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

by Sean Kenniff
December 2016

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.