Feb 21, 2019 | History of the Roadhouse

Zingerman’s Roadhouse: An Ann Arbor Westside Story

We’ve come a long way, baby.

by Marcy Harris

An exterior shot of Bill Knapp's restaurant in 1958, courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library.
Bill Knapp’s restaurant in 1958, courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library.
An exterior photo of Zingerman's Roadhouse today.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse today.

Zingerman’s Roadhouse has been around since 2003, can you believe it? We’ve come a long way! Did you know that before the Roadhouse was here, our building used to be a Bill Knapp’s restaurant? It was built in 1958–over 60 years ago!

A roadside restaurant turned Roadhouse.

We’ve got the pictures to prove it, not to mention the testimony of several locals who used to eat at Bill Knapp’s when it still claimed the address 2501 Jackson Rd. on Ann Arbor’s Westside. Check out the Ann Arbor District Library’s page with newspaper clippings and photos of the colonial-style building!

Bill Knapp’s started in Battle Creek with the concept of opening restaurants near the highway. This worked out in our favor when we took over the space! What can be more convenient than being located right off of an I-94 exit? When the former managing partner and head chef, Alex Young, cold-called Paul and Ari in 2003 with his concept for the Roadhouse, this was just the beginning of a developing story. We’ve packed a lot in over the years.

Here is the timeline of events:

  • 2002- Bill Knapp’s closes, including the restaurant at 2501 Jackson Rd. in Ann Arbor.
  • 2003- Alex Young, Ari, and Paul open the Roadhouse on September 15, 2003 in the old Bill Knapp’s space.
  • 2004-The Roadshow opens. The 1952 Spartan aluminum trailer was originally parked across the parking lot and not connected to the building.
  • 2004- Pit-master, Ed Mitchell, from Raleigh, NC, helps design and build the pit-smoker in back of the restaurant.
  • 2004- Alex starts his garden, which later turns into a 4-acre farm in Dexter. His produce becomes a huge part of the menu, especially his heirloom tomatoes.
  • 2007- The Roadshow Spartan trailer is connected to the restaurant.
  • 2007 and 2008- Zingerman’s Roadhouse chef Alex Young is nominated for Best Chef-Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation.
  • 2010- Alton Brown from the Food Network names the macaroni and cheese at Zingerman’s Roadhouse “America’s Best Comfort Food.”
  • 2011- Alex wins James Beard Award for Best Chef, Great Lakes.
  • 2017- Alex leaves and farm closes. Bob Bennett becomes head chef.
  • 2019 – The Roadhouse is a James Beard Award Finalist for Outstanding Service.
  • 2020 – The Roadhouse is a James Beard Award Finalist for Outstanding Hospitality.
  • 2020-2021 – The Roadhouse opens and closes multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to a need for social distancing, the Roadhouse Park opens as an outside space to safely dine.
  • 2022 – Lisa Schultz becomes the new Managing Partner

The cake is a little different. So is the building.

While the bones and structure of the former Bill Knapp’s building is are still standing, the Roadhouse has definitely evolved since it took over the space. Bob Bennett, who took over as head chef after Alex Young left in 2017, actually helped paint the walls back in 2003. He recalls the remodeling done to the building to make it ours. If you really look at the old photos, you can see where we opened up the kitchen line, moved the front door, and laid out beautiful barn wood throughout the restaurant for our signature flooring.

In addition to the main restaurant, the property around the Roadhouse has expanded! The Roadshow Spartan Trailer was added on in 2004, and during the COVID-19 pandemic became an integral way to continue serving food to-go when we had to close our dining room doors for safety. Closer to Maple Road, the Roadhouse Park was also created in 2020 in response to the pandemic. It’s colorful picnic tables, beautiful garden beds, and cheerful atmosphere contributed to a safe outdoor place for dining. The Park continues to offer service today to our patrons who wish to dine outdoors in good weather.

Over the years, the interior of the Roadhouse has taken on a fresh, new look. The pictures and signs on the walls have changed, but we’ve always tried to make sure we pay homage to the food artisans and producers who make our menu so special! Come on by to see the colorful posters we’ve put up with their imagery. We’ve hung two beautiful art pieces created for us by New York artist Patrick-Earl Barnes, one in the Common Room and one in the Fireplace Room. And speaking of the Fireplace Room, you can’t miss the big, awesome Bill Knapp’s sign that we’ve hung over the mantel in acknowledgment of our predecessor!

As we get older, there will be more love going into the Roadhouse building and grounds, and we’d love for you to come in a witness the updates! In the meantime, we thank you for helping to keep us going. We couldn’t do to without you!