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Ann Arbor Observer: Sava’s Roadhouse

Sava’s Roadhouse
She’s got big plans for the former Lord Fox

by Sabine Bickford

This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2017 Ann Arbor Observer. The township where RFC’s new building is located has been corrected.
From the August, 2017 issue

“We almost got to the point of renovation when Sava approached us in the fall,” says Michael Rautiola. Last year, the company he co-owns, RFC Financial Planners, bought the Dixboro roadhouse that was most recently Roger Monk’s, but remains best known from its long run as the Lord Fox.

The plan, he says, was to renovate “half of it for our business and maintain a lot of the historic character as best we could.” They’d lease the other half “to somebody else, and preferably a restaurant, and that’s how the conversation with Sava started.”

Last December, RFC moved into a construction trailer on the site, so they wouldn’t have to shuttle back and forth to their downtown office while overseeing the renovation. The spot had been used as a restaurant since 1928, and Rautiola figured they’d need to spend at least as much on the fix-up as they did to buy the building. Meanwhile, they discussed a lease with Sava Lelcaj Farah, who owns Sava’s and Aventura restaurants downtown.

“After many months of conversations with Sava, and a lot of stipulations on both sides, a lot of exploring of options, we decided that it was best for everybody to sell to her,” Rautiola says. Instead of moving in, RFC is buying another historic house just down the road at 5263 Plymouth. Both deals were expected to close in August.

“I was just not the kind of restaurant operator that wanted to be in the back of a beautiful barn,” Farah explains. “I wanted to be in the center of a beautiful barn!”

Sava was just twenty-three when she opened Sava’s in a small State St. space a decade ago. She says she is going by her married name now because her maiden name just gave people too much trouble: “Even if you say it in English properly, it’s still not the right pronunciation.”

Though Farah has come a long way since opening Sava’s, “this was the first time that we were able to buy a freestanding building with property, so it’s a really exciting time for my husband and I,” she says. She and her attorney husband, William Farah, will own the real estate, while her company, Savco Hospitality, will operate the farm-style restaurant.

The Farahs live in Superior Township, and she says that the spot has long been on her mind. “We’ve always looked at the property and sort of dreamt of what could be there. So to actually be able to own it and restore this amazing heritage that exists in that restaurant space is like the project of my dreams.”

The 6.5-acre property, located at the bend in Plymouth Rd. near Church St., includes the main restaurant building (a nineteenth-century barn before its restaurant conversion), and a small house. Farah is particularly excited about the stretch of Fleming Creek that runs through the property and wants to work with the Huron River Watershed Council to clean it up.

Farah says she wants to use the property to its fullest potential, and her downtown office features a cloth-covered board decorated with inspirational photos of “farm luxury” spaces. “I have a secret account on Pinterest that I’ve been running for years,” she says. “All our design boards exist there.” The plan is to completely redo the interior, while “trying to preserve what is good and original about that building.” Farah is also exploring options for the extensive grounds.

“We’ll be looking into capabilities of doing some farming on our property, as well as incorporating a lot of the farms that are in the neighborhood,” she says. Farah also plans to bring back some of the Lord Fox’s former functions: hosting weddings and other events on the scenic grounds. “Everyone has a memory: ‘My aunt got married there,’ or ‘I had my high school graduation there.'” She’s even considering renting out the small house as a honeymoon guesthouse.

Former Aventura executive chef Jules Botham will be managing partner of the new restaurant; he’s currently “learning the works” at the front of the house at Sava’s in preparation. Farah says customers will see parallels with Sava’s menu. In addition to downtown favorites like Greek salad and burgers, she’s thinking pizza: “nice, thin-crust brick oven pizzas with our field greens on top.”

The original Sava’s made national news in May when two Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers ate breakfast there, complimented the chef on the food, and then raided the restaurant’s kitchen, arresting three workers. The incident caused an uproar, and the ACLU of Michigan announced that it will be reviewing it, saying the agents “acted like cowboys.” Two of the three workers remain in custody.

“People have asked me, ‘Oh, are you in trouble?'” Farah says. She says she isn’t, since the workers had seemingly legitimate papers, and “I only have access to the information that they give me.”

Many people supported Farah over the incident, but others criticized her for not detecting the invalid documents. While she says it would be “crazy” to knowingly hire illegal workers, she also makes her sympathies plain, noting that she herself was undocumented when her family, refugees from Albania, brought her to the United States at age five. (She later got a green card, and has been a citizen since 2014.)

She hopes to open the new restaurant next spring. Meanwhile, RFC is seeking permission from Superior Township to convert the 1839 house down the road to office use. It, too, will need substantial renovation.

“We certainly will have been in the trailer much longer than we anticipated,” Rautiola says. “But by the time we leave it, we intend to go into 5263 [Plymouth] and be there for good.”

This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2017 Ann Arbor Observer. The township where RFC’s new building is located has been corrected.

[Originally published in August, 2017.]


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