Small Biz Saturday: Collaborations at YORK lift up small businesses amid pandemic

YORK has added fire pits to its outdoor seating space. (Sarah Okin / YORK)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.YORK has become synonymous with community and collaboration in Ann Arbor.

Located on Packard Street, the business has served Tree Town for decades but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it transformed into the place to be for small business collabs and safe socializing.

Utilizing the open-air space next to the building, affectionately called the Yard, the owners of YORK have made it a place for customers to enjoy drinks and food.

During the summer, this meant setting up socially-distanced tables and chairs for food truck visits and pop-up events. Now, visitors can sip their drinks sitting next to one of eight firepits.

“There are silver linings to this [the pandemic],” said owner Tommy York. “Probably not enough of them to make it worth it, but goodness is happening around us.”

York has been a managing partner at the business for over 20 years. He took over ownership in 2019 with new partners Sarah Okin, and Ethan and Noah Kaplan. Previously, the business was called Morgan + York, but the building has held various markets since the 1940s.

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Through the Yard, YORK has found a way to not only support itself but to lift up other businesses in Southeast Michigan.

“A way we found to help ourselves and other people was to have local food trucks come by,” said York.

But community members can find more than food trucks at York Yard. In the evenings, YORK offers pop-up events ranging from themed dinners, DJ events and more.

Southeast Michigan food businesses like Basil Babe, Simply Spanish and Juicy Oistre frequent the Yard while DJ Myint or DJ Batz entertain and spin tunes.

The events have been a win-win-win. Their presence helps YORK, the smaller businesses get to sell their food, and community members desperate to break out of their stuck-inside routines can socialize safely outdoors.

York added that food trucks want to return to Tree Town after their events, and customers ask for them.

While the summer was easier on the Ann Arbor business as customers flocked to the Yard, winter weather slowed things down. Nevertheless, YORK still has several events planned.

Community members can anticipate visits from Detroit-based vegan bakery Fig Detroit, Ann Arbor’s Side Biscuit and a special St. Patrick’s Day event.

Future events are written on a board displayed inside YORK and on its website. Curious customers can also join a mailing list.

The Ann Arbor business hosts live music with many of its pop-up events. (Sarah Okin / YORK)

Inside YORK, community members can find a full-service wine and beer shop, a quick-serve counter for sandwich and coffee needs, a full bar, and Ricewood BBQ.

York said that due to the state of Michigan mandate, the inside of the business was closed to customers for some time. Even though he and the other owners got the green light to reopen, they chose not to do so for a while out of caution.

Now, customers can come into YORK to order food and drinks or pick up products, but dining-in still isn’t an option.

Staff members aren’t vaccinated yet so the business wants to be safe, York said. It hurts business not to have the inside seating, but the owners are putting the health of their staff first.

Initially, the Packard Street business received a PPP grant at the start of the pandemic, according to York, which meant that staff members weren’t laid off. Now, despite volume being down, it has actually been able to hire more staff.

Customers have also helped keep YORK afloat.

“Our regular customers have been fantastic. They’re keeping us right at break-even, which is way better than most people are doing,” York said. “In the boat of unfortunate, we’re certainly not sinking, so that’s great.”

York also attributed the store’s success to its ability to offer a wide variety, from quick-service food and drink to retailing wine, artisan cheeses and more. He said that increases in wine and retail sales have helped to offset a dip in food and beverage sales during the pandemic.

Collaboration is important for the Ann Arbor business, but so is comfort. York said he wants all customers, be they buying a $1,000 case of wine or just a cookie, to feel valued and comfortable.

“We really try to make it feel like a neighborhood joint,” said York.

During the business’ remodel, he even took inspiration from Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits in New Orleans, which offers up a similar backyard vibe.

Visit YORK at 1928 Packard St.

YORK has transformed its outdoor space during the pandemic. (Sarah Okin / YORK)

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.