Michigan's creative ferment is bubbling up at Ferndale's M-Brew

Dean Bach is passionate about Michigan's small businesses. As owner of Dino's in Ferndale these last 13 years, he also runs a successful catering business he spun off from the bar and eatery. For his third venture, he's staking his claim not only on his livelihood in metro Detroit, but across the entire state.

M-Brew, which had its official grand opening Aug. 1, embodies this passion. It's an unusual, format-busting business: part beer hall, part emporium, part amusement parlor, part coffeehouse. It's open all day long, from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., and is almost anything you'd want it to be throughout the day. It has the feel of a cabin in northern Michigan, with quirky art, a wraparound porch, and a fireplace hearth in the corner. Bach has obviously put a lot of work into the place, which was a former VFW hall that had become very shabby.

"This building was decrepit," he tells us. "The VFW, god bless those guys, there weren't many members, and it wasn't being used or maintained. Three or four years ago, I started renting it from them for storage purposes, and to use their small kitchen for overload on our catering business. One day, they decided to put it up for sale, and I wasn't in a position to buy it at the time. But after renting it from them and it being on the market for a year, we worked out an agreement."

Right about then, Bach says, he came up with the idea of an all-Michigan establishment. The campaign to get Michiganders to keep their money in the state exploded during the downturn in 2008, and those behind it have really pushed to keep it going since then. Bach is right in line with that effort.

"I wanted to keep the 'Buy Michigan' momentum going when the economy got better," he says. "Michigan has a tendency to reward the people that are here for sticking it out through thick and thin, but as soon as the economy gets whole again, it kinda goes away. And that's a shame, because we have so many great products here in the state. So I wanted to keep that momentum going and keep reminding people that we have to do something to keep our money in our state so that we don't have these giant collapses again."

But it's not just about locality, Bach stresses. It's about quality.

"These products are great," he says. "They're better, in most cases, than the ones you find from elsewhere. And with the craft beer thing, we decided to focus on it, call it M-Brew."

The name makes sense for a joint that has more than two-dozen Michigan craft beers on tap, but it has deeper significance.

"The word 'brew' is something that's kind of a catchall for beer or coffee," he says. "But a brew could be anything from beer to a brew of products, like hot sauces, Bloody Mary mixes, jellies and jams, just about anything. So we're trying to showcase the products, keep that flow of Michigan products going, and trying to help our small businesses. That's what they are. They're all small businesses, and they're great businesses."

Then there's M-Brew's game parlor in the rear. Bach had intended to use the space's "basement," a large floor-level room in the back, for an event area, but fire codes made that impractical. So he loaded up the rear room with vintage amusements, and it's quite a sight. It's now jazzed up like a 1980s youth rec center, with scads of pinball machines and video games that are in great shape.

For a person of a certain age, it's like a trip down memory lane. The 10 pinball machines include an old Bally KISS machine, Johnny Mnemonic, Star Trek, and Attack from Mars. There are 11 video games, including classics such as Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Q*bert, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Tron, Asteroids, and Centipede, but also forgotten classics like Burger Time and Robotron. A vintage Prestige brand jukebox plays 45 RPM vinyl singles.

"These machines are a little older," Bach says. "They break down like they did when we were kids. But nonetheless, you can almost still feel the pizza grease on the joysticks from 1984, and the jukebox plays 45s that don't sound as good as your digital, but it still brings back those memories and it sounds good to those who remember it. Sure it breaks down a little bit, but most people understand that these are old machines."

It's a quaint touch. Where a business purely driven for profit would hawk chicken wings and load up a bar with Megatouch machines, Bach makes decisions based on his affections, and it shows.

"I'm trying to go old-school here and keep it authentic old-school," he says. "Like the bowling alley when I was a kid in Detroit — I'd walk to the bowling alley three or four blocks down the street and get myself a Coke, a slice of pizza, and had a pocketful of quarters and play Asteroids all day."

Bach's mission to stay true to Michigan products extends down to the tables and countertops, which are repurposed Douglas fir found in an old Michigan barn. The wood-clad interior, though, is all new pine, due to the special challenges of shoring up a building that Bach says had to be rebuilt from the inside out. That said, the wood didn't need to be historic hardwood; the effect is plainly visible, an up North lodge feel with a wraparound porch that Bach has dubbed "Ferndale's front porch."

All this affection for the state's northern appeal sounds deeply personal, and, when asked, Bach makes no bones about it. He grew up going up North quite a bit, to a family cabin built by his great-grandfather in the Gaylord area.

"I love going up there," he says. "There's so much up there that people don't realize. Those people want to sell their stuff too, but if people aren't going to travel four hours to get it, let's give them a place where they can travel 20 minutes to get it. That's kind of what we're attempting here."

Part of that scene is, of course, the food, which includes a hot menu of Frankenmuth-style Bavarian roasted chicken, Detroit-style pizza by the slice or the pie, Koegel's hot dogs, Dearborn jumbo beef franks, Bruce Crossing pasties, made from Bach's mother-in-law's recipe, and pulled pork and ribs from local barbecue outfit Smokin' Butts Barbecue, which operates out of the smoker on the building's side. A full case of cold items includes beans, coleslaw, salads, and mac & cheese. They also have an in-house baker who makes everything from muffins and scones to breakfast pizza in-house. M-Brew also roasts its own coffee, and has two far-out flavors: bacon-maple and blueberry-cinnamon crumb cake. The joint even makes its own root beer.

"And we have frozen custard too, so if you wanted to have a root beer float," Bach says, adding with a chuckle, "and it's not the skinny custard, either, man. It's the good stuff." — mt

M-Brew is at 177 Vester Ave., Ferndale.

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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