By Brent Snavely, Senior Director
Metro Detroit lost a giant in the restaurant industry last week with the passing of Matt Prentice, who was just 62.
Prentice was successful for many reasons that were noted in media coverage last week, but one factor was missed – his recognition of the value of public relations and willingness to talk to the press.
Back in the early 2000s, three compelling, high-profile personalities dominated restaurant news in metro Detroit: Joe Vicari with his upscale Italian food-based Andiamo Restaurant Group; Frank Taylor with his upstart Southern Hospitality Restaurant Group; and Matt Prentice’s Unique Restaurant Group with its emphasis on a range of fine-dining concepts across Oakland County and Detroit.
As a young food and restaurant reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, I wrote about the business of food and restaurants – and I needed to learn the business. I developed close relationships with all three restaurateurs, and each had their own, distinctive style.
Back then, Prentice still had a pager. Remember pagers? They were fading out of existence at the time as mobile phones were becoming smaller and better. Calling a source’s pager, in most cases, felt like dialing into a black hole. But that wasn’t the case with Prentice. I learned quickly that if I called Prentice’s pager, I needed to stay glued to my desk because I could count on him to return my call within 10 to 15 minutes.
And when he did, he wouldn’t just answer my questions. He would take the time to talk to me about his business plans as well as the restaurant industry in general – the trends, the challenges, the state of the metro Detroit market – pretty much anything I was trying to explore. As a result, Prentice was frequently quoted not just in stories specifically about his restaurants, but also as an expert source in many of my stories.
Nathan Skid, who took over my role at Crain’s after I left, quickly gained similar respect and appreciation for Prentice.
“He pretty much showed me the ropes of Detroit’s fine dining and always took the time to talk. I’ll never forget eating Coney dogs together at Lafayette,” Skid said in a tweet after news emerged about Prentice’s death.
Prentice’s ambition was also compelling. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Prentice was known for creating bold, visionary, fine-dining restaurants across metro Detroit. He had the courage to invest in the city of Detroit at a time when few others were willing to take the risk.
He opened Duet in May 1998 near historic Orchestra Hall. Its menu offered pairings (“duets”) of dishes such as seafood and steak. One of my most memorable Valentine’s Day dinners occurred at Duet in 2002 with the woman I would later marry. I remember large, plush, purple velvet booths and a jazz band playing during dinner.
In 2004, Prentice opened the audacious Coach Insignia – a steakhouse atop the Renaissance Center that took the place of The Summit, a long-closed restaurant that was famous for rotating to provide spectacular views of the city and Windsor from 72 floors above the Detroit River.
Before it opened, Prentice was incredibly transparent with me about his difficult contract negotiations with General Motors over the renovation costs and lease arrangement that took months to work out, telling me in this story he walked out on several occasions and saying the physical renovation costs topped $4 million.
Several years later, I boarded the People Mover on my way to Charity Preview – desperately in search of a non-automotive, non-fashion story to justify my presence at the annual black-tie gala on the eve of the Detroit auto show.
Prentice was sitting there, slumped in his white chef jacket with food stains on it, on his way back to TCF Center where his company was catering a private party for 400 guests of Ford Motor Co. Tired and stressed with his highest-profile client waiting for him, Prentice took 10 minutes of his time to talk and explain the catering side of the restaurant business to me. He told me, at least at the time, that Charity Preview was often the biggest night of the year for Detroit’s high-end restaurants – even bigger than Valentine’s Day – providing me with the basis for the column I would later write.
I do not claim to understand exactly what happened to Prentice and his company in the late 2000s when it ran into financial problems. According to media reports, Prentice sold his company to associate Stanley Dickson Jr. in 2009. I am also unfamiliar with Three Cats restaurant in Clawson, a partnership with Leon & Lulu retail shop owners Mary Liz Curtin and Stephen Scannell that he debuted in 2019.
What I do know is that during an era when many business owners feared the media, Prentice was fearless – fearless when it came to his vision for restaurants, fearless when it came to investing in downtown Detroit, and fearless when it came to talking to reporters like me.
For those who may have wondered why his restaurant ventures generated so much media coverage, I can tell you his formula was surprisingly simple: When reporters called, he called back. He had open, honest conversations and took time to explain his vision, and had the patience to explain the industry.
I will forever remember and appreciate Matt Prentice for his inventive restaurants, his commitment to metro Detroit, and his willingness to talk to me at any time.
Follow Brent on Twitter @BrentSnavely