Search Instagram for the handle @eatatbrudders and you’ll find a handful of photos featuring a tall, bearded man, with his hair pulled back, ear-to-ear-smile and apron tied around his waist, standing in a kitchen, surrounded by floodlights and any number of ingredients and cooking utensils.
Now, click on the handle tagged in those photos (@tomofromearth) and you’ll find that very same man — minus the apron — wielding a guitar on some of the world’s biggest stages.
This enigmatic chef-rockstar hybrid is none other than Tomo Miličević — a Michigan native who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit but frequented the city for regular doses of formative adolescent adventure.
“The narrative I heard growing up was don't go to Detroit because it’s dangerous, so of course, the very first thing I did was go there to hang out, buy weed, skateboard and go to shows. But hey, I'm still here and mostly unscathed other than a little road rash from getting chased a couple of times — but that's life, right?”
Tomo’s wife, Vicki, who grew up in Royal Oak, had a similar experience.
“I was basically told the same thing. As kids, we only went down for Tigers games and things like that. But when my friends got cars, we started going to any bars that would serve us, as well as tons of shows.”
The couple met and forged their relationship in that long bygone wild west era of Detroit and have been inseparable ever since. And though both always loved Detroit, after years of spinning his creative wheels in the motor city music scene, Tomo seized a dream opportunity that took them from Detroit’s dingy dive bars to the sun-soaked-streets of Los Angeles, California.
“Making it with a band in Detroit was always the goal,” says Tomo. “I mean, in some selfish way that'll always be a goal: To create music in the city that I care about. There were plenty of attempts with plenty of different people early on, and Vicki was a huge part of trying to make it work here, but the opportunity came in California and we decided to take it.”
They spent the next 15 years in Los Angeles but returned to Detroit often to visit family and friends. And after years of crashing in hotel rooms or with friends during those trips, in 2014, they decided to buy a home in Indian Village.
“Vicki was going back regularly, and after a couple of years, I realized that after all the rental cars, flights and hotels, we could have made a big down payment on a pretty awesome house in Detroit. So I sent her on her trip to the city and said, ‘don't come back until you find a house.’ And had I known then what was in store for us — the decisions that I was going to be making and the tragedies that were coming — I would have been much more aggressive about making sure we had roots here again. So, even though we didn't know at the time that it was the right thing, I guess there were other forces at work.
One of those impending decisions had to do with Tomo’s desire to move on from both the music business and Los Angeles. Before relocating years before, he had attended culinary school and spent time working in high-level kitchens, so he thought there might be an opportunity to put those chops to use in Detroit.
“So we had come back and bought the house. I was about to go on tour for a whole summer and I wanted to spend some time there before leaving, and around that time, I see this 10-year-old kid named Robby Eimers on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. And I was like, ‘oh, who's this kid in Detroit feeding homeless people over on Third and MLK?’ He was so organized and so well spoken, and we just felt compelled to go and participate and meet him.”
He and Vicki tracked Robbie down and went to volunteer with him, passing out clothing and food to Detroiters in need.
“So we did this several weekends in a row and started to feel pretty good about ourselves. Then, one day we’re there doing our thing and one of the folks we were serving comes up to me and says, ‘hey, don’t think I don't appreciate this food and clothing, but one hot meal once a day, once a week, doesn't do that much for me, and I see you being really proud of yourself.’ And I just got pissed. I was furious. I kept my composure, of course, but it felt like this guy just punched me in the face.”
It hurt because he knew the man was right — he could do more. That same man also told Tomo that if he really wanted to serve him and others in his situation, he should help them find work so they could lift themselves out of those circumstances for good.
With that, he and Vicki began contemplating a food business that not only delivered an exceptional product but also provided well-paying, sustainable jobs to those in need.
“First, we thought salsa, then hot dogs, but we finally landed on a pizza place as the best option for sustainable success,” Tomo says. “Because who cares if you open a place and employ people for two years so you can say that you did, and then you close down. We want to have a place that’s going to be open for the next 50 years and if somebody chooses to work there for that entire time, they can.”
Beyond the business case though, they settled on pizza as a way of honoring Tomo’s younger brother, who died suddenly in 2016.
“We always had plans to do something together, and this place was supposed to be that thing,” he says. “I was working my way out of LA at that point, and we had been making pizzas for each other for a couple of years, but it wasn't a restaurant idea yet, it was just like, ‘this pizza is really good; we should just do this.’ So we started working on it, but then he tragically passed away. So when that happened, obviously we're grieving and mourning, but I quickly came to and focused all my energy on making this business happen and making it successful.”
After his brother’s passing, they began taking the first steps toward opening Brudders Woodfired Pizza. While Tomo was on the road, Vicki continued building relationships in the community with organizations like the Michigan Veterans Foundation and Alternatives for Girls, alongside Kevin Kay — a longtime friend of Tomo’s from the music business with whom he had reconnected after returning to Detroit — who was brought on to help from a business development standpoint
“When I first sat down with Vicki and Tomo over lunch and they showed me the business plan, it was the social responsibility aspect that most intrigued me,” says Kevin. “After more than 25 plus years in the entertainment industry and dealing with soulless people and huge egos, it was so refreshing. I believe big problems are solved first by a few people taking action, then that spreads — and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
Working on Brudders introduced Kevin to a new world of food insecurity challenges facing Detroit that he was otherwise unaware of up to that point. In fact, he’s working with the Detroit Food Policy Council, where he was recently recognized with a Power Award for his work in helping launch a sub-committee focused on eliminating food waste while feeding those in need.
The work Vicki, Kevin and Tomo have done so far to build relationships in the community demonstrates what the Brudders mission truly means. Because from employing veterans who are willing to work, to having aprons made by young women at Alternatives for Girls and countertops designed by Rebel Nell, to sourcing fresh, local ingredients from Recovery Park Farms, for the Brudders team, building partnerships across the community is far from a novelty — it’s the heart and soul of their business.
“Make no mistake,” says Tomo, “I’m a capitalist. I want to make a ton of money in our restaurant, but I want to make sure that we can employ tons of people and ultimately open more locations to help more people with the same model.”
“We need partnerships,” echoes Kevin. “Whether we’re generating revenue for other local businesses by using their products or providing job opportunities for veterans, we’re helping market our partners by supporting them and telling their story. The fact is, many people don’t even know the Michigan Veterans Foundation or Alternatives for Girls exist, so we're going to use our platform and our partnership to help spread the word.”
As for the product, Brudders is offering something truly unique in a city known for its pizza.
“Growing up on Detroit-style pizza then moving later on, you realize that a lot of cities have really shitty pizza,” says Vicki. “We lived in Hollywood, California, and there was no good pizza.”
“Ya, so our dough was inspired out of dissatisfaction with what we could get in LA,” Tomo says. “I knew that coming to Detroit and making square pizza was just not gonna work because you’ve already got Buddy’s, Nikki’s and Jets, to name a few. And I'm fully aware that the Neapolitan trend is fading and that's fine because that’s not what we are — this is artisanal pizza that is inspired by Neapolitan techniques. I'm stealing the techniques and doing it our way.”
Tomo says that means fusing those techniques with his unique dough and fresh local ingredients that will inspire an ever-changing seasonal menu.
“We’re using as many local ingredients as possible because I believe that’s what you're supposed to learn from that cuisine: The idea that everything is so fresh and that's what makes it so special. I've been to these little towns in Italy, and the thing that makes the food unique is that the tomatoes were probably picked earlier that week within walking distance of the restaurant; the guy who grew the mushrooms works the kitchen washing dishes; the cheese never tastes the same because the cows are different in each town. They are truly farm-to-table; they keep it simple, yet it's so unique and good every time — that’s what I want to do with Brudders.”
Though they’re still searching for a brick and mortar home, it’s clear Brudders is bringing meaningful unique to Detroit, and their commitment to sourcing everything from ingredients to staff from the heart of the city is not only admirable but also essential to creating a sustainable, inclusive and interesting future for Detroit.
Beyond the business though, after seeing so much of the world beyond our 142-square-miles, Vicki and Tomo are simply happy to be back, and their decision to put down roots here speaks volumes about what this city means to those who call it home… Those fortunate few who know that, through good times and bad, Detroit will always be a special slice of heaven.