New cocktail lounge mixes culture and history

The new Dabney & Co., named after a pioneering mixologist who was forced to buy his way out of slavery, will open in the former Civil House Coffee space in downtown Kalamazoo.

Over the past four years, Daniel May has led an expedition of Black culture in Kalamazoo with festivals and gatherings celebrating everything from music, dance, and food to hair styles and art.

Most recently, though, he’s been on an entrepreneur’s trek.

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By the end of summer, May’s Dabney & Co. will open in what was most recently Civil House Coffee on the corner of Rose St. and Kalamazoo Ave., serving up an “elevated version of Black culture done in a happy hour vibe.” He says people who enjoy cocktails and music will “experience what we have, see the culture, see the offerings, but also respect us as a well-run establishment.”

The opening will mark a personal arrival for May, and a destination for a community at large.

“Yes, this is a Black-owned establishment,” May says. “But to be clear, I’m not a Black business, I am a Black man who does business.”

Like many would-be business owners, at times it’s taken him down a poorly marked legal, regulatory, and licensing path — which, in part, can be attributed to the dearth of Black-owned establishments in Kalamazoo’s core business district.

May intends for Dabney & Co. to be more than just an accumulation of his efforts and those who have supported him. Within the exposed red brick walls, May will have curated an edification of the various forms of creativity that have been pushed from the consciousness of Americana — to the country’s detriment.

“We believe that part of the challenges that we face as a nation is that we haven’t spent enough time together,” May says. “And one of the things that we hope to do is to bring people together to learn, to change some of the things that plague our society, by simply sharing music and a great cocktail.”

He intentionally announced the name and theme on June 19, the recently federally-recognized but long-celebrated holiday of Juneteenth, which commemorates the military informing the Black people in Texas that slavery had ended (which required a forced takeover of the state more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation).

John Dabney was an enslaved individual who was known for his take on the Mint Julep,” May says. “His owner at the time lent him out to the local hotels and restaurants. During that time period the only money that you could keep was tip money. He worked his way up from the kitchen to the bar and made so much money off of his take on cocktails and everything else that he was able to buy his freedom and that of his wife. After that he became a caterer and chef and owned his own restaurants.”

When researching for inspiration for the concept of the cocktail lounge, this surprise of a historical figure stuck with him.

“For me, I went from wanting to create safe places for people of color to now, four years later, having the only Black-owned establishment of this kind in Southwest Michigan,” May says. “It’s in his honor when we talk about our story of creating our events company and pioneering a lot of things around culture and community here in Kalamazoo.”

On a recent tour of the future cocktail lounge space, a half dozen workers were on hand building May’s vision for Dabney & Co. It will be open Tuesday through Saturday with a dozen swivel chairs around a bar of white quartz countertop with gold throughout, along with a selection of tables for two, and a nook for small groups.

The curtains will be pulled across the tall windows to capture the subtle glows of a selection of elegant chandeliers.

“It’s really this high-end cocktail bar with a lot of Black artists and paintings along the wall of Black musicians,” May says.

In an adjoining space — connected by a wide, arched threshold — is a collection of large and small alcoves open only Thursday through Saturday (though always available for private events and meetings), where live music and other events will cater to a larger crowd without losing the intimate feel.

The specific drink and food offerings have not yet been announced.

“We found some really great recipes from some historic Black mixologists, predating prohibition,” May says. “So, this is to pay homage to the Black mixologists and service staff pioneers throughout history.”

A new back kitchen is being installed for a yet-to-be-named chef who will create small plates that are “specifically a take on soul food classics,” May says.

Find out More: Five questions with Daniel May

What’s the need that you’re serving, both the community at large and the Black community in particular?

Living in one of Michigan’s largest communities of Black individuals, I’ve often recognized, in the 13 years that I’ve lived here in Kalamazoo, that they aren’t represented in our cityscape, from our business community to our downtown environment. You can be downtown and often not see any people of color. And you wonder with that, and say ‘Why wouldn’t you be able to see more of them engaging in the things that are great here in Kalamazoo?’ I believe that to be a result of not providing inclusive environments for those patrons, and staff that are trained in order to deal with culturally different dynamics.

Part of that starts with the ownership of the organization and then how we train our staff. So how we train our staff, what do we look for in our hiring practices. All that plays a role into what are the goals that the organizations have. There’s often a disconnect where owners will say that they believe one value, but the individuals who deal with customers on the register or serving drinks often don’t carry that on. And because owners often aren’t there day-to-day, it’s hard to manage that. So therefore, you have two different perspectives where the business is perceived publicly as being inclusive, and that’s what’s on their website. But in actual practice that doesn’t get played out.

So, we’re starting from the ground up here. Even when you say about our motto for this place, which is “Liberation Through Spirits,” it’s based from the ground up. We’re building in all of the aspects to make sure that everybody who comes here feels welcome, included, and that they want to spend every weekend here drinking and have a great time with us.

Switching to the focus as an entrepreneur, what ways could the regulatory and licensing process be less of an obstacle to entrepreneurs — without putting public safety at risk of course?

One of the things that we can do from a regulatory function is speeding up the process. What I mean by that is going through this process, even when you talk about a liquor license or a lot of these different things, there’s only certain approved means of funding, some of them that don’t make sense or are applicable. Especially when you talk about communities that don’t have a history of access to wealth and capital, they may have to go to non-traditional capital raising for their projects.

Also, the amount of time that it takes in order to go through these processes. So even with our liquor license, we’ve been going through this process for ten months, and we’re still waiting now at the last step at the docket for the commission to approve.

The challenge is that in order to sustain yourself as a business, you have to have enough operating capital to wait. So, the ability to wait, there’s a privilege in that. And as a result of that, when we say that we want more minority-owned businesses, more Black-owned businesses, a lot of that regulatory waiting X’s a lot of people out of the conversation, because their capital reserves they would be spending on employees, costs, equipment, is being spent on just operating and waiting just for paperwork to go through.

If the city of Kalamazoo, as it says, wants to address the fact that ownership of businesses in downtown Kalamazoo are disproportionately white-owned, what programs or incentives or efforts could they be doing to turn that around?

One of the things that would be great for the city is if they actually had a form or website that would walk you through the different city processes. For instance, in order to get a project off the ground, you have to meet with the city planning committee. That isn’t information that’s available. The only reason why you know that is by dealing with other business owners who will inform you of that process. But, you know, in this process I recognized a lot of the individuals who last did the application process and work with people through it are no longer with the city. So, a lot of the different requirements that the city requires, there’s currently nobody at the city who understands how to actually fulfill these requirements, to answer businesses questions, to help them go through the paperwork.

So, in that if there was a site, a form, that will allow you to know that ‘Hey, step one of having a business, here’s how to open up a business, i.e. you have to get approved by fire marshal and the building commissioner.’ And even with that, there’s an occupancy that is based off of the number of bathrooms and the type of establishment that you have. So even when you think and say that you have this space, this will be perfect for business, we’re capped at our capacity here, based on the classification of us being a restaurant and bar along with the bathrooms that we have. I’ve already invested into the establishment to sign the lease, some of these things I didn’t find out until I was already in the process. So, then you rescale your business, you have to scale back. But by that time, you’re already out several thousand dollars, and you already have a lease commitment that it’s often hard to break and scale back.

You’re officially announcing the concept of this bar on Juneteenth. If there’s a layer of depth to the timing, I’d be interested in hearing from you about the significance of announcing this particular establishment to the community on Juneteenth.

It speaks to what I say about this establishment paying homage to the Black mixologists and service staff who built this industry, who weren’t thanked or honored in their regards and often passed before anybody recognized their accomplishments. A lot of the cocktails that we have in the craft industry were created by black servants, indentured, and enslaved individuals at the time or individuals who received very little money or recognition.

So, with that — and being named after John Dabney, an enslaved individual himself, and the accomplishments he’s had — me starting this business on Juneteenth four years ago, which I did as a Juneteenth bar crawl here in Kalamazoo, it’s a full circle to my chapter here in Kalamazoo. A guy from Cleveland who moved here to go to school at Western Michigan University, fell in love with community, worked, and now I’m in a position to hire the same company on this project that I got my first job at.

Especially when I think about the importance of Juneteenth and its meaning and the day of freedom, when we talk about having a hub for a diversity and inclusion and making Kalamazoo look more representative of the people who live here, this is the perfect opportunity for us announce this project.

Is there another level of full circle? And what I mean by that is a lot of the experiences that you’re going to create in this place, the drinks that come here, the vibe you’re bringing here, are inspired going back to people from a period hundreds of years ago — their experiences, their triumphs despite obstacles, their triumphs despite direct threats to their lives. Are John Dabney and his contemporaries going to be here when you open?

Yes. This is in everything that I do. From doing our original Sunday day parties where we focused on bringing the big city to Kalamazoo and doing hip-hop and R&B on Sundays. Then switching that to doing the Juneteenth Freedom Dinner and giving the proceeds to the National Bail Out Collective. Then doing Afro Fest, Michigan’s largest Afro party and showing the beauty of black culture through a fine dining experience and family reunion vibes and renting out the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. And then, finally doing this and having our own establishment. All of this is because of the ancestors who are all always with us, in every aspect that we’re really proud of the work and, you know, couldn’t have imagined being only five generations removed from slavery that I would be in this position to open up a bar named after an enslaved individual who was able to turn heartache and horror into his own business and endeavors and succeeding outside of that. And though his story died when he no longer was of service, to have this to honor that and to pay homage to those who came before us is a beautiful thing.

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