Community-based Food Startups Blossom in Detroit
Food Chain: Social and business links are helping to boost community culinary startups
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Crystal (center) runs her Detroit Brunch operation with the help of friends Gary (left) and Jason.
Once a month, Jess Daniels and her business partners, Chelsea Haggerson and Alison Heeres, set up shop at Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market and start cooking. But they aren’t turning out more of the crispy pies that usually come from the commercial ovens. They’re making green coconut curry, papaya salad with peanuts, garlicky adobo chicken, fiery Tom Yum soup, and a variety of other carryout dishes that reflect Daniels’ Singaporean heritage and her time spent living in Cambodia.
What began as a way for California native Daniels to meet new people in an unfamiliar city has turned into a grass-roots food operation. In the summer of 2010, Daniels, who had formerly worked on Capitol Hill in sustainable agriculture policy, came to Detroit to work as a consultant on local-food distribution and to pursue a doctorate in community-food systems and entrepreneurship. She began cooking dinners for her neighbors as a way to socialize and integrate into the community. They loved the food, word spread to friends and friends of friends and, soon, Daniels had dubbed her operation Neighborhood Noodle, put up a website, and was serving takeout from the kitchen of her Detroit apartment.
“I expected 30 people to arrive the first week,” Daniels says. “There were 75 orders. I had to shut down because I had never before cooked for that many people and I didn’t even have a full stove. That first night, my landlord called. I was freaking out, but it turned out he just wanted to place an order.”
Daniels tried various locations for her meal-prep needs, including the kitchen of a fraternity house, until her friend Dave Mancini of Supino offered to let her use the kitchen one Monday a month when the pizzeria was closed. Daniels accepted eagerly.
The partnership and friendship between Neighborhood Noodle and Supino isn’t an isolated incident, but a mark of a new movement developing in Detroit. The city is rife with young food entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, limited resources, and a willingness to share both. It was in this spirit that Daniels and her cohorts organized the Detroit Good Food Working Group (DGFWG), which held its first meeting in January.
Neighborhood Noodle's Jess Daniels (left) and business partner Chelsea Haggerson.
“We’re a collection of small startup social enterprises around town focused on the idea of sharing resources and networks and finding funding,” Daniels says. Members include the proprietors of the vegan Detroit Brunch and the biweekly fundraiser Soup at Spaulding.
One order of business for the DGFWG is to find shared commercial kitchen space, because many of the enterprises operate out of home kitchens. But the group holds loftier goals, as well; they hope to take action around local policy and city ordinances, lowering the barrier of entry for small-scale food businesses with a community-focused mission, Daniels says. For example, she would like to eventually take Neighborhood Noodle on the road with a fleet of food trucks, but local zoning laws make that difficult. The group focuses on giving back to the community. (Neighborhood Noodle donates 5 percent of its net income to community organizations.)
Detroit Brunch started when vegan and Grand Rapids native Crystal (who asked that her last name be withheld) began cooking veggie brunches for her friends. She benefits the city by purchasing all ingredients for her roasted-portobello burgers, shiitake-dill frittatas, and banana French toast from Eastern Market, Greening of Detroit, Honey Bee Market, and other local markets and suppliers.
“You can be involved in the community easily here,” Crystal says. “People are more willing to volunteer their time and efforts to better the community.” Crystal’s friends, excited about the project, help her run the Sunday operation.
Daniels agrees that Detroit is a unique location for grass-roots entrepreneurs such as herself.
“Detroit is a place where, as a young person with a lot of energy, you can make a huge difference,” she says. As a result of starting Good Food and Neighborhood Noodle, Daniels helped organize Detroit’s National Conference on Food Distribution, running from April 19 to April 21, and sits on a young-leaders roundtable for Mayor Bing.
“If you’re in San Francisco or New York, your actions and your work are just a drop in the bucket,” Daniels says. “If you’re in Detroit and you do something and create something, it matters to people and they will rally around you. I think it attracts that sort of get-up-and-go personality.”
Daniels and the other members of the DGFWG are committed to the city itself and to the people here, she says. “A lot of people doing businesses here are enjoying building something new.” And something delicious.
See Neighborhood Noodle's recipe for Thai-style Lettuce Wraps on next page.
Photographs by Erik Howard.