Detroit-area entrepreneur Curt Catallo has found a special place in the heart of foodies and local historians alike by making it his business to repurpose old buildings and breathe new life into them as unique restaurants.
A native of Clarkston who spent his teen years at Cranbrook Schools as a boarding student, Catallo worked in advertising before opening his first restaurant in 1995, a decade after graduating from high school. Now featuring more than a half-dozen restaurants and shops under the Union Joints Restaurant Group name, Catallo's lineup includes former churches, automotive buildings and a former fire station, with plans to open a new location in the former WWJ-AM 950 transmitter building in Oak Park and another at the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center in Detroit's Brush Park.
"I spent my formative years skateboarding the steps of city hall in Birmingham and eating Olga's three cheese sandwiches, and shopping at Marty's Records," Catallo said. "My dad worked in Birmingham but lived in Clarkston. My parents lived in an old Methodist church, and they bought an old Baptist Church and thought they could turn it into a garage. Their structural engineer thought otherwise, so I raised my hand and said I want to put a restaurant in here.
"There's no class at Cranbrook or in college that teaches you how to open a restaurant in an old church."
In terms of experience, Catallo said his was limited to dining out frequently. While he had a few connections in the restaurant industry, he said he knew enough not to ask them what the business was like for a newcomer. Regardless, Catallo and his wife, Ann Stevenson opened the Clarkston Union.
"Anytime you repurpose a historic structure, it's going to give you challenges. Fortunately, we love the challenge and we take the presentation portion very seriously," he said. "Ann Stevenson, my wife, heads all the interior design work, and we have our own general contractor on staff. We want to respect the building's legacy while repurposing for a new use."
Respecting that legacy, Clarkston Union repurposed old church pews as seats and retained stained glass windows. Likewise, the Fenton Firehouse – a 1938 fire station that served as volunteer headquarters in that community – retained the fire-engine red bay doors and features black-and-white photos of firefighters on its walls. An outbuilding behind the station was made into a frozen custard stand, dubbed The Pumphouse. Vinsetta Garage, a former auto mechanic business in Berkley, from the outside still looks like an auto shop.
Catallo earlier this year pulled plans for a new joint dubbed Lincoln Yard in Birmingham's Rail District. In the end, Catallo said, some structures have "bigger fangs" than anticipated, either structurally or technical issues with the communities they are located.
"That was a textbook case of the kind of building that attracts us," he said. "It's always been a bus garage, and it's ripe for repurposing. We really take a look at structures that are destined to do something else."
Other restaurants under the Union family include Honcho, a former auto station that features a Latin street food menu with Asian accents, and the Union Woodshop, featuring BBQ in Clarkston.
While each of the locations have unique menus, all of them feature the group's signature gourmet macaroni and cheese dish. The dish's popularity is expressed in the Union Joints motto: The little house that mac 'n' cheese built.
"The mac 'n' cheese is the one constant," he said. "We built everything on the backbone of a spirity noodle."
Photo: Jean Lannen