MAY/JUN 2002

A New Party at Big Ten

If you’ve lived your whole life in Michigan, maybe you don’t know that the rest of the country doesn’t have "party stores." There are convenience stores, corner markets, and ABC stores, but the only party stores are shops that specialize in party decorations. When I first moved here, I took delight in the term "party store" for an ordinary convenience store, feeling that whenever I shopped there, I was about to have a party. But that interpretation becomes suspect when you just stop in for a quart of milk or some toilet paper.

Fortunately, Big Ten Party Store (1928 Packard—extra parking in back) has always lived up to its name, with party supplies of all kinds (alcohol, fancy cookies, hors d’oeuvres, colorful paper plates, and even balloons). And now, under new ownership, it is fast becoming a mecca for fancy party preparations. If you’re one of the thousands of local residents who’ve been educated about specialty and imported foods by Zingerman’s or been pleasantly lost in the wine aisles of the Village Corner, the transformed Big Ten offers one more local destination for these staples of 21st-century Ann Arbor kitchens.

A much expanded deli displays myriad cheeses in varied shapes, sizes, and smells. Two of the deli’s full-time experts, Simone Jenkins and Ryan Gillies, are happy to offer you tastes of Sierra de Gata (Spanish goat’s milk cheese), Rigotte a la Provencale (soft cheese marinated in oil and herbs), or Queixo Tetilla (a creamy cow’s milk cheese formed into teat-shaped mounds—I kid you not).

Simone—who worked in a cheese shop in London ("and now for something completely different")—suggested these to me as good choices for warmer weather. She stood just across a low cutting table from me, and joined me in tasting everything, as she shared cheese facts I’d never known. For example, the crunchy bits you get in some hunks, like a good parmesan, are crystallized amino acids. And cheeses with an orange rind, like muenster, are called "washed-rind," because they are bathed in a brine solution that makes them smelly. She also pointed out that different cheeses are produced at different times of year, depending on whether the milk-producing animals are eating grass or winter feed. Okay, I agree, it’s logical, but I’d never thought about it before. Thank goodness the old Big Ten neon sign still stands out front, pointing the way to ...

The improved deli also offers numerous nitrate-free hams, salamis, and other cured meats. The Italian rosemary ham, sliced to see through, on what Simone calls their new Ferrari of slicers, has a fresh, light flavor. And if you’re in the mood for a ham and cheese sandwich, you can now buy exceptional breads at Big Ten. Every Thursday morning, loaves arrive by air from Paris where they were baked the night before. Produced by Poilane, the Pain Au Levain is a particularly delicious light-brown bread with an airy moist texture and subtle flavor. It’s a relief from the heavy, chewy Zingerman’s breads that have taken over at many specialty bread counters. But you pay for the privilege of eating fresh-baked French bread: a one-pound medium-sized loaf is $4.98.

In addition to imported items, Big Ten is also adding more locally made products such as Afternoon Delight muffins, Mill Pond breads, donuts from Washtenaw Dairy, gelato from Zingerman’s Creamery, and Caulder milk in returnable glass bottles. Other improvements are slowly phasing in: new organic salsas and hommous from California, gourmet roasted coffee beans, oily Spanish almonds, bulk olives, and beer-making supplies. They also still have a tempting collection of imported fancy cookies, shortbreads, and biscuits; chocolates (now including Valrhona—my favorite); kids’ candies; teas; and jams.

And, of course, being a party store, Big Ten still sells beer and ales; wines of the world; and hard liquor. These selections are improving too, as the owners try to replace cheap, run-of-the-mill liquor with higher quality potables, bring in more wines from small European producers, and offer more locally produced brews.

Who is responsible for all these changes? Not surprisingly, it’s two former Zingerman’s gourmands, Tommy York and Matt Morgan. Students of wine and spirits as well as food, they wanted to create a full-service, premier party store. So when the last owner of the Big Ten was ready to sell, they were excited to get a space to practice their passion.

Several Zingerman’s colleagues came with them, all of whom plan lifetime careers in the specialty food and wine industry. Their vision is to emulate an old-fashioned hardware store—where customers see the same staff for twenty years and get expert advice and assistance on any "project" they may have in mind (from a dinner party to making a pizza to cooking with saffron). On a recent visit, employee Marty Meyer (who worked here before the change) helped me put together a selection of affordable snacks that were a hit with my writing group.

The employees even look like old-fashioned retail professionals in new knee-length, button-down clerk coats. To encourage retention and full-time scheduling of employees, Matt and Tommy have introduced a health care plan (for which the store pays half the cost) and a matching retirement plan.

Being thoughtful business owners, they are not unaware of the class issues associated with specialty foods and wine, and they’re quick to defend their niche market. "This is not just for rich people," says Tommy. "Poor people are getting smoked all the time at grocery stores, buying crap." He sees working families wasting their grocery money on food that is dangerous, preservative-laden, and nutritionally void.

Big Ten’s new owners hope their store will feel welcoming to students and people of modest means who are just beginning to be interested in high quality, wholesome, tasty food. I’m not sure I could talk any of my financially strapped friends into a five dollar loaf of bread just because it doesn’t have preservatives, but I appreciate their vision. I know the joy I felt when I discovered there was more to cuisine than my mother’s hot dogs and beans. And everyone should have access to locally produced milk that’s free of bovine growth hormones.

While some long-time customers complain about changes that have removed old stand-bys from the shelves, Matt and Tommy report that Big Ten’s sales are up five to thirty percent depending on the category. Whenever I’ve been there lately, the place is jumpin’. Makes me wanna have a party. R

Signed Elements © Individual Authors
Unsigned Elements © Agenda Publications, LLC