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Posted on Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 6:01 a.m.

Tio's move to East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor turns out to be good for business

By Janet Miller

What began as a nightmare for Harriet and Tim Seaver turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

When the long-time owners of Tio’s Mexican Cafe learned they had to leave their self-described 900-square-foot “hole in a wall” location on East Huron Street after more than two decades, they were afraid they would not be able to find another affordable location.

The city of Ann Arbor had purchased the building and the tiny parcel of land for its City Hall expansion project and the Seaver’s lease expired last June.

But nine months after the move, all is good and the Seavers believe they may have even dodged a bullet with it: The surprise closing of the Ann Arbor News across from the old Tio’s could have forced them out of business, said Tim Seaver, since he estimated The News accounted for 40 percent of the restaurant’s day business.

Tio’s started to see a drop in sales beginning in 2004, with sales dropping 50 percent over five years. That, combined with the suddenly closing of the News “would have closed us out,” he said.

Tio’s moved into a 2,400-square-foot upscale location that had been occupied by the chain Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina on the ground floor of the McKinley Towne Centre on East Liberty, the downtown building occupied by Google.

They won lease concessions for the seven years that remain on the lease, Tim said, making the space affordable. “They gave us a chance to be successful,” Harriet Seaver said.

The clean and crisp décor, Bose speakers, steams of sunlight, original art work and tall ceilings all contrast to the old location, which the Seavers regularly patched to keep things working.

At the old spot, because a sewer pipe had collapsed, they had to regularly have it cleared. Even that didn’t prevent it from backing up, Tim said, often putting the bathroom out of service.

“Now, you don’t have to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom,” he said.

While it was only two blocks from their old location, Tio’s is attracting a whole new customer base.

“There’s only been a two block difference, but there’s been a huge change with in-house picking up a huge amount,” said Jessie Seaver, one of the Seaver’s adult children who also works at the family business. “Crossing Huron can be scary.”

There was more to the move than improved décor. They have a wait staff instead ordering at the counter, they have a liquor license and they have expanded their menu to include fish, fajitas and other dishes they couldn’t make in their old kitchen.

As a result, they are seeing $80 dinner tabs for two, unheard of at the old Tio's.

The bar has helped boost the bottom line. Tim said he was told to expect a 15 percent uptick in his beverage receipts and a 15 percent improvement in food receipts with a liquor license, and that’s exactly what they’ve seen, he said.

“People come in and order a drink and then order an appetizer. We have become a destination restaurant now instead of a quick-service restaurant.”

On the first day they had their liquor license - before the bar was set up - they sold 90 bottles of beer. “There was pent up demand,” Tim said.

Their son Jeremy, a full partner with Tio's, was put in charge of the bar along with being a general manager. They even offer high-shelf options such a Tequila that sells for $17 a shot.

There have been surprises, such as the 50 percent drop in delivery business, but the bump up in the sit-down business more than makes up for the loss. While receipts still haven’t caught up to 2004, they have steadily improved with the move, Tim said.

“We’re doing substantially better than a year ago and we’re growing. We’re seeing some really nice numbers. We’re not worrying about getting the bills paid.”

The Seavers said they aren’t sure why delivery saw such a sharp decline, but they have a couple of theories. Customers who ordered carryout before are now lured into a more dressed up Tio's. Or customers don’t associate carryout with nicer looking restaurants.

“The one thing we thought we would bring to the new restaurant was the delivery base and that we would build the (in-house) base from that,” Tim said. “It turned out the be the other way around.”

While the new location is more polished than the East Huron store, there are some customers who miss the funky but cozy feel, the Seavers said. They created a nostalgia corner, salvaging a couple of the booths, a sign and a table. It’s next to the racks of hot sauces - also borrowed from the old Tio’s.

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Wed, Mar 17, 2010 : 11:29 a.m.

The drinks at the new Tios are wonderful, and the food is still very good & fresh. I do miss the mural, though...Thanks to the City of A2, we get to gaze out at 7 more parked cars instead. Oh well, at least we'll soon have a million-dollar urinal to look at!


Tue, Mar 16, 2010 : 5:34 p.m.

"and any delivery fee over $2 when you have to tip the driver" I do not enjoy stiffing a driver on a tip but if there's a $2+ dilevery charge i'm going to every time.

J. Sorensen

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 : 3:18 a.m.

I used to like Tio's food a lot more than I do now. Back in the 80's the portions seemed bigger and they were way more generous with cheap stufff, like lettuce, which I used to love to top my chicken chimi with, now you get a pinch or two, and any delivery fee over $2 when you have to tip the driver as well is going to hinder lower income/student purchases. I live closer to the one on Washtenaw in Ypsi. Perhaps that is why I get a lower standard of food. Still love Tio's for being local, just don't go there much anymore.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 11:46 p.m.

tios gave me the squirts, which I barely made it home in time to have, that was the first and only time I ever ate there.... NOW, remember LaPinata, I wish that had never closed


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 11:33 p.m.

At least they're local people to support and not another chain restaurant.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 10:22 p.m.

It's quite an improvement over Salsarita's, that's for sure! The one time I ate there, I thought it should be named "Salty Rita's"...


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 8:18 p.m.

Tios...yuck. Nothing Mexican about it.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 6:35 p.m.

@walker101 unsuccessful troll is unsuccessful. 2 out of 10 troll rating.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 5:53 p.m.

I know Tio's isn't "real mexican food", but I always thought it was fresh and tasty! Glad to hear the Seaver's local business is on the upswing :)


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 1:30 p.m.

Awesome! Congrats to Tim, Harriet and Jeremy. It truly could have gone the other way very easily, and the power of the city to wreck a family business standing in the way of its widely denounced city hall expansion plans was at play.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 12:55 p.m.

I think that not having an online presence and/or menu hurts delivery, as does ceasing online ordering with All Menus/CampusFood. I'm sure they're horrible to deal with, but there are other options for online ordering management and many people would prefer to order online. An increased delivery fee doesn't help, either.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 12:47 p.m.

I know Tio's isn't "real mexican food", but I always thought it was fresh and tasty! Glad to hear the Seaver's local business is on the upswing :)


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 11:17 a.m.

One lunchtime I just walked up to the bar, ordered soft tacos to go, stood and watched whatever MSNBC was on, got my food and left. Not substantially different than the old location for that!


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

Sorry just another commercial wanna be mexican restaurant, $17.00 for a shot of Tequila, I don't think so.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 10:47 a.m.

I'm glade to hear Tio's is doing well. I'm one of the reasons the take-out business is down. I use to grab take-out at the old place and take it back to the office. When I'm at work I don't have time for a sit down place. Since Tio's went upscale I just haven't thought about using them as take out. Maybe Tios just needs to remind us about their take-out and have a take-out window...or do they already have a take-out window?


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 10:30 a.m.

We are always complaining about wanting something other than what we have available to us. (myself included)It is still in large part a free country! Start your own business and provide what you want! I have not been in Tio's in 20 years, But I am glad to hear they are doing well. Hope it gets even better.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 10 a.m.

I'm glad to see that Tios is doing well. Every time I see the old location I get a little angry still. For those who comment that you want a real Mexican restaurant in town, there are tons, you just need to look for them.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 9:22 a.m.

Might want to check your link to Tios up top as it goes to a restaurant in South Carolina.


Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

Can we get a real Mexican restaurante in this town?

Charlie S

Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 8:52 a.m.

The beef fajitas are the best I have had anywhere and the cornbread is out of this world. Whoever made the 'decent food' comment has not tried those two things.

Dr. I. Emsayin

Sun, Mar 14, 2010 : 8:09 a.m.

When Tio's was in its old location I had eaten there once many years ago and decided I didn't like the food. Then, at Top of the Park I started getting soft tacos which were wonderful. Now I get the fish tacos at the new location which are the best. Tio's has great wait staff who are friendly and efficient. I go there whenever I can.