FACES - Aaron F. Belen
October, 2, 2015 | Downtown Publications
My grandfather was the most important person in my life. I always referred to him as my best friend,” Aaron F. Belen recalls of the late Morrie Fenkell, a businessman whose bank was purchased by Huntington Bank, who remained a large Huntington shareholder. Belen, who graduated from Cranbrook in 2001 and the Barney Business School at University of Hartford in 2005, said, “I learned more from him than going to school and business school. He was clearly my mentor in life.”
Fenkell passed away in 2007, of pancreatic cancer, prompting Belen to return to metro Detroit rather than heading to one of the big cities like his friends. “I was so close to him, I moved to be with him,” he recalled. “If he had been healthy, I might have stayed away. I had a pretty good network here because I had worked in commercial real estate each summer, beginning with my Senior May (at Cranbrook). I liked it. It's what I had gone to school for. But I graduated into a recession, and deviated into a few other businesses.”
Those other businesses have led to Belen's success as a restaurateur and nightclub owner. Currently, the AFB Hospitality Group owns and operates Bistro 82, an upscale French restaurant in Royal Oak, and its companion nightclub and lounge, Sabrage. In the works is another, likely more casual restaurant in Royal Oak, at 511 S. Main, in the former Franklin Liquor Street Building. He has purchased not only the building but it's adjacent parking lot. He's already received approval for the new venue, which he has not yet named. It's destined to occupy his focus and energy until it opens in February or March of 2016.
A Bloomfield Township resident, he notes that when he moved back to the metro area after college, “the best and the brightest minds were moving to New York, Chicago, LA, and Miami. If I stayed here, I (knew I) had a higher probability of being a success. I viewed it as a great opportunity in the market to make it my own way and make my own name.”
Hard work and remembering his grandfather's lessons have turned opportunity into success. While Belen had ownership interests in a few previous restaurants and nightclubs around town, calling Bistro 82 and Sabrage the “sixth and seventh concepts I've had, but the first and second I've launched under my own business, AFB Hospitality Group,” he first played around with nightclubs in college, hosting parties.
“I never took it seriously. It was just a way to make extra money for myself, to have fun, and to meet girls,” Belen recalled. “It was a triple win.”
Today, as he moves into his first home after living in a condo for nine years, he is focused on his career, even if it comes at the expense of his personal life.
“I plan to stay here in Michigan. My family and friends are here. I'm involved in charities like the Friendship Circle and Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. Right now, I'm really focused on my career. I'm a big proponent on walking before you run. I learned from my grandfather, I understand dips in the economy. I'm not looking to lots of restaurants. I'm really focused on Oakland County, on living, working and playing here, and I'm interested in job growth in Oakland County.”