From Albania to Ann Arbor, Restaurateur Sava Farah is building a local hospitality empire with guts and grit
By Jaclyn Trop
Photography by Erin Kirkland
Until she was 4 years old, Ann Arbor restaurateur Sava Farah lived in Albania’s northern-most village of Vermoshi — “a pretty hellish place,” she recalls. Hungry and deprived of basic human rights under the country’s communist dictatorship, Farah’s family fled across the border in the middle of the night, arriving six months later in New York “with nothing but the clothes on our back.”
But they carried with them one tradition: “Besa,” an “ancient code of honor for Albanians, linked to respect, acceptance, and the way you make someone feel,” Farah says. “To be known as a hospitable person is the greatest compliment an Albanian could receive.”
The concept of Besa is still central to Farah’s life: Now 37, she’s the founder of a growing restaurant empire in Ann Arbor, where she runs four restaurants under her hospitality company, the Pulpo Group. “I watched my parents work their butts off to get to America,” says the Ann Arbor resident, adding that her parents didn’t speak fluent English, leaving her to figure out adult matters on her own. “I learned early on that things are figureout-able, and that parents don’t have all the answers.
That early hustle would prove crucial when Farah was 13 and the family moved from New York City to Hamtramck. Pre-tending to be 16, she was hired as a server at a Greek diner and was “instantly hooked” on the business — its pace, sounds, scents, and personalities. After almost a dozen years working in Greek diners in Metro Detroit and one semester at Wayne State University, Farah itched to venture out on her own. In 2007, with Michigan in the throes of a recession, she drove to Ann Arbor on a whim one afternoon to hunt for a bargain on restaurant space
With $25,000 (some of it a family loan), Farah took over the lease of a shuttered Pita Café and opened Sava’s, her eponymous eatery. The “humble café,” which has since moved to larger quarters on bustling State Street, soon became one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Over the next decade, Farah opened more restaurants and dabbled in different businesses. “One of my biggest curses was my early success,” she says. “It made me wonder what else we could be good at, which led me to some not-so-successful concepts, such as grocery and catering — two businesses I embarked on and ultimately faded out of.”
Becoming a mother — her sons are now 4 and 2 — forced her to focus on her core business and be mindful of managing her energy. “For someone who wants it all, you have to get up early, you have to eat your Wheaties, you have to take care of yourself.” But one day, she saw a “For Sale” sign on a 7-acre historic site next to Fleming Creek in Dixboro Village (a few miles outside of Ann Arbor) that she couldn’t resist. The property included a barn that had served as a restaurant for more than a century. Farah bought the site in 2017 and finished renovations in October 2020, months into the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I thought, do we sit here, keep the lights off and wait for a brighter future, or do we work toward that brighter future now?” She picked the latter, and now she’s preparing to debut two restaurants on the property: The Boro, a rustic pizzeria and café housed in the original barn, and Dixboro House, an upscale restaurant in a modern farmhouse. To run the kitchen, Farah hired Louis Maldonado, a Michelin-starred chef and former Top Chef contestant from San Francisco, and his wife, Annemarie, who leads the pastry and bakery program.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has ravaged Michigan’s restaurant industry, with furloughed employees, defunct suppliers, and mandated closings. Farah shuttered her Spanish tapas bar Aventura after experimenting with carryout service. “The whole concept is around sharing food around a table,” she says. She also closed Wilma’s, a cafe popular with University of Michigan students.
Sava’s is currently allowed to operate at 50% capacity, with the goal to “bounce back from the pandemic stronger and more amazing than ever,” says Farah. “We have demonstrated staying power, but we can’t rest in that. Success in this business is too fragile, especially in a college town with an influx of fresh blood and expectations year after year.” But the grit, guts, and hospitality skills she honed along the journey from Albania to Ann Arbor make Farah uniquely suited to ride out the tough times. “If you’re a business and you get a second chance,” she says, “you look for an opportunity and grab that sucker with both hands.”