Welcome to the Club: A Look Inside Detroit’s BasBlue

BasBlue is a space for women and nonbinary individuals to pull up a chair, collaborate, and break bread.
Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

When Nancy Tellem moved to Detroit in 2015, she met a lot of talented women from all walks of life but noticed there wasn’t a place where they could both network and get access to resources.

“All the meetings I was having were at either restaurants or coffee houses or clubs that were really created for men but opened up for women, and you didn’t feel particularly welcomed there,” says Tellem, who is married to Arn Tellem, the vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons.

That’s when she decided to create a social gathering place where women and nonbinary individuals could meet, work, and collaborate.
Once she had the concept, she had to figure out how to pull it off.

Enter Natacha Hildebrand, who was introduced to Tellem by a mutual friend. Hildebrand had co-founded Doyenne, a Los Angeles space with a similar mission to connect women, in 2016. Tellem invited Hildebrand to scout out Detroit and told her she would fall in love with the Motor City.

“And I absolutely did,” says Hildebrand, who’s based in LA but frequently visits Detroit.

When the co-founders were first conceptualizing what would become BasBlue, a membership-based nonprofit organization as well as a brick-and-mortar cafe and event space, one of the things they pondered was where people gather.

The artwork is curated in collaboration with Alison Wong of Wasserman Projects. This painting is titled “Cookie Coin” by artist Summer Wheat. Photograph by Rebecca Simonov.

“One of the most common places to gather was over a dining table with a great meal, hopefully, with a glass of wine or something tasty that you enjoy,” Hildebrand says. “And so the food was a really important part of it for us to create that environment that was as comfortable as the space itself.”

Coincidentally, a few years ago, Tellem was running a startup in New York that was securing a deal with Warner Bros.

“And [the person we’re] negotiating with is a woman named Ping Ho,” Tellem says. The two ended up moving to Detroit at the same time, and when BasBlue was getting started, Tellem approached Ho, now the CEO and founder of Backbone Hospitality, which includes the restaurants Marrow and Mink as well as The Royce wine bar, about partnering on the design of the cafe and curation of the food and drink offerings.

Last October, BasBlue opened its doors after several years of renovations to the Queen Anne home at 110 E. Ferry St. that Tellem had purchased in 2018. The 2.5-story structure was once the home of the Michigan State Telephone Co. and a children’s fine art museum before lying vacant for a couple of decades.

Many original features were left intact, like the wooden staircase, but there are modern touches like the Instagrammable yellow wallpaper, exposed brick, and plush blue armchairs. The second floor, with conference rooms, workspaces, and a bar featuring spirits and wines from women-owned distilleries and wineries that opens at 4 p.m. for happy hour, is members-only, but the cafe and first floor are open to the public.

BasBlue’s cafe, which is open
to the public, features local and organic provisions from women- led or owned farms, bakeries, and businesses. Photography by Rebecca Simonov.

Sarah Welch, chef at Marrow (and Top Chef finalist), curated the menu at the cafe, which features items from women-owned businesses such as Give Thanks Bakery and Bea’s Squeeze as well as local farmers like Fisheye Farms in West Village. Welch explains that her approach to the menu is “finding seasonal items at their freshest and peak from local producers and farmers.”

The all-day cafe menu changes quarterly. Over the summer, the menu featured dishes like the summer berry salad with spicy mixed greens, Michigan strawberries, blueberries, oranges, walnuts, avocado, feta cheese, and a strawberry balsamic vinaigrette.

Whatever isn’t sourced from other bakeries or businesses is made in-house, from cookies to quiches. And naturally, there are charcuterie boards, with Marrow’s soppressata, cured salmon, Idyll Farms’ fennel chevre, white cheddar, mustard, olives, jam, and crackers.

While the Marrow team curated the menu, BasBlue’s own staff, including kitchen lead Erika Bernal, prepares the food.

For Bernal, working in a women- and nonbinary- centered space like BasBlue means a lot, especially as a worker in an industry that is known for toxicity.

“After working in environments where it wasn’t inclusive, it’s refreshing to work in a place where your voice and creativity matter,” Bernal says. “It brings a sense of belonging.”

The food offerings go beyond the cafe, with events such as brunches, barbecues, happy hours, and other special events open to the public, like the Pop-Up for a Purpose series. Every month, BasBlue partners with a local chef, and a percentage of the proceeds goes to their charity of choice. Previous guest chefs have included Ederique Goudia of the upcoming Gabriel Hall restaurant and Quiana Broden of The Kitchen by Cooking with Que.

A painting titled “Country Women” by artist Felice Pazner Malkin hangs over the fireplace in one of the members-only spaces on the second floor. Photograph by Rebecca Simonov.

“[The pop-up event] does build your audience because you get to be in front of people you’re not necessarily always in front of,” Broden says. “Everybody that came to support us didn’t know we existed.”

Broden also ended up joining the club.

“It’s my secret hiding place. When you’re the owner [of a business], it’s hard to work on the business when you’re [on-site]. So when I go to BasBlue, I’m doing the brain work. It’s kind of like my happy place. I love that.”

A place like BasBlue traces its roots to the women’s club movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century that evolved parallel to the suffrage movement. Before such clubs were formed, most women’s associations were either auxiliaries of men’s groups or church-sponsored aid societies. Women’s clubs became places where women could gather, work, and learn alongside one another.

Hildebrand says there’s a need for a space where women can be comfortable. “We still exist in these very male-dominated spaces,” Hildebrand says. “How do you create space to have conversations — and not only have conversation but vulnerable conversation and conversation where you can grow and learn and be educated?”

Hildebrand has worked with Gloria Steinem, who would host talking circles — discussions where listening was just as important as speaking. The circles would feature women of different backgrounds and generations.

“When you created a space to have a conversation, the most magical things happened and people opened up,” Hildebrand says. “Impact [doesn’t happen] overnight, but it happens in these small circles. And these circles double up to bigger circles. And that’s why these spaces are important — to create those kinds of indirect and direct circles to drive impact, to drive change, to drive awareness, to make sure you can see what you can be, whether that’s a great baker of bread or [an executive] leading a Fortune 100 company. So that’s why space matters.”

For details on becoming a member of BasBlue, as well as menu and events details, go to basblueus.com.

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.