From Art Gallery to Cupcake Station

What do art, 500 cupcakes and dog biscuits have in common? Ed Shaffran

On Friday, Sept. 12, the Washington Street Gallery’s old space at 116 E. Liberty St. in downtown Ann Arbor will again be open for business – now as Cupcake Station. [Note: Due to inspection scheduling difficulties, the opening has been delayed until the following week on Sept 19.  Inspections are now completed, but the delays made the original opening date impossible.]

Cupcake Station awning

Cupcake Station on Liberty Street.

And on opening day business partners Kerry Johnson and Tom Holleman are giving away 500 cupcakes in an effort to launch Ann Arbor’s store on the same successful path as their first Cupcake Station in Birmingham.

This isn’t just a story about cupcakes, though. It’s a story of how serendipity, relationships and a brick aesthetic played a role in several local businesses, and a story of never knowing how one thing might lead to another.

But let’s start with the cupcakes.

Cupcake Station

Giving away 500 cupcakes is a not just a way to help their business – it’s a way to help the local homeless shelter. They’re asking folks who snag themselves a free cupcake next Friday to throw a $1 donation toward the Delonis Center.

Promotions for Cupcake Station that are tied to a benefit for a community charity or nonprofit are a staple of Johnson and Holleman’s business strategy. In fact, Johnson says that their advertising efforts are made almost exclusively through coordinating with the goals of various nonprofits and charities in the community.

How that advertising strategy is good for Cupcake Station’s business, and for the community where they do business, is something Johnson will be talking about with University of Michigan students, faculty, and other guests of the Entrepreneurship Hour on multiple Fridays this fall. The Entrepreneurship Hour takes place on Fridays from 3-4 p.m. at the Stamps Auditorium in the Walgreen Drama Center at 1226 Murfin St., on UM’s North Campus, and features lectures by high-profile entrepreneurs.

Cupcake Station will be serving cupcakes (and milk) to snack on at several of the lectures, and during the post-lecture cupcake snacking, Johnson will be presenting a different aspect of his experience as an entrepreneur each week.


Tom Holleman hand-letters the new Cupcake Station sign.

The concept of integrating a mindfulness of community into a business model isn’t novel in Ann Arbor. Say “community-minded food-based Ann Arbor business” and many Chronicle readers will think of Zingerman’s. But the comparison of Cupcake Station to Zingerman’s isn’t confined to their community-mindedness. Ed Shaffran, the Cupcake Station’s landlord, draws the comparison based on the quality of their flagship product – cupcakes. Says Shaffran, “You think it’s just not possible how moist they are. Which one is best? It’s like Zingerman’s sandwiches, how are you possibly going to say which one is best? I just want to know how much milk they’re going to sell!”

kerry by sign

Kerry Johnson

Shaffran bases his assessment on empirical samples. He estimates that Johnson has brought around six sample trays over the course of several weeks to the offices of The Shaffran Companies located on Fourth Street, just around the corner from Cupcake Station.

Size-wise, Cupcake Station cupcakes are not some freak of the bakery world. Johnson says they’re standard cupcake size, like you’d bake in your own home, but they fill them with a little extra batter – about 2.5 oz. Asked whether there is an automated gadget for metering out the batter into each cup, Johnson laughs, “Her name is Heather!”

Johnson doesn’t spend time counting cupcakes, but guesses the Birmingham location sells somewhere around 750-1,000 cupcakes a day.

Washington Street Gallery

The previous tenant of the Cupcake Station’s space was The Washington Street Gallery.

The Washington Street Gallery – named after the downtown street where it made its first home – moved in March of this year to a space previously occupied by Jules Furniture at 306 S. Main St. Visitors to downtown Ann Arbor might recall that the Jules Furniture space was unoccupied for nearly two years before WSG opened there. Visitors with a memory for detail might even recall that the sign in the window advertising the open space made clear that proposals involving restaurants would not be entertained.

The connection between these two spaces? Ed Shaffran. Shaffran owns the Pretzel Bell Building on Liberty Street where Cupcake Station will start baking, as well as the Pratt Block on Main Street where the 16 partners of the Washington Street Gallery now hang their work. So the sign in the window that said effectively said, “no restaurants allowed” – that was Shaffran’s sign.


Washington Street Gallery

What does he have against restaurants? Nothing, except that in light of the existing restaurant density on Main Street, Shaffran says that “anything other than a restaurant at that location on Main Street would be better for the community.” In leaving the space open, Shaffran says he passed up at least $75,000-$80,000 in revenues annually and could easily have leased out the space “a dozen times over” to a restaurant. A gallery, he says, is a better fit.

The space, however, was not built as a gallery. The new walls that angle across the space to provide additional space to hang art, and to lead visitors on a tour through the work, were designed by Seth Penchansky of Penchansky Whisler Architects. Penchansky is the son of Washington Street Gallery partner, Norma Penchansky-Glasser.

Shaffran’s Spaces

Ed Shaffran points out that many of the spaces he owns aren’t being used for their originally designed purposes, and their exposed-brick, wood floored, somewhat raw industrial feel gives them a unique quality. “You can go anywhere and get carpet and drywall – this is something you can’t get anywhere.”

Shaffran’s own office reflects that same aesthetic of exposed brick walls, floors constructed of oriented strand board (OSB), a chairmat of checkerplate steel (bumpy side down but with the checker pattern still apparent), and metal tool chests serving as drawer space.


Exposed Brick: The Brickyard (3.7 Designs, 352 Media Group, Cooney Information Group, Different Chairs, Gordian Labs, Ingenex Digital Marketing, Your Search Advisor)

The downstairs neighbors of the Washington Street Gallery have embraced the exposed-brick aesthetic so firmly that they’ve adopted The Brickyard as a name that describes both the geographic location and their collection of different enterprises.

What if a new tenant of Shaffran’s wanted to build out their space by painting over the exposed brick? Yvette and Sean Stayduhar, who own and operate the Ann Arbor Biscuit Co. on Fourth Street in the same building where Shaffran keeps his offices, say that Shaffran told them to pretty much do whatever they wanted with one exception: “Don’t touch the brick!” And they say they didn’t need any convincing, because part of what they like about the space is its bare brick walls.


Exposed Brick: A shelf full of dog biscuit treats in the Ann Arbor Biscuit Co.

Dog Biscuits lead Cupcakes to Shaffran

So how did a guy who owns a cupcake bakery wind up leasing a brick-walled, wood-floored space from Shaffran? Leasing from Shaffran wasn’t the first option Kerry Johnson considered. He was in discussions to rent a different space on Liberty and was in town parked around the corner on Fourth Street across the street from the Ann Arbor Biscuit Co., whose flagship product is dog biscuits. Johnson said he saw the storefront and figured, “Hey, I like dogs, we’ve done fundraisers with animal organizations, I think I’ll go in there!”

Inside, he met Sean and Yvette, and over the course of a few visits to Ann Arbor struck up a friendship with them. When the arrangements for the other Liberty Street location fell through, Johnson reported the discouraging news to them. Yvette said that almost as soon as he went out the door it occurred to them that their landlord – Shaffran – had space available.

Which brings us back to Shaffran, and cupcakes – so let’s let him have the last word: “I guess there’s some people who don’t like cupcakes, but I’d sure like to meet one just so I could ask them, ‘What don’t you like a cupcake for?!’”


Maple flooring in Cupcake Station


Exposed Brick: Cupcake Station

Section: Business