amaretto is made with distilled apricot pits--it's not almonds, but it has a distinctive almond flavor...
HD: ... I was going to say, No, that's almonds! So I'm glad I didn't.
TL: Well, that's what I assumed before I got into this whole thing. So I have something that tastes like marzipan or almonds, that's the base that I use. Then I add the peaches to it. And for the peach whiskey, instead of eau de vie, I use whiskey and then put it into used bourbon barrels. But anyway, it has a very very distinctive flavor to it. It's something that chefs and foodies are just going nuts over, so it's just starting to move. We've just started selling it down there.
HD: So are you really actively thinking about the possibility of adding a second still and expanding?
TL: Oh, absolutely.
HD: But part of the appeal is that you personally hand-craft each and every batch, so I imagine at some point there's a tension between how much you're able to work and how much you can sell? I mean, do you want to spend every second of every day distilling, or do you want to have the time to, say, come and ride a teeter totter every once in a while?
HD: So do you think about this tension of becoming big versus staying small but also staying great? There's a book that was published recently with a title something like Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Stay Small and Great. [Ed. note: It's actually Bo Bo Burlingham's Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big]
TL: There's a tension there, but distilling is different. One barrel that I make, that'll almost fill an entire pallet. The volumes are completely different. It takes an awful lot more effort to make the beer and package it and get the stuff out there than it does the spirits. We're still only sending a few hundred cases out to these locales. So it will actually help us to stay relatively small. The stuff that we're selling comes out in the area of somewhere between 35 and 40 dollars a pop, so it's not going to sell everywhere. Our market is somewhat narrowed as it is. It helps funnel us towards staying a craft distillery. I have one assistant working with me right now, and he's still not quite full-time. The brewing is semi-automatic. We spent quite a bit on automation to try and make it as energy efficient as possible. But one of the ancillary benefits is that I can brew and distill at the same time.
HD: So do you have a batch of something going right now as we totter?
TL: No, not today. No, I couldn't leave the facility for very long.
HD: Is that a quality control issue or is that a matter of law?
TL: There should be a law somewhere! But I don't think there is. It's an I-don't-want-my-brewery-to-blow-up-while-I'm-gone issue. But we're very hands-on and you're right: I very much want to keep it the same craft distilling. We're not going to be breaking any records with our sales anytime soon. I just don't see that happening. The biggest place right now for craft distilling is called Hangar One in California. And they expect to do 30,000 cases this year. That may sound like a lot, but it really isn't. It really isn't very much.
HD: How much in a case? Just educate me here.
TL: Oh, I'm sorry, it's 12 bottles to a case.
HD: And to a pallet?
TL: It depends on the height of the box.
HD: So just as high as you can stack them?
TL: Well, 40 or 50 cases on a pallet. We're just really excited about how it's going. The peach liqueur, they waited on the distributor, so part of what we're doing is launching that, and that I'm really excited about. We got a silver medal for that at the San Francisco Spirits Competition.
HD: Cool. Was it literally a silver medal that you won?
TL: A literal silver medal.
HD: Do you wear it around your neck when you distill?
TL: [laugh] No, you actually get this funny little bottle medal, that you put around the bottle, so that's sitting at the bar. We haven't really done much to advertise this, but Grand Marnier, as an example, got a bronze. So here we are, one of the ...
HD: ... rubbing shoulders with the big boys.
TL: Exactly. And that kind of press helps people understand not so much that you're making world-class spirits--although I'd like to think we're heading in that direction--but that you're not making bathtub gin. I'm sure Larry Bell went through the same stuff back in the 80's: What do you mean, you make your own beer? And you had to educate people to understand that. I think the brewing side of things has helped people understand. They understand what a micro-brewery is, so it's not that much of a leap to understand what a micro-distillery is. And so far the response from restaurants and foodies has been really wonderful.
HD: So you got anything else on your mind this morning? Other than it's just a spectacular day? I mean, I was so worried we had all that rain late yesterday ...
TL: ... I would have sat on the totter with the rain! I don't care. I'm a mess, look at me!
HD: Well, that's easy to say now!
TL: Yeah, right, that's true. Well, I guess I did want to finish up maybe a little on the greenway ...
HD: ... yeah, I kind of derailed you off that topic, sorry.
TL: Well, I just don't want to sound like a horrible person who's against green things. I'd like to think our family is pretty well known for environmentalism, so I just wanted to explain that a little bit. I'd rather see it put in a place that makes more sense, that actually is a greenway. I don't think it's physically possible to run it through that route. I think that it will be prohibitively expensive to do it there. And if we can do the same thing--maybe a little bit north or south of town, or west, I don't know--in some other portion of town, and have it really be green, have it really be usable by more people, and have it not cost nearly as much, I think it bears looking into at the very least.
HD: My take on the greenway is that it seems like that it's a problem which solution was pre-defined. So whatever the problem was, the solution is, We need to build a greenway. So when you say, How do we build a greenway? that already defines a solution to some unspecified problem. It's not a problem to be solved. If you ask, What's the problem, I think you'd find a lot of people in agreement that there's poor connections between downtown and the leafy neighborhoods. I mean even as close as Leopold Bros. is to downtown, for me to actually go to Leopold Bros., I have to think, Okay, I really want to go to Leopold Bros. as a destination. Even standing on the street corner, looking south across to the building where the Chamber of Commerce is, you know where I'm talking about right?
TL: Yes, I do.
HD: You're standing on that street corner and you're looking across at that surface parking lot and you think, Is there really anything down there? And unless you know that there's some destination that you want to go to, I can't imagine anybody saying, Gosh, let me just cross this street and see what's over here! So I think that probably you'd get a lot of agreement in the community that there is this challenge of expanding, psychologically at least, and maybe physically even, the connections between the core of downtown, and outer downtown--which Leopold Bros. is a part of--and then on to the leafy neighborhoods.
TL: I like that, 'leafy neighborhoods'!
HD: I learned that phrase from Doug Kelbaugh. When he tottered he used it and I thought it must be a legitimate term, so I figured I'd just have a try with it. But then, I think, you'd start to think more creatively in terms of the Allen Creek watershed. You could think of corridors from the Allen Creek watershed into downtown as opposed to saying, Oh, there's got to be a big way parallel to the creek, and it's got be green! Because I think there are some interesting opportunities that you could do on project-by-project basis, fairly small projects, that might create corridors between Allen Creek and the downtown area. Or between the already-existing riverway, which we've already plowed a lot of money into developing. We just hook it up to downtown through these corridors that, yes, do exist now, but we could enhance them, perhaps make them more pedestrian-friendly or more bicycle-friendly. But I think this is a classic example of presupposing the solution to the problem and disguising it as a problem unto itself. So the problem then becomes, How do we build this greenway? But that doesn't define a problem. That's already a solution to something, I'm not sure what. A problem is, How do we connect up the city into a more coherent whole?
TL: I totally agree. And actually I think one of the big mistakes that Calthorpe made was just giving people chips and having them figure out where everything goes. If I was going to do that exercise, I would have had them make a list of goals. What are the goals of this town? What makes Ann Arbor different? Is affordable housing honest-to-god a priority? Is walk-ability a priority? Make them go through that, and have a discussion. You'd make it much more of an open thing. You mention the University of Michigan for sure and say, Look, there's going to be more demand! And ask, What are we going to do with these people? That definitely needs to be a part of the discussion. But it seemed more like a kid-in-a-candy-store approach of, Where do we put all these bells and whistles?
HD: Did you actually participate in those sessions?
TL: I did not. Short on time as is ...
HD: ... you were probably brewing something.
TL: Actually, I was probably dealing with all the state regs. Every state is different for liquor, but I don't want to get sidetracked! My dad is a landscape architect. He's taught classes at Harvard and CSU. This is sort of what our family does or at least that's kind of the way we look at it. So we've always talked about design. Actually, when the City went out to go to Boulder, he knows Peter Pollack--not that Peter Pollack, there's a different Peter Pollack who's the head of planning for Boulder--and he helped arrange that he'd come and do a lecture. [Ed. note: the other, Ann Arbor Peter Pollack chairs the Greenway Taskforce] And he tried to make it so that they'd actually go in to the actual planning department, because they have really neat software, everything is as transparent as possible, where my dad could go in there and say, I want to build a brewery in Boulder, how do we do that? Well, here's where the different zoning is, and they'd literally pull it up on the map. And here's some potential areas where you could do that kind of endeavor, and here are the permits. That kind of thing. He was really hoping that they would go. But we've been having conversations back and forth on this. I think it's great that they brought Calthorpe in, but I think they should have backtracked. Because I think--and this is part of why I get such a kick out of Cahill-- if you start to take it back to what makes Ann Arbor different from, say, Dexter, when you try and take it down the logic ladder of here's the things that are important, density to me is just obvious. When you go through all the things that make Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, and the types of people who you were talking about, who moved out from across the street [Ed. note: the seasonal rental tenants before the house was renovated by owner-occupants, who were typically students or musicians], you need to build up a little bit, you need to go vertical. If Calthorpe, or the City, or whoever, would take us through the things that we value, there's no chance that they're going to come away with: Four-story buildings! It's just not possible. When you bring in somebody from out of town, do you go with them and say, Look at all these lovely short buildings? I didn't even get inside your front door and you were talking about quirky neighbors. Well, the quirky neighbors are bailing! They're leaving. It drives me nuts! The friends that I have who are musicians--one of the previous totterees was talking about Greg ...
HD: ... McIntosh?
TL: Yeah, it's good to bring him up a second time. He's a rock star, I love him! You know, I'm good friends with those guys. They've all moved to Ypsi in the last couple of years to start families and all that kind of stuff. It just drives me bananas that they have such a tough time living in this place.
HD: We've still got Starling Electric over here on our side, though.
TL: Yeah, those guys are amazing. They played at our place, for--what the heck was it for? New Years? Halloween? Boy, they all meld together, but I thought they were terrific. I bought their CD before it came out.
HD: Oh, you pre-ordered it!
TL: Unbelievable. Absolutely amazing, the production value of that thing.
HD: Well, that's Jason DeCamillis for you.
TL: Unbelievable. I just wanted to finish the thought with my dad. I'd love for him to come up and take everybody through this stuff. What he does as a consultant, is come into towns and do a thirty-year plan. Up in Colorado, a lot of it is, We've got to worry about forest fires and other kinds of stuff! And where do want to put this and that? And this the kind of growth that we can expect, so how do you want to handle it? So he will literally come in and do a master plan for towns in the four-corner states, he and his partners. That's why I'm always pushing for the master plan so hard here, where you start with the town goals and you work on it from there. You don't come in and say from the get-go: I don't care, as long as the buildings are small! Obviously, I'm very set on this kind of stuff, but I just don't understand why living next to a big building is such a big deal. If it's taking care of other community goals, if that makes it so that Greg McIntosh can live in this town, you can put up a building as big as you want! I want those kind of people here. It just depresses me, that even after hearing all the Calthorpe exercises, that they're still talking about a 9-story building that's in the dead center of downtown that's near one guy ...
HD: ... as being too tall for its location.
TL: Yeah, I just don't understand! And on top of it, they make them jump through so many hoops. To me, it should be the other way around: if you're going to restrict the height, something's got to give for the developer. It's like saying, Todd, you can't have a bar that is this big, or you can only have half of the people, ...
HD: ... or you can only have 100 pint glasses in the establishment.
TL: Exactly. Todd, good luck with that! Wait a minute, Why?! And when they come back with 'small town feel' then ...
HD: ... well, I have to say, I actually grew up in a small town. In southern Indiana. Population now is around 35,000, I think. When I was there it was around 30,000.
TL: That's small.
HD: And one of the things that appealed to me about Ann Arbor when we first visited the town, before we had any idea that we might live here or even could live here--we were visiting friends and living in Rochester, New York at the time--but one of the things that appealed to me about it was that it wasn't the small town I grew up in. It also wasn't even Bloomington, Indiana, right down the road. It seemed like a real city more than either of those. Bloomington is a similar city, worth comparing, because it's also got the growth engine of Indiana University situated there. And to me, coming from an authentic small-town experience growing up, Ann Arbor was not that, and that's what appealed to me. So it's always funny to me to hear people talking about Ann Arbor's 'small town feel'. No, that's not what we've got here in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is already, I think, legitimately a city. And we'd be wise to capitalize on that.
TL: Absolutely. In one of the [ArborUpdate] threads, I said if I were more of a weasal-ly politician, I'd say I'm trying to protect the neighborhoods. I don't want to put in a 10-story building here [next to the totter]. I don't want to do that. I want to keep the cohesiveness of these homes together. But we're talking about the central area, and Juliew and Brandon and some others have said we should be trying to start finding some 'satellite' downtowns. I completely agree with that one-hundred percent. But I feel like the people who live right next to downtown, you're getting so much bang for your buck, something there has to be a compromise. You can't be right up against a downtown area and not have noise, and not have parties, and not have big buildings. To me, it's like, What are you giving to be a part of this community? And, to me, it's frustrating that some people don't seem to feel that they need to compromise. I've learned more and more that not everybody thinks that way, or is more interested in trying to do some more density and trying to go vertical as much as possible. But I feel like there needs to be a bit of a trade. For me, I'm living near neighbors. I'm living near homes. You know how I am with music and I know you've seen my jukebox at some point, and you know that I'm a music fan. It killed me to stop doing that live music. However, I'm living near some homes and there has to be some compromise on our part. I really believe in that. I get frustrated when there are so many other towns that you can live in all throughout Michigan that have only two-story buildings. If that's your only criteria, then you can move anywhere. It's not my place to tell people how they should think, but I guess, to sum up, I would think that some of these other community goals are more important than building heights.
HD: I think it would be interesting sometime to test our community goals by putting an affordable housing millage up against a parks millage, just to test where people's priorities are in Ann Arbor. Because my sense is that people are willing to put a tremendous amount of energy into supporting parks, but I don't see the same enthusiasm for affordable housing, except when it comes to a developer: Oh, you want to put up a building, well, guess what, you're either going to put affordable housing in that building or else you're going to pay into an affordable housing fund. I don't object to the City saying that developers need to share part of this burden for creating affordable housing, to the extent that they are planning a project that might not be exactly consistent with our plan for how we want our city to look. But I think that's a burden and a responsibility that needs to be spread a bit more broadly. I don't want my taxes to go up, I'd prefer they go down. But for me, given a choice, Parks? Affordable housing? I'd much rather see my dollar of tax money go to support affordable housing as opposed to parks.
HD: It's not like there's a dearth of parks.
TL: That's exactly my thing. What are you talking about, there's not enough parks?! I don't understand that. I used to play lacrosse and I'll walk up to Pioneer High School and shoot on the goal.
HD: Yeah, there's a lot of areas in addition to the 'official' parks that don't make the acreage-count for parks in the city. Besides lacrosse, you can go over to the cross-country trail at Pioneer. I've run over on the cross-country trail, that goes through the woods there.
TL: Right, right.
HD: I might be wrong about whether that counts officially as a park or not for total acreage, but I don't think it does. I've seen at least some maps that don't have a little green fleck for the cross-country course.
TL: Well, I don't think they count the Diag and that's as park-y as you're going to get.
HD: Or right across Liberty here by the elementary school, it's one of the more underused amenities in the entire city. Dog walkers use it a lot, but other than that, it gets very little use. My wife and I will go over there every once in a while and chuck a football back and forth, but we never see anybody else over there. We have the place to ourselves.
TL: Well, I said before that people aren't really necessarily saying that there aren't enough parks up to this point. But one of the things that I talked about when the mayor and [Leigh] Greden and [Chris] Easthope, and I think there were some candidates there, too ...
HD: ... this was back in fall of 2005?
TL: Yeah. And they were saying that they get lots of hate mail when they start talking about an affordable housing tax. The people who call themselves Democrats in this town, aren't always. It confuses me. I went to school in D.C.--of course, I guess all the party lines are blurred these days--but to me, a lot of the squeaky wheels in this town tend to treat it like Del Boca Vista in Seinfeld, where there are the ridiculous convenants with apartment complexes, where they're more worried about what their neighbors are doing. I don't know if people feel like developers are cackling and twisting their moustaches and running away? I just saw that in a recent post. All they do is take all that ridiculous overhead that they keep loading into all these projects, and passing it along to the end-user. They're not idiots. If they were just interested in building some stuff and making their margin, they would go build in Ypsi or in some other crazy place in Michigan. And, of course, a lot of them do. But all they're going to do is make it more expensive for everyone else. It drives me nuts to hear the same people who are complaining about tall buildings say, Why the hell are these condos $300,000 a unit?! Well, how can you not see the connection between these things? You know, I don't know. The reason I'm against putting in a greenway as they're talking about it, is the same reason I have a tough time with an affordable housing tax ...
HD: ... well, yeah, Question One becomes, What do you do with that money, exactly? Do you actually go and make the City an affordable housing builder? Hey, are you going to the Greenway Task Force meeting tonight? I think it's close to the final meeting, if not the final one before they have to submit their report?
TL: No, I've taken one vacation since I've moved here. I went to Toronto for four days over Thanksgiving last year, and we're pretty much working seven days a week trying to do all these different things. I'd always laugh with the Greffs when I'd go up to their place for lunch and just shoot the breeze with Matt: out would come their manager meeting, and they have more managers than we have employees! Quite literally. That's one of the things that's tough about our place, you know. It's my brother and I, an assistant and, besides football Saturdays--we have servers who come in and do that--we have a total staff of eight.
TL: Low overhead. For Corner Brewery, Matt and René came down, actually, with their architects to have a look at how we put together some of the things we did, I guess.
HD: Actually, those two places [Leopold Bros. and Corner Brewery] have a very similar feel when you first walk in. Very much an open space. Although at the Corner Brewery, they don't have the big long beer-hall tables like you do. But it has a much more open layout than a typical bar. It's all sort of exposed.
TL: And I think their financial structure for the new place is much much more similar to ours, where you don't have five-hundred people working in the kitchen, and the hostess, and the manager, and the assistant manager, and all that craziness and headaches. It's a much more simplified way of operating.
HD: Yeah, it's not trying to be a restaurant and, by the way, we're selling some beer, too. It's basically: we're making and selling beer. If pressed, maybe we'll find a bratwurst somewhere for you to eat.
TL: Absolutely. I still have to get there, I haven't had the chance. But I've been talking with Matt back and forth. They're going to start doing wine there.
HD: Making wine??
TL: I still don't know one-hundred percent if they're going to wind up making it or have someone else package it or what it is they're looking to do. But they just got their wine license a little bit ago. I think they're looking to do some outdoorsy things like sangria. I don't know exactly what their exact deals are. Everything that we sell on site has to be based on grape, so I have a little bit of knowledge of screwing around, trying to get barrels of wine and stuff like that. That's what I use as the base for the vodka and the gin and everything.
HD: Wait a second. Everything that you distill at Leopold Bros. has to be based on grapes??!!
TL: That we sell on site, yes. That we sell on site.
HD: So there's no grapes in the Georgia peach stuff.
TL: No. If we sell it on site, yes. But it's just neutral. The feedstock that you use is almost irrelevant. Of course if you're talking about vodka, what the hell are you going to talk about? Well, what's it made from? How many times is it filtered--which means nothing? How many times is it distilled--which means nothing? Essentially, you're making it neutral. The feedstock has a very very small amount to do with the finished flavor. There's a little bit more methanol that I need to get rid of in grapes.
HD: So we don't need to be alarmed that there's grapes in there? That doesn't make it wine?
TL: No. It's brandy. It's neutral brandy is what it is. So if you buy a bottle of gin, it's lemon-flavored brandy. It's the same recipe as what I used for the stuff off-site, but the BATF handles the labeling and the state just has this rule. Essentially what it's designed for is to make sure that the wholesalers in Michigan get all of their money. So I can't sell tequilla and all of that kind of stuff here. They looked at brandy and said, How much brandy are they going to sell? Yeah, they can sell the stuff on-site, what the hell do we care? But the loophole in it is, you can make neutral brandy, you can make flavored brandy. So it gives us greater flexibility. So depending on the type of liqueur that I have--we have 20 different liqueurs--it's either flavored brandy or a dessert wine, one or the other. A dessert wine is actually interesting, because it's inverted. So there's a little bit of wine and a lot a bit of brandy, instead of the other way around. It's just weird old outdated Michigan laws that are intended to keep the monopoly of distributors happy, essentially.
HD: Alright, well if you had to pick one other person in town that you'd like to go on a teeter totter ride with, who'd that be? Could you come up with a name?
TL: Ann Arbor is Overrated, you haven't had on, or I haven't seen on. I'd definitely like to see that.
HD: Oh, but my question isn't the one that you answered. I mean somebody that you personally would like to ride the teeter totter with.
TL: Ohhhh, I got it. Okay. Boy, that's a tough one. Who is it that I haven't really had a chance to chat with? Coleman, maybe?
HD: Mary Sue Coleman? You'd like to go on a teeter totter ride with her?
HD: Yeah, she might need some counterweights.
TL: [laugh] Well, there was a link to her budget report [on ArborUpdate] and it just seems like very interesting going for her. She was saying that other states are getting more appropriations and we were getting less. And how do you keep Michigan world class without the dough? It just seems like a fascinating job to me to try and run an entire university.
HD: It's larger than a lot of cities. Well, listen, thanks very much for coming to ride the teeter totter.