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Posted on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Top 16: Washtenaw County's top-selling bars and restaurants show growth

By Paula Gardner


Bartender Erin Montgomery, aka "Big Red," makes some mixed drinks at Good Time Charley's on South University Thursday evening.

Mark Bialek | For Ann

Liquor sales are a growing industry in Washtenaw County and across the state.

"The economy is bad, but our liquor sales never went down (in 2009),” said Andrea Miller, spokesperson for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

That’s true in Washtenaw County, which reported a 1 percent gain in its $31.59 million annual wholesale liquor purchases, which the state controls.

Across Michigan, retail stores are getting more of that business, Miller said.

Top sellers

Here are Washtenaw County’s bars and restaurants that bought more than $100,000 in liquor from the state in 2009 and the percentage change from 2008 totals. All are in Ann Arbor except where noted.

Good Time Charley’s $217,107 (6.6%)

Knight’s Bar & Restaurant $197,110 (6.2%)

Necto $196,414 (2.8%)

Melange Bistro and Wine Bar $143,812 (7.2%)

Conor O’Neills $137,298 (3%)

Club Divine (Ypsilanti) $134,079 (-19.2%)

Rick’s American Café $130,878 (17.3%)

Scorekeepers $130,533 (18%)

Weber’s $128,780 (-9.6%)

Black Pearl $115,922 (58%)

Brown Jug $112,855 (-3.8%)

Stiver’s (Chelsea) $111,132 (-9.3%)

Banfield Bar & Grill (Packard Road location) $108,659 (-2.9%)

Blue Leprechaun $107,091 (46%)

Bar Louie $106,115 (9.5%)

Sidetrack (Ypsilanti) $104,735 (-9.5%)

Source: Michigan Liquor Control Commission

Yet while more state residents appear to be making their own cocktails at home, many of the Ann Arbor area’s top bars and restaurants - based on wholesale purchases - found a recipe for success and report increased on-premise sales.

In Washtenaw County, 16 of the nearly 100 establishments that sell single-serving drinks on-premises bought more than $100,000 in liquor from the state in 2009.

And 10 of those showed an increase in 2008.

The numbers - available from the state’s Liquor Control Commission - don’t chart how many drinks are sold, their retail cost to the consumer or profit margins for the state or the retailer. And they just represent liquor, not beer or wine.

But the wholesale purchase figures are an indicator of sales, since they show the investment by the county’s bars and restaurants into product that they’ll sell by the pour.

Of the local list of top bars, about half have been familiar names in Ann Arbor for two decades or more.

Six cater to the University of Michigan campus clientele.

Three are on the same block of downtown Ann Arbor’s Main Street.

And while many on the list have related businesses in other areas, all but one - Bar Louie - still have independent ownership connections, most in Ann Arbor. A couple -Rick’s and Scorekeepers - are based in East Lansing.

At Knight’s Bar & Restaurant on the west side of Ann Arbor, the customer base tends to be the “townie” who knows the restaurant specializes in strong drinks.

“From day one, we’ve poured an honest drink,” said owner Don Knight. “We don’t do a measured pour - it’s all a free(handed) pour.”

Knight’s also doesn’t experiment with flavors.

“That doesn’t really sell here,” Knight said.

The growth in Knight’s liquor sales - also reflected in higher food sales in 2009 - got a boost from the restaurant stocking more single-malt scotches.

“Also higher-end bourbon,” said Knight. “That’s a growing market.”

By summer, Knight’s will offer its own bourbon blend, which it’s working on with a Kentucky distributor.

While that will expand options in the restaurant, Knight says his family business won’t be changing its approach to selling drinks. “Ever.”


Jodi Gumerson of Ann Arbor works behind the bar at Good Time Charley's on South University.

Mark Bialek | For

By contrast, Good Time Charley’s is always looking for new approaches, said manager Ben Hammond.

The top bar in the county based on wholesale buys grew that measure by 6.6 percent over 2008. And it did that by paying constant attention to its drink menu, Hammond said.

“We keep adding to (it),” he said.

The bar has been a campus mainstay for about 30 years, and Hammond said its staff keeps up “with what the student population is after.”

That includes its “ultimate shooter list,” a full menu page of shots - some with names that parents may not want to say out loud. A tamer version: The “Oil Slick,” featuring Jagermeister floated on sambuca.

Other popular innovations: The bomb - another booze mix that come in 17 flavors - and various drink concoctions like the Purple Rain and Long Island Ice Tea.

Beer and wine remain strong sellers at Good Time Charley's, Hammond said.

That’s also true at Conor O’Neills Irish Pub in downtown Ann Arbor, which also made the list of top bars.

Its liquor sales grew due in part due to increased promotions, said owner Tom Murray. Staff anticipated a harder year due to the changes in the economy, “so we had to turn up the marketing a little bit and go out and get business, too.”

As a result, adding entertainment options like live music and trivia nights keep the bar busier throughout the week, Murray said.


Liquor sales are up at places like Good Time Charley's.

Mark Bialek | For

Drinking trends at Conor O’Neills also are changing, he added. Guinness Stout beer was a top seller when it opened, but now patrons are asking for Irish whiskey and high-end vodka.

Murray hopes to keep the momentum going by starting a customer appreciation program this year.

He also said that the growth among the downtown bars on the 2009 liquor sales list shows that Ann Arbor’s entertainment district remains strong.

Terry Martin, manager of Melange, agrees. He adds that success in one helps generate more customers across the board.

“There’s not really competition,” Martin said. “We’re all getting people to come downtown.”

Growth at Melange - like at Good Time Charley’s - comes from working the drink menu list.

Slow sellers - like concoctions called the Blue Moon and Parisian - are removed. And Martin works with his top bartenders to replace them on the 50-variety martini list. Martin also is watching the economy for business cues.

“We haven’t raised our liquor prices in two years,” he said. “We understand the plight of not just Michigan, but the country.”

Paula Gardner is business news director at Contact her at 734-623-2586 or



Thu, Mar 11, 2010 : 5:49 a.m.

I'm glad to see Webers in there. I will never go back to the Sidetrack since the Health Department turns a blind eye to the incredible rodent problem there. Knights Inn stinks to high heaven from the cigarettes. Black Pearl is nice. helped me out there.


Fri, Mar 5, 2010 : 9:53 a.m.

Thanks for the recipe, Adam.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 5:52 p.m.

Fraser's bought about $56,000 in wholesale liquor in 2009.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 5:47 p.m.

Fraser's is not on the list?

ET Crowe

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 3:58 p.m.

love Knights and Black Pearl and all these amazing area bars/restaurants--and the majority of them are NOT chains! Can't wait to add our new twist on the scene with the Wolverine Brewing west side Tap Room


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 1:37 p.m.

"Hopefully the staff at these establishments are adept at judging when people need to wait a bit or get a ride home." What would the business have to do with costumers getting a ride home?

Basic Bob

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 1:34 p.m.

I've never been to any of these places, but it seems they would be target areas for late-night revenue enhancement for the police. Hopefully the staff at these establishments are adept at judging when people need to wait a bit or get a ride home.

UM Rocks

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 1:16 p.m.

"By contract, Good Time Charleys is always looking for new "approaches, said manager Ben Hammond." Think it should be "contrast."


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 12:44 p.m.

Thank god the Del Rio is gone...horrible place. Look out for those Long Islands at Charlies. You'll need some Count Sticks to soak up that litre of booze.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 12:37 p.m.

I miss the Del Rio.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 12:36 p.m.

Bars and Clubs have always done stellar during recessions because people want to drown out their sorrows! This is not news.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 12:13 p.m.

Sam, The state lists the corporate headquarters for Scorekeepers on Highgate Avenue in East Lansing. While that bar has operated in Ann Arbor for some time (on Maynard - I remember it as Dooley's from my student days!), I did think it was worth mentioning the distinction between "hometown" ownership and places that are run by out-of-area entities.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

Yes, for a restaurant that has never spent a dime on advertising they do a dang good business. It just goes to show what a quality product can do.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:40 a.m.

Gotta love Knights!!!


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:32 a.m.

There is a factual error here--Scorekeepers is not based in East Lansing. I know, I work there.

Regular Voter

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:31 a.m.

Fun story, could easily do that one every year and talk about the trends and wiggles. Print it when we're trudging through the dead of winter.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:14 a.m.

I can't wait for the non-smoking law to take place in May. I'll frequent Connor O'Neils more often (and stay longer)!

Atticus F.

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 11:02 a.m.

Wow, I'm suprised to see the Black Pearl up there. They must do alot of high end vodka martnis. I didn't think they did that great of a buisness...Maybe I should stop in sometime for a half dozen oysters and a drink.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

My husband was just reading this story in the print edition and asked me about the rankings - turns out the list never made it into the print edition. Not sure why yet. But if any readers who wondered about the rankings in print are coming to this online version to find the information, thanks for taking the trouble! We'll run a correction (with the full list that you see in this online version) on Sunday.

Adam Jaskiewicz

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 9:06 a.m.

I'm pretty sure beer and hard liquor aren't counted the same. It might even be a different license. I had a good old fashioned at Goodnight Gracie's. Best I've had in town, though I haven't tried too many places. It wasn't all watery and full of mashed up fruit. Not quite the way I make them (raw sugar cube, a couple dashes of bitters, enough water to dissolve the sugar, two ice cubes, three or four fingers of good rye; sometimes a twist of orange if I use orange bitters) but way closer than most places.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:56 a.m.

No doubt about it, Knight's has the strongest drinks around. Two gin and tonics and a glass of Cab to accompany the steak and WOW! what a perfect night!


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:51 a.m.

I have been in the bar business and stopping off at the local filling station is one of the last things a "regular" will cut from their budget. Compare it to travel agents for instance. I am not saying you are going to go gangbusters on profits. I also understand that it takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in the food and beverage industry.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:50 a.m.

This list is just liquor - which bars have to buy through the state, so there are state records for the purchases. Beer can be purchased directly through a distributor, so those numbers aren't reported.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:47 a.m.

I'm surprised to not see Ashley's on the list, are they instead considered a 'pub' and not a bar? Or are beer sales counted seperately from hard liquor?

Paula Gardner

Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:11 a.m.

The number for Dominick's is about $21,000 - but that's only liquor, not wine for their famous Sangria! Here's where you can look up the info: Choose by county; I used the on-premise license category, but you can search by the many different categories in the state. There's also a link for whether an establishment has been issued a violation.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 8:07 a.m.

If you think the bar business is "recession proof," you've clearly never been in the bar business.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 7:47 a.m.

Oh, forgot to add, the bar business is one of the recession proof industries, as I imagine owning a party store in a good locale is too.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 7:45 a.m.

I remember back when Stivers used to rule the roost on this category. Just out of curiosity, do you have the number for Dominks? I would have to think that if you just took the amount for the days of the year it was open it would be high up there on the list.


Thu, Mar 4, 2010 : 6:56 a.m.

Bad link for Divine....Here's a good link for Club Divine entertainment venue, part of Pub 13 and the Sports Bar in Downtown Ypsi. Divine is changing to The Savoy at any bands and lots of fun.