Until recently, it seemed like any major downtown Detroit real estate transaction included the names Gilbert or Ilitch. But another name has been appearing lately with increasing frequency: Elia.
It began in 2016 with the sale of the old Fountain Bistro in Campus Martius to Zaid Elia and Matthew Shiffman. The pair reopened it as the jewel-box fine-dining restaurant Parc later that year and also run all the food and beverage operations for the park.
In 2017, Elia and Shiffman purchased the 19-story Ford Building on Griswold with plans to invest $4 million into its renovation.
In late November, Wayne County announced a $4.65-million deal to sell a building at 511 Woodward to the Elia Group, which will invest an additional $9 million into the revival of the long-neglected neighbor of the Guardian Building.
And just this Tuesday, the transfer of ownership to Elia was completed on the Anchor Bar, a storied Detroit dive that’s served countless journalists, cops and Red Wings fans over the past six decades.
“He’s got the Midas touch,” says Elia’s friend and fellow developer Clint Mansour. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”
But it’s not that simple. Elia looks for very specific features that must be present in any deal.
“Everything that I invest in is something that means something in a community that you can feel, touch and smell,” Elia recently said over lunch at Parc. “It’s not something that is a new restaurant in a shopping center. A new condo development here. That’s not my business. My business is picking Main and Main locations, looking at the operational side of the business and how do I maximize value on the deal.”
Despite Elia’s very public downtown developments and an even longer history of deal-making in the northern suburbs, there’s been little publicity about the person behind them.
Who is Zaid Elia and how is he suddenly making some of the splashiest real estate purchases in town while growing a food and beverage empire at the same time?
That’s what I wanted to find out.
I meet Elia shortly after 11 a.m. on a gray Thursday morning in late October in Campus Martius, where he’s watching the installation of the ice rink unfold. He’s wearing a navy blue blazer over an untucked lilac-colored dress shirt, jeans and red and black Nike low-tops. A gold Rolex sparkles on his wrist.
“You ready to party?” he says with a hearty, guttural laugh that comes easy and often, disarming strangers and filling rooms.
Elia is a bear of a man with paws that could palm a bowling ball. His Cheshire Cat eyebrows impart a sense of mischief to his 40-year-old face.
We take a quick stroll through Cadillac Square, where the Cadillac Lodge is being erected. He was born with a bad hip and had to get his first replacement last year, adding some stiffness to his gait.
This year, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which oversees the programming for the parks, awarded Elia’s group the food and beverage operations for the Lodge in addition to their perpetual agreement to run Campus Martius’ operations.
“Our footprint’s getting a little bit bigger,” explains Parc Executive Chef Jordan Hoffman as he joins us. His formal title as of November is director of culinary operations for the newly created Iconic Collection, a subset of the Elia Group that encompasses the food and beverage operations and management of Elia’s growing empire.
“We’re not out here to run a restaurant, per se,” Elia says. “The whole collection is iconic places, iconic people and iconic experiences. We’re creating this brand that unifies our goal and direction and team. Everyone is vested and I’m really lucky to have people around me who care as much as I do.”
The feeling is mutual for Hoffman.
“I think for both of us there’s a productive level of neurosis,” he says of his boss. “As an operator, he’s encyclopedically knowledgeable and his attention to the detail is incredible. He’s hands-on without being overbearing and still letting his operators operate.”
Kate Hill was the marketing director for the Elia Group from early 2016 until she left in the summer of 2017 — on good terms, she’s quick to add — to focus on developing her own roster of clients.
“With Zaid, you always knew where you stood,” she says. “If something wasn’t up to par, he’d let you know. And when you did well, he was quick to praise. … He really drives and motivates people to work as hard as he does.”
But becoming a restaurant operator was incidental for Elia — a byproduct of his interest in real estate development. It was happenstance that he bought the 220 Merrill building in Birmingham, Elia told me earlier this year, “and the 220 restaurant came with it.”
Over lunch he fills me in on the pertinent biographical details.
His parents immigrated from Baghdad to Detroit in the 1970s along with thousands of other Chaldeans who sought refuge from persecution in Iraq.
His father is a physician and still runs a practice at State Fair and the I-75 service drive, on the outskirts of the old Chaldeantown neighborhood, where he’s been since the early ’80s. His mother works alongside her husband, running the office and keeping Pops in check.
Elia grew up in West Bloomfield and attended Brother Rice High School before graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in biology. His parents wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps, but Elia had other plans.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell them I couldn’t walk into a hospital without getting sick!” he says. “But I knew that I couldn’t just not go to medical school and not have a higher degree. My parents would’ve kicked me out of the house.”
His girlfriend at the time, Zaina, instead suggested they go to law school together. So they did, both earning their law degrees from Wayne State University. He went into real estate law; she did medical malpractice defense. They were married in 2005 and had their first of three kids the following year.
But the law degree for Elia spurred an interest in the other family business. His mother is a Jonna, a prominent Chaldean family that’s been in the local real estate development business for decades.
“For me, law was always a means to an end,” Elia says. “It was kind of my sweat equity of learning the real estate side of the business. Real estate and business transactions was all I did. And when I started in 2004, that was the height of the boom of real estate.”
In that time, he personally drafted more than 500 leases and purchase agreements. Understanding contracts and paying attention to detail gave him the upper hand when it came time to go into the business himself.
It was a hard-nosed Rite Aid development deal he did with his uncle on a piece of land in Ann Arbor that started it, he says, and it grew from there. But the turning point was earning the admiration of local development veteran Arie Liebovitz.
“I was very impressed with his charisma and energy,” says Leibovitz, 73, whose son introduced the two. “He had a lot of vision that I kind of gravitated to. He’s very gifted in that he has a very charming personality and resonates a lot of energy and fun. People around him always have fun with him. He’s a risk taker and has a good nose for good deals. And he’s wise beyond his age. Even though I’m almost twice his age, we have a lot of common language and we relate to each other.”
The pair developed a mentor-mentee relationship that led to about a half-dozen developments by Leibovitz’s estimate. But it was the first one together, with Leibovitz’s name attached, that legitimized Elia in the market.
“That one deal changed the trajectory of my relationships and it allowed me to broaden who I could speak with,” Elia says. “Let’s say that it gave me credibility in the marketplace. And it allowed me to broaden my outreach and everything else.”
“He would’ve succeeded without me, there’s no question,” Leibovitz counters. “Because he has what it takes.”
Those early deals were mostly strip mall developments, populated by CVS stores, Tim Horton’s and Gordon Food Service. Another turning point came during the Great Recession.
In 2009, Elia was approached with an offer to become the development agent for all the Subway stores in Wayne County excluding Detroit. The offer came with a few conditions — Elia had to run his own store and show month-over-month improvement to prove his mettle — but he was eventually approved personally by founder Fred DeLuca.
Today, Elia Group owns and operates about a dozen Subway stores in Wayne County and is the development agent for the other franchisees, acting as a mini Subway headquarters for the market. In total, Elia’s purview covers more than 100 stores.
“The lure of the Subway brand at the time was amazing,” he says. “But more importantly real estate at the time was in the gutter and I needed to diversify my portfolio. There was no such thing as a real estate development deal in ‘09 and ‘10. But what I learned is buying and operating businesses that have an existing cash flow allowed me to create an office and a team of experts because I could afford to pay them.”
And that’s allowed him to be far more versatile than most developers, who see each deal as a single transaction before moving on to the next one. By marrying operations with development, Elia often holds a competitive advantage.
In 2014, Elia entered the hospitality business in earnest, partnering with Denise Ilitch to buy and renovate 220 Merrill in Birmingham, a longtime neighborhood institution. (He says he bought Ilitch out and is now the sole owner and operator.)
“I was able to buy the deals that most real estate developers couldn’t buy because they required operations,” he says. “Because operations and real estate are two wholly different businesses. A real estate company can be fairly nimble. A food and beverage business cannot. You need teams of people to make sure that the company is growing and being enhanced. But then I was able to look at these deals differently and maybe pay a little more money because I was going to get a little more of a return on them, ultimately.”
By the time we leave Parc, it’s after 1 p.m. and Elia has 45 missed calls and 100 emails.
“You’d think I was gone for like a month!” he says as we take our seats in the black SUV waiting for us behind the restaurant.
“He’s quite a remarkable guy,” says Vaughn Derderian, the longtime owner of the Anchor Bar who sold to Elia. “I really enjoy yakking it up with him because he’s as busy as any (expletive) I’ve ever seen. But there’s certain people you can tell they just thrive on that (expletive). The busier they are the more they rise.”
The Anchor Bar seems like an odd fit for Elia’s mostly higher-end portfolio. But then again, it fits into his whole vision for the Iconic Collection: high-visibility institutions sitting on prime real estate.
“It was one of those businesses that you knew is part of something bigger,” Elia explains. “And for me I wanted to show the versatility of our brand and what we can do. … I said, ‘We’re going to have the best dive bar in Michigan.’”
He says he plans to keep its spirit the same, but make some cosmetic improvements and streamline operations. He’ll also do more outreach to the sports crowd.
But what was it about Elia that made him seem like the right person to sell a 60-year-old family business?
Derderian mutters something under his breath that suggests this might be the dumbest question he’s been asked in all his years.
“Money,” he says matter-of-factly. “What else is there?”
Derderian declined to say how much he received in the sale. Likewise, Elia declined to discuss total value for his various holdings.
As his driver zips us across town, Elia makes phone calls, handling the most pressing business: reserving a table for a VIP guest at 220 in one call while negotiating another top-secret development in another.
The Bloomfield Hills resident makes this city-to-suburb commute and back three to four days a week. Sometimes he drives himself, but when he has a lot of calls to make it’s easier to let someone else take the wheel.
He tells me he begins most days dropping his three kids off at school, then heading to his office in Birmingham for team meetings. He used to go to his various properties, but as the empire has expanded, that’s become too onerous. He guesstimates that he employs some 600 people across all his properties, and that number is growing by another 150 as he and Shiffman reopen the old Kingsley Inn in Bloomfield Hills as a DoubleTree by Hilton, which is where we’re headed.
We arrive to the deafening buzz of generators and swarms of contractors laying tile and installing trim in the 60-year-old hotel. The hotel is a new business for him and its two food and beverage outposts — Zalman’s Deli and a traditional bar and lounge called the Duke — are the latest jewels in his crown. (Zalman’s, he says, is a reference to the Yiddish name a Jewish friend calls him. It means “the wise one.”)
Just like previous deals, the hotel was attached to his real interest: the property it sits on.
“The project was originally conceived as a real estate development and redeveloping it with apartments and condos and retail,” he says. “But as I got in the business, I enjoyed it. I never ran a hotel. It was in a money-losing position. It was losing $65,000 a month when I took it over. The property had more value than I was buying it for. The hotel was just a byproduct out of the deal — the land itself was worth much more than I was buying it for.”
As we tour the hotel, still in the throes of construction six weeks before its scheduled debut, Elia points out an upside-down light sconce in a far-flung hallway to his hotel manager. The towels in the one room that’s staged are rolled too loosely for his taste.
“Isn’t there a machine that rolls these things?” he asks.
“Or a guide? You like the roll, though, right?” asks Matthew Shiffman, his partner on Elia’s splashiest deals.
“I like the roll but I like them to be firmly pressed,” Elia says.
Shiffman’s name is another that can’t be ignored in the local development community. His father, Gary A. Shiffman, is the CEO of Sun Communities Inc., one of the country’s largest real estate investment funds specializing in manufactured homes, which he founded with Matthew’s grandfather Milton Shiffman.
Matthew Shiffman and Elia met on a trip organized by a mutual friend to Las Vegas in May 2015 for the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao fight. The pair hit it off on the plane.
“You know how when you meet someone and you just click and realize they share a lot of very similar values and passions that you do?” Shiffman says. “It was kind of one of those perfect marriages.”
Shiffman had long held a passion for food and hospitality, and Elia knew the business from his success with 220. The two decided to explore a joint opportunity and happened upon the Fountain Bistro in Campus Martius, which, two years later, became Parc. Then came the historic Ford Building. And now the two are partners on the Bloomfield hotel.
“When thinking of Zaid, he’s one of the hardest working guys I know, hands down,” Shiffman says. “And a lot of people don’t realize that because they see him as this big guy who likes to run around and be a presence in a room. But what they don’t see is behind closed doors how hard he works and his passion for taking something from its infant stages all the way through fruition. You’re never going to find anybody else who pays as much attention to the details as this guy does.”
The towels are just one small example.
So what’s their ultimate goal together? Shiffman, 34, says there’s no endgame.
“The job is never finished, as my dad always would say,” he says. “Right when you think you’ve reached some pinnacle, you’ve got to take a step back and realize this is only the beginning.”
That certainly rings true for Elia, even though he says his parents still think he should’ve been a doctor.