Tio's move to East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor turns out to be good for business
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 dÃ©cor, 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 dÃ©cor. 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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