Why Should We Care About Tios?

I’ll be following a long-term custom in our family tonight.  Whenever both of us have late-night commitments, I usually stop by Tios on the way home and pick up an order of chicken enchiladas and a couple of beef tacos for dinner.   It may not be the most authentic Mexican food we’ve ever had, but it is generous and satisfying— real comfort food—and they are open really late.

But this comfortable routine is coming to an end soon.  On July 7, 2008, the City Council voted to buy the building in which Tios is housed.  The item was not on the published agenda and was added at the last minute. The purchase price, which was $615,000 including the closing costs, was paid for from the General Fund Balance.    That is the same fund balance which staff estimates will show a 10% operating deficit in the next couple of years.  Because it was a capital acquisition, the item required an 8-vote margin, which is exactly what it had.  Councilmembers Anglin, Briere and Suarez voted against it.  Though not stated in the resolution, the presumed purpose was to clear the way for some use relating to the new city hall expansion.

This was quite a shock to Tios’ owners, Tim and Harriet Seaver, who spoke bitterly to Council about their business and the way the City had essentially yanked it out from under them.  They also mounted a campaign, still underway, to raise money necessary for the move.  (A worker at the restaurant said today that contributions can be mailed to Tios at 333 E. Huron,Ann Arbor 48104.)

So why should we care?  Restaurants come and go.  The Old German, Bill Knapps, and Steve’s Lunch are all history, and even the recently opened Mexican-themed chain Salsarita’s in the McKinley complex on Liberty has closed.

We should care partly because of the roughness with which a long-time business was handled by our city government.  But also because Tios has been an institution, a part of the fabric of our city.  Its particular distinctiveness (if slightly funky in nature) has added to the richness of the Ann Arbor experience in a way that new chain restaurants will never do.  As expressed by Gordon Bigelow in an Other Voices recently,  it is a form of cultural sterilization.  Without the local character that unique operations like Tios provide, downtown Ann Arbor could become interchangeable with any affluent city.  Let’s hope that the City will leave Le Dog alone!

But the story is apparently taking a not-too-bad turn.  I was told today that Tios is relocating to the Liberty Street location formerly occupied by Salsarita’s.  That will presumably come with Salsarita’s liquor license.  So the business will survive (if they can raise enough money to make the move) and maybe even expand its menu.  But it will certainly be different, and the parking is likely to be a problem (no more stopping by after meetings to pick up enchiladas).    I’ll miss that magnificent mural.

UPDATE: According to the Ann Arbor News,  City Council waived some costs to Tios in its final months.  The News also reported that the building will likely be demolished.  It still looks as though the mural is toast. And Tios will have to apply for that liquor license – Council withdrew it from the old Salsarita’s space.

SECOND UPDATE: Alas, the old building and the mural are now history.

THIRD UPDATE:  The Newshawks midsummer news report also has a picture of the old restaurant.  Alas, the reported takeover by Tios of the Ann Arbor News building did not pan out.

FOURTH UPDATE: According to a story on AnnArbor.com (March 14, 2010), business is doing well in the new location. Tios secured the liquor license, which means bigger tabs.  They also secured favorable terms for the remainder of Salsarita’s lease.  But their carryout business is down, including mine.  Hard to stop by a restaurant on busy Liberty.  It sounds as though it is a different restaurant in many ways, more upscale and with an expanded menu.

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