By Tara Cavanaugh
When you think of Pronto!, be sure not to forget that exclamation mark – and the mark that it’s left on the city of Royal Oak.
Over 20 years, what began as a narrow takeaway expanded to five store fronts, taking up an entire city block and a host of identities: Pronto! has birthed a sit-down restaurant, a bar, a bakery, a nostalgia store and a catering service.
The restaurant has also helped Royal Oak embrace its identity as a gay hotspot, says Bill Thomas, one of its three co-owners. “We’ve built friendships with business owners, breaking down stereotypes about gay-owned businesses and businesses that attract gay clientele. We’ve been able to educate the community to say look: there is a marketplace here that you’re not capturing.” Royal Oak was recently named the fifth most popular city for same-sex couples, according to 2010 U.S. census data.
The city has changed over two decades, Thomas says, “and I think our consumer base, particularly our gay and lesbian audience, has changed too. In this marketplace, it’s a very accepting, welcoming, diverse community. So we’re just not the only (gay-friendly) place anymore. Our guests are guests in every single location in town.”
But when it first opened, the restaurant was the only gay-friendly place in town. That legacy lives on after 8 p.m., when Pronto! becomes the gay bar to be at in the city. “But at any other time during the day, you can’t assume two women dining are lesbians; they may just be business associates,” Thomas says. “We’ve become very mainstream.
“We’re seeing people now who have children, who are married, divorced, now they’re bringing their kids in, now we’re multi-generational. We started with zero high chairs,” Thomas chuckles, “and now we have fifteen. Everyone’s having kids!”
Becoming mainstream is easy when the menu offers something for everyone to love.
“We make everything from scratch here,” Thomas says, “which is kind of an anomaly in the restaurant world – you could open up a restaurant today and not even have a kitchen, the way that food is produced. But we take a different approach.
“We have a commissary kitchen in north Royal Oak. We have a production kitchen in here, which is sweet and savory: we make every cake, every filling, every soup, every dressing.” The restaurant’s sandwiches and desserts have graced best-of-Detroit lists for years, and Ford Arts Beats & Eats picked the restaurant as its media backdrop this year. Its ever-expanding popularity caused it to need several physical expansions; the latest is a large patio seating area in the back that was once a parking lot.
As he proudly shows off the new space, Thomas says he loves the view it provides of the urban skyline: “At night when you sit here, with these buildings, you almost feel like you’re in the middle of Manhattan.” The new patio offers 90 seats surrounded by lush green plants and strands of lights that crisscross under an open sky.
Thomas attributes the success of Pronto! to the open-mindedness and flexibility of the owners. Thomas co-owns the restaurant with Jim Domanski and Tom Murray. Every six months, the owners and the staff rework the menu to fit new customer demands and food trends. The owners are also flexible when it comes to their staff; they encourage staff to be “who they are” and they proudly display an HRC sticker on the front door.
Another part of the business’s success is its philosophy of giving back. “We started Steppin’ Out, AIDS Walk Detroit because a friend asked us a favor,” Thomas says. “We’ve been very philanthropic – within the Royal Oak community, the gay community. Where we can help, we do.” For the first time in 20 years, Thomas and his co-owners are turning control of Steppin’ Out to another organization, a decision Thomas calls tough but the right thing to do.
So what’s next for the bustling restaurant that feels like a big-city bistro? Thomas laughs and says he has no idea what the universe has in store for Pronto! next. “It seems like each year there’s a different focus on something, based on the economy, based on people’s tastes.”
No matter what comes down the pipeline for the Pronto! brand, one thing is for certain: “We’re not fine dining,” Thomas proclaims proudly. “We’re fun dining.” With, of course, that exclamation mark.