‘The possibilities are endless’

An unconventional chef and restaurateur had a dream of serving meals and her community. When the banks and management company sitting on a vacant property refused to respond to her attempts to buy or lease, she set up shop anyway.

Five months ago, Sherri Brantley, owner and proprietor of Hoodies, a popular four-table supper club in the Vine Neighborhood, closed her Davis Street location and began renovating what she considers the ideal spot for Hoodies 2.0 — a house on Oakland Drive that’s sat vacant for two years.

Brantley walks around the gray two-story home describing the work she’s completed so far – patched holes in the ceiling, bought a new toilet, planted flowers, built a fence – most of which she’s funded through credit cards and volunteers for her cause, both manual labor and trained contractors. In the shady yard, she points out a stage that’s mid-construction, and where she hopes to build a gazebo, tableside gardens, a fire pit, and outdoor kitchen.

“I want Hoodies to grow everything to make its own ratatouille, completely out of the garden,” says Brantley, who goes by the moniker Sherri Palooza. “I want a little archway with strawberries or cucumbers that people can grab as they are walking to their table, like pick your own appetizers. The possibilities are endless, which is why I love this space.”

Brantley’s vision for a restaurant that serves as a pillar of the neighborhood became energized by the thought of repurposing a home that had been empty for two years.

“This is how I upgrade, ladies and gentlemen,” she says with a laugh.

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The mission of an outside-the-box restaurateur and chef soon blended into a personal one. Before closing down her first Hoodies location, she sought out the owners of the new one to offer to lease or purchase the home. She discovered it was in litigation between two banks. Her calls went unanswered.

A study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research released earlier this year found there is a need for nearly 8,000 residential units in the county by 2030. So, her plan to utilize the vacant Oakland Drive home to live and open a business became more about defending her role within a bigger issue in Kalamazoo – the negative impact of empty houses in a neighborhood.

Without any responses to her inquiries to buy or rent the place from the banks or from the numbers posted on the windows of the house, Brantley began working on the yard as soon as winter broke. She slipped in through a window and began staying there at the end of May this year. In a community in need of housing, the boarded up potential fed into indignation, and she made a play for the place that led to a summer of remodeling and an autumn of uncertainty.

She admits that might have been a controversial move, but insists that she still wants to purchase the house, and that using the space to grow her business is better for the neighborhood than letting the house sit empty while banks negotiate its future.

“For eighteen months I stalked this house. It’s for my restaurant, and I want to put a local garden back there, I want to put a stage back there,” she says. “Even if it does go up for sale, I’m not going to be at that boy’s club meeting, it’s going to be so insider that I’m not even going to be considered, so I had to burst my way into the conversation. They didn’t want to talk to me, and now I’m making them talk to me.”

a living room-sized space with dining tables and a red wall with the word "Hoodies" stenciled on it
Hoodies’ original location was literally in the living room of a house on Davis Street in Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood.

Brantley opened the original Hoodies in the living room of her rented home on Davis Street across from Western Michigan University’s old practice football field in August of 2019. She served original dishes like Flamin’ Hot Doritos Nachos, fried chicken and waffle bowls, and “The Zoo’s Most Stonerific Breakfast Sandwich” to late-night customers from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., expanding to include earlier dinner hours and weekend brunch. She didn’t advertise, instead relying on street traffic, word of mouth, and an active social media account.

“I always said Hoodies was based on fate. You never get here late, you always get here when the universe wants you to walk through the door,” she says.

She called it Hoodies to pay homage to a friend who was turned away at a downtown Kalamazoo establishment for wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, hoping to create the kind of atmosphere where casual attitudes and attire were encouraged.

“So many great people came in, and I had so many great conversations,” she says. “I got to meet so many more people in the community.”

The 39-year-old got her first restaurant industry gig at a diner when she was 15, then worked as a server at many local establishments like Cosmo’s Cucina and O’Duffy’s Pub, Martini’s Pizza, and “after a bunch of life stuff“ at Angel’s Gentlemen’s Club, as well as a few short stints working in restaurants in Tempe, Ariz., and Los Angeles.

From that experience she divined her goal for Hoodies, to keep the vibe personal and intimate, to be a neighborhood hub as well as a restaurant, a place to build community and simply hang out, especially for college students, third shift workers, or anyone who keeps late-night hours like she does.

In a few years, Hoodies established a steady customer base, serving diners in a pink-themed space with a marketing approach that was slightly more outreach than a prohibition era bar. Brantley worked with local small business incubator Can-Do Kitchen (now Can-Do Kalamazoo) on licensing, marketing, and other small business essentials.

a plate of pasta with sausage
Sherri Brantley served homemade dishes, like this pasta with sausage, out of her home on Davis Street.

“She’s really good at creating a unique brand that is not found easily,” says Sheena Foster, Director of Operations at Can-Do Kalamazoo. “She’s an enthusiastic, passionate person to be around and that’s kind of palpable in her work. People get to know her and her brand and they are attracted to it.”

When Brantley’s Davis Street landlord wanted her to sign another year-long lease, she didn’t want to commit to a full year at that location. She also wanted a yard for larger events and outdoor dining.

She considered a fully renovated restaurant space downtown. But somehow the house set behind two larger homes on Oakland Drive felt more like Hoodies.

“I want Hoodies to be in a place like this; I want it to be hidden,” she says. “I love that speakeasy feel. I love that giant community feeling, where everyone can see each other and interact with each other and run around like big kids.”

Sherri Brantley poses behind a "for sale" sign with her dog
Sherri Brantley tried for months to buy or rent a home on Oakland Drive to serve as the new location for her restaurant.

Brantley first noticed a For Sale sign by Hubzu, an online auction site, in front of the house at 809 Oakland Dr., almost two years ago. She says she tried to inquire about purchasing, but the house was not listed, and calling the phone number on the signs did not yield any results. The previous owner, Mark Rupert, who still owns and lives in an adjacent house, says the two houses were linked as one property under a single mortgage, but the rear house was foreclosed upon by Deutsche Bank in 2019.

City records name Rupert as property owner, but also indicate that Bank of America acquired the property from Deutsche Bank in February 2022.

Brantley kept an eye on the property, waiting for it to come up for sale.

The vacant property was a cause of frustration as a businessperson, and a slap in the face as a resident of the neighborhood. So, she took matters into her own hands.

In a letter dated Feb. 28, 2022, which was posted on the property, Brantley wrote that the property was “under investigation”; that “numerous attempts” to contact the bank that owned the property were not responded to; and ordered a halt to all work to be done on the house. It had the letterhead of “Palooza Properties. We care about the community,” and was signed by “Sherri Palooza,” the pseudonym that Brantley uses. In official documents, Brantley’s name is sometimes spelled Sherry.

The police were called to the residence on Aug. 12, 2022, to respond to a breaking and entering report made by real estate agent Richard Stewart, of REO Specialists LLC. Stewart was in communication with Computershare, a Colorado company handling the loan for Wells Fargo, which is in charge of the foreclosure, according to a police report. The report states that Stewart was planning to send contractors to the house in March, expecting the house to be vacant, when he saw that the locks had been changed and suspected someone was living there.

According to a separate report, also provided by the city, Stewart called the city’s 311 help line on Aug. 15, claimed to be the local representative of the bank who owns the home, and asked the city to condemn it.

Computershare declined to press charges, but a few days later, Stewart delivered an Agreement to Vacate as part of the Cash for Keys relocation assistance program which offered her $2,500 to leave the property. But after reading it over, Brantley declined to sign, and says the document didn’t guarantee payment to her directly or cover the expenses for what she had already put into the house.

According to Brantley and a copy of a text message exchange shared with NowKalamazoo, she created her own agreement to vacate for $6,000. She never sent it because, Stewart wrote in the text message exchange, her options were to sign the Computershare agreement or be referred for eviction.

Stewart declined to comment for this story.

In addition to the repairs already completed on the house and yard, she has put utilities in her name and receives her mail there. Her pit bull, Bowser, receives her Bark Box there.

Sherri Brantley stands on a ladder in the backyard of a house
Sherri Brantley began doing renovations on a house on Oakland Drive even without a lease or title.

Her hope is that the house will go on the market in the next few months, and she will be able to make the purchase, as well as apply for a home improvement loan to ready the property for food service and community gatherings. In the meantime, she’s doing some private catering, digging fence posts holes, making phone calls, and waiting. The house doesn’t have heat, so she’s been occasionally staying with friends while the property remains in limbo.

“I want this to be a victory for mankind,” she said in an interview last month. “I want Hoodies to be what the future looks like for a lot of humanity; people should be able to grow their own food on their property, and use it to feed themselves and their community.”

A few weeks later, Brantley received an eviction summons and a court date was set for Nov. 1.

“I’m hoping that the city will take notice and try to also fight back against banks that are holding our city hostage in the form of defective mortgages,” Brantley wrote in an email after receiving the summons. “I’m not going into it thinking that I am going to win the house (even though that would be a fucking dream come true), I’m going into it thinking that I’m going to win the attention that the matter deserves.”

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