Future of Howell Theater uncertain as The Root cancels plans for new eatery

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The Root marqueeThe Root Restaurant & Bar isn’t coming to Howell.

Businessman Ed Mamou purchased the Howell Theater earlier this year for a second location of The Root Restaurant & Bar. The restaurant, located in White Lake, was named the 2012 Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press.

Now that Mamou has decided not to move forward with the project to transform the theater into a restaurant, the question remains as to what will happen to one of downtown Howell’s landmark buildings.

“I’m not sure what the plans are,” said James Rigato, executive chef of The Root and the driving force behind the Root’s plans to expand to a second location in Howell.

Prior to the purchase of the theater by Mamou, it was bank-owned and being run by the company that owns the South Lyon Theater.

Rigato said there were too many days without patrons and no screenings, and times when it was a struggle to pay the electric bill.

“The town just couldn’t support the theater,” Rigato said. “The theater was in peril for a long time.”

Why The Root chose Howell for a second location remains a great story: “I was the driving force behind the decision,” Rigato said.

When he was growing up, Rigato could see the Howell Theater’s marquee from his bedroom in his mother’s Clinton Street home.

A Howell High School grad, Rigato began his restaurant career washing dishes at Silverman’s, formerly located in the Brunner’s building. He opened Papa John’s and worked at TW & Friends.

While his career took him to upscale eateries like Shiraz in Bingham Farms, The Rugby Grille in Birmingham, Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, and his award-winning The Root in White Lake, Rigato said his heart remained in Howell.

But the numbers weren’t on his side.

“I’m heartbroken,” Rigato said. “I did all I could, but Ed owns a number of businesses. He wanted to make it work, but in the end, it was a business decision.

“A second location of The Root just doesn’t make sense right now.”

Mamou will concentrate on growing his recycling businesses, Rigato said, while he concentrates on The Root.

“We’ve got seven-and-a-half years left on our lease in White Lake,” Rigato said. “I want to refine The Root and build on our cooking classes and special dinners.”

For years, area foodies have whined that Howell’s downtown — one of a handful across the U.S. to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places — lacked that signature eatery that other small towns have. There’s the French Laundry in Fenton and the Common Grill in Chelsea. The second location of The Root was going to be Howell’s big draw.

Now, things have changed.

So, what will become of the theater?

The integrity of the Howell Theater is intact, Rigato said, and he’s unsure what the plans are.

“We just made the decision to not move forward with another restaurant yesterday,” he said. “But everything is as is in the theater. If anyone’s interested in knowing more, they can call The Root.”

The number is (248) 698-2400.

About Maria Stuart 69 Articles
Journalist Maria Stuart lives in Howell. She worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. She is often spotted holding court at Uptown Coffeehouse.