After two years of hard work, Aaron F. Belen of AFB Hospitality Group opens a second location of The Morrie in Birmingham.
Photos courtesy of The Morrie/Terence Warde
Downtown Birmingham has witnessed its fair share of restaurants that come and go. Yet, Aaron F. Belen is not giving up. In fact, he has invested nearly two years of hard work to bring The Morrie to the city of Birmingham.
Belen owns AFB Hospitality Group, which opened The Morrie in Royal Oak in 2016. AFB is also behind the award-winning Bistro 82 and SCL Royal Oak ultra-lounge and nightclub.
Now, the Bloomfield Hills resident is ready to test the waters again — this time in Birmingham, a city that has always meant a great deal to him.
“I’ve spent a long time working with city officials and all the powers that be in town, explaining the package and team that I’m bringing,” Belen says.
The 36-year-old spent part of his life in Birmingham, along with his late grandfather, Morrie, who is behind the restaurant’s name.
“There weren’t a lot of Jewish people in Birmingham, but my grandfather moved into the Birmingham Place when they built the building — he was the first tenant to sign the lease. He always loved Birmingham — he used to walk around and talk to shop owners and friends.”
Sadly, Morrie died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, prior to the restaurant’s opening.
“I know he would love this place,” Belen says. “He was just a cool, well-liked guy — he played a massive role in my life.”
While Belen had his sights set on Birmingham for some time, he has become accustomed to answering the common question, “Why not Detroit?”
“I’m really happy for its success, but I think Birmingham is being overlooked. I think that we had a huge canvas here to paint in our category that didn’t exist ever. This is the biggest project to open in the food and beverage business in Birmingham this year.”
The Morrie in Birmingham maintains its signature rock ‘n’ roll vibe with a full stage and records plastered on the wall. Yet, the nearly 8,000 square-foot venue has its own feel, complete with a 16-seat outdoor patio and an exclusive private room that accommodates up to 40 guests.
“Each Morrie that we open is going to have its own identity, but we all want them to feel like they are on brand and that it is synergistic between all cities,” Belen says.
TVs stationed above the bar area retract, revealing an elevated stage equipped to host talent like The Morrie’s house band, “Your Generation in Concert,” among other local favorites.
The food menu features the popular Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich and Kung Pao cauliflower, yet the Birmingham edition boasts a cauliflower-based Greek flatbread and build-your-own salads.
The Morrie kicked off its soft opening with a live performance on Aug. 9 by Billy Joel saxophonist Mark Rivera, and opened officially to the public Aug. 15.
Belen emphatically credits his hard-working team, including Director of Operations Keith Schofield and wife Lea, formerly of the Roberts Restaurant Group, and executive chef Derik Watson.
As a natural leader, Belen also has a hand in training his staff in-house.
“We try to promote from within and breed young, fresh talent. I have a manager here (in Birmingham), Simone Brown, who started off as a server in Royal Oak.”
Outside of the restaurant business, Belen serves on the Friendship Circle Board of Directors, and AFB Hospitality Group has been a proud sponsor of NEXTGen Detroit’s EPIC fundraising event for the past five years.
Even in the early stages of opening, Belen is already booking rehearsal dinners and bar and bat mitzvahs, while greeting crowds of locals pouring in to see what the new Birmingham spot has to offer.
“I don’t think I’ve ever opened a place in my career where everyone unanimously has been saying similar things — that the city needed this, the market needed this…we don’t have anything in town like this. It has been unbelievable to hear that,” Belen says.
Grandpa Morrie would definitely be proud.
260 N. Old Woodward., Birmingham