2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Restaurateur Dave Kwiatkowski of Detroit Optimist Society

2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Restaurateur Dave Kwiatkowski of Detroit Optimist Society
November 2016

After graduating from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in 2000, Dave Kwiatkowski moved to Chicago, where he traded equity options on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. But a trip to New York and a Queens Park Swizzle from Milk & Honey changed everything. The aughts found Dave back in Detroit exploring his other interests—like building motorcycles. The shop he owned with his brothers even spawned a Discovery Channel series, “Motor City Motors,” in 2009. But Kwiatkowski had been bitten by the craft cocktail bug years before, and he realized his dream of opening a craft cocktail bar of his own, The Sugar House, that same year.

With the opening of The Sugar House, Kwiatkowski discovered his deep affection for hospitality. Shortly after, he teamed up with friend and veteran chef Mark Djozlija to open the American small plates restaurant and bar, Wright & Co., in downtown Detroit. The restaurant helped the neighborhood complete the leap from sinking to thriving.
Kwiatkowski is now a partner in several other properties, including Honest John’s, The Peterboro, Café 78, the SuperHappySushi pop-up, and most recently, The Bad Luck Bar with Djozlija. Kwiatkowski recently formed Detroit Optimist Society as a parent group to house and to provide financial oversight, as well as marketing and human resource services for his growing family of restaurants.

Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Restaurateur Dave Kwiatkowski of Detroit Optimist Society

Sean Kenniff: How did you first project come about?
Dave Kwiatkowski:
When I conceptualized Sugar House, I was an options trader in Chicago. A buddy took me to the original Milk and Honey in New York in 2000, and Sam Ross made me a Queens Park Swizzle—that changed everything. 

I started a blog in Chicago, and Saveur called it one of the 50 most important blogs in the country.  I left Chicago and started building motorcycles in Detroit, and Discovery Channel did a show about it. I closed the shop, moved back to Chicago, and started trading again. Back in Chicago 2005 to 2006, I was in Violet Hour sitting every day talking to those guys. We got another opportunity to do a show, and I didn’t know if we had a second season and I was down here [in Corktown] and heard this space was for sale. Basically, the old bar-owner was getting foreclosed on. This was 2009. I had a clear idea to do craft cocktail in the space. Nobody knew what the fuck I was talking about; they thought I was talking about a lounge or martini bar. [Sugar House] opened October 5th 2011, and my wife had our baby two days later.

SK: How did you team up with Marc Djozlija?
While I was building [Sugar House], I met Marc when he still worked for Wolfgang Puck. We became fast friends and have been ever since.

SK: What’s your five year plan? 
I really like what’s happening in Detroit now. There are 35 restaurants, that I know of, opening in the next year. We want to stay at the forefront, and have the biggest restaurant group with really cool concepts without franchising out. We have another hand full of operations in the works—leases and letters of intent—a bunch of different things. Detroit Optimist Society is our nonprofit parent group. We want to hire a director of operations, a graphic designer, and a financial controller.

SK: What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the community of bartenders here at Sugar House. All the guys here, and at the other places, have a really good sense of camaraderie. We go out and drink together. We have a really great corporate culture. We’re working out other systems and synergies, but it’s important to deliver good customer service and it helps because these guys are happy.

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