In this occasional series, Detour founder Ashley Woods digs in for some #realtalk with Detroiters you may already know and follow. And if you don’t… duh, get with the program already. First up: Marrow co-owner Ping Ho.
Name: Ping Ho
Where she calls home: Southwest Detroit
Detroit has a small circle of restaurant owners and investors, and an even smaller community of wine buyers and wine nerds. There’s some overlap between these two circles, and one glaringly obvious commonality — it’s a scene almost totally dominated by men.
In this exclusive group, Ping Ho is something of an aberration. In Detroit, where a year in New York can seem exotic, she hails from Singapore, and spent much of her adult career in Asia. She’s the opposite of a culinary insider: a journalist who became a music industry executive before blowing up her life for a torrid love affair with wine. And after moving from Brooklyn to Detroit, buying a house in Southwest Detroit for $1,000 dollars and opening The Royce, Ping’s betting everything on Marrow, an ambitious new project that opened last week in The Villages.
Fitting into the Motor City
I walked in the Royce one recent afternoon and found Ho finishing a meeting with local attorney Kristen Lusn and Rebel Nell founder Amy Peterson. Ho has created a close circle of food people, entrepreneurs and impressive women in the city — which she credits to her first friend in the city, fellow entrepreneur Terra Castro of Detroit Body Garage.
“It’s stereotypical, but I was surprised by how open and supportive people are,” she told me. “People are very warm and genuine here.”
For being a relative newcomer to Detroit when she opened The Royce in 2016, ,Ho had a firm grasp on what kind of shop felt right for the spot off Grand Circus Park. With a spotlight on approachable, natural and small production wines, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a darling little patio, it feels more like discovering a quiet enoteca on a Roman side street.
“When you walk into the Royce, you don’t feel like it’s a dive bar — but I’ve never heard a comment of us as elitist or unapproachable, either,” she commented.
But it led me to ask: how did she have the moxie to quit her job, move across the country and open a business in a totally new industry? And then nail the landing?
She smiled. “There is something in me,” she said, “where I embrace change as a positive.”
On the Road
Seeking a new adventure after high school in Singapore, a 17-year-old Ho took “two planes and a train” to Brown University. Needing a work permit after graduating college, she won a journalism fellowship at the Poynter Institute in Florida, and then landed at The Street, an early financial blog covering the ins and outs of Wall Street. That was how she found herself just blocks away from Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center. “I still remember fumbling for my camera, watching it burn… starting to see it pancake…. An avalanche of smoke and ash.”
Wall Street closed for a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A shaken Ho quit her job and moved to China, jumping from journalism to the financial sector. A few years later, the opportunity to work for Warner Music brought her back to New York — right as the music business began transitioning to digital. It was an amazing opportunity, Ho said, and she maximized it: rising through the ranks to vice president of digital business development, negotiating deals with the likes of Apple and Spotify.
But then Ho started reading stories about new entrepreneurs heading to Detroit, like the Galapagos art collective, and decided it was about time she started something of her own. It’s a story we’ve heard a hundred times by now. What’s different about Ping Ho is the pains she took to become part of the fabric of the city, instead of trying to simply trying to make Detroit more like New York.
Farm, table, family
Marrow, which opened last week in West Village, is Ho’s first foray into the restaurant business. Composed with both the local and exotic in mind, the menu encompasses both Ho’s farm-to-table ethos and her roots, like the Caesar salad made with cabbage, kimchi and Szechuan peppercorn, or the Michigan chanterelles served with locally-made mapo tofu and morel broth. Ho’s vision for Marrow is a neighborhood restaurant with a butcher shop that’s the focal point of the operation.
“We’re very sensitive to pricing,” she added. “And we aspire to be the place where people go to on a regular basis and don’t feel the pinch.”
A butcher counter and meat-focused restaurant is an almost aggressively masculine concept. Yet Ho and co-owner Greg Reynor installed a female-heavy team to open Marrow’s doors, led by head chef Sarah Welch (formerly of Republic). It’s a calculated decision to prioritize inclusion from the very beginning, starting in the back of the house.
That’s the kind of perspective that landed Ho a spot in the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program this summer, alongside visionary female restaurateurs and business owners from across the country.
“My main focus is establishing the Royce and Marrow as sister companies that are run under the same value structure,” Ho told me. Her restaurateur idol is Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern, who eliminated tipping in his restaurants and offers employees health insurance and 401ks. She said she’s also figuring out how to offer benefits and retirement packages to key employees.
“I’m interested in creating long term sustainable opportunities, particularly for women and minorities — to keep good people in hospitality,” Ho said.
Ho said the secret to her success while constantly changing circumstances is two-fold. “I learn the quickest from other people,” she said, “so I always find the best person to work with and learn from.”
The partnership with Reynor was sparked by a chance conversation in a bar, and when it came to The Royce, she learned from Bobby Vance, who helped guide the wine program at Republic.
That, and she’s always felt driven to keep learning and growing — even if it means uprooting the stable and familiar for the unexplored. And so far, in Detroit, that bet has paid off — maybe even enough for Ho to relax a little.
“The biggest change of being in my 30s is not taking myself so seriously all the time,” she laughed.
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