Feeding Detroit's Future

In a city hungry for positive economic news, nine pioneering food entrepreneurs not only supply a much-needed demand, they also serve as catalysts for nourishing and sustaining the communities where they do business


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Photographs by Martin Vecchio

 

On a sunny day in May, the garage door of an old Detroit car dealership stood open to the warm breeze. The dealership is now an art gallery. And the gallery was doing temporary duty as a food stand serving sweet-potato waffles and coffee to Midtown pedestrians.

Inside, Anthology Coffee, a local roaster opening a retail space in Corktown soon, served Honduran espresso and artisan-quality lattes. Tawnya Clark turned out sweet-potato waffles with two waffle irons. It was Clark’s second time showcasing her upstart sweet-potato business, Batata, as a pop-up inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), where she’d been invited by Anthology owner Josh Longsdorf. Both say they shun the concept of competition.

“You kind of find your tribe, the people who do the same things you do,” says Clark, who prepares her sweet potatoes in the kitchen of the Traffic Jam & Snug restaurant nearby. “When you make those connections, you find that really wonderful things can happen.” Clark says she had always envisioned a more traditional operation. A bricks-and-mortar shop is still her goal, but “re-imagining” the way she can distribute her waffles in this pop-up style has led to the relationships she’ll continue to rely on to support her burgeoning business.

Also at the MOCAD stand was Ben Newman, who talked about why he’s opening a bagel business in Corktown. A clue: It’s not just to fill the city’s bagel void. Newman and his brother Dan plan to open the Detroit Institute of Bagels later this year about a mile east of Slows Bar BQ. They want to inspire people, he says, to begin walking along Michigan Avenue again. That goal is one with potentially far-reaching benefits. A just-released Brookings Institution study shows that real-estate values increase as neighborhoods become more pedestrian-oriented.

“It’s about so much more than bagels,” says Newman, who has a master’s degree in urban planning. “I was always interested in how we could use food to build a community.”

It’s said that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The same could be said for a city. Introductions to previously unexplored locales often begin in the cafés, greasy spoons, delis, and dinner destinations that line city streets.

Beyond that first date, food also has the power to build lasting relationships. For Motor City expats eating at the Detroit-style coney in West Hollywood, Calif., biting into a chili-and onion-topped dog momentarily takes them back to Michigan Avenue. Food often defines place.

In Detroit, food is helping redefine. As fledgling food entrepreneurs multiply and seasoned veterans hold their own, their success has buoyed entire neighborhoods. The founders of Avalon International Breads inspired a block of businesses in a formerly devastated section of Midtown. Corktown has grown into a dining and drinking destination, becoming the new darling of national media — from Food & Wine and Bon Appétit to the The New York Times, among others.

“Food is an overlooked and under-appreciated component of our local economy,” says Olga Stella, vice president of business development at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. A recent MSU study found that food and agriculture’s contribution to Michigan’s economy increased nearly 50 percent between 2004 and 2010, hitting $91 billion. The sector also accounts for 22 percent of all jobs in Michigan.

“Food businesses are a really important part of our overall business climate, both from being important jobs generators to also providing an important quality of life component,” Stella says. “Whether they’re neighborhood grocery stores or restaurants, food is a fundamental need that people have.”

In the recent past, Detroit was derided as a “food desert” in media reports using the presence of national chains as a barometer. That label is starting to fade, thanks to recent Detroit groundbreakings by Whole Foods and Meijer. But the movement really began with entrepreneurs who opened in Detroit when the chains wouldn’t, paving the way for the entry of chains.

Food entrepreneurs are generating jobs, revitalizing neighborhoods, and giving outsiders a different perspective on the Motor City. In national and international coverage, Detroit is beginning to look a little more like Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y., than a Rust Belt has-been.

Detroit has become a bit of a trendsetter. There was evidence of that shift at a recent national conference on food and community in Asheville, N.C. The event, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, hosted more than 500 attendees from around the country who all seemed to want to talk about one place: Detroit.

“People wanted to know all about what’s going on here. Lots of people are looking at us,” says Jess Daniel, a conference panelist and co-founder of FoodLab Detroit, a community of food entrepreneurs that supports the development, growth, and cooperation of locally owned food enterprises.

Daniel and others steeped in the local food scene say there’s a reason Detroit stands out. Unlike other cities that have received attention for isolated food trends, such as urban agriculture, Detroit is developing a distinct food system that’s based on relationships, collaboration, and bridging the gap between socially conscious businesses and pure profit. “Detroit is on the cutting edge” of the larger picture when it comes to the food business, Daniel says, and that’s not really being done in any other American city.

“It’s a very ripe climate for small food entrepreneurs in Detroit,” says Randall Fogelman, Eastern Market’s vice president of business development. He notes that people had to take their destinies into their own hands here because of the dismal economy. Consumers have also realized that the only meaningful way to prop up their communities is to faithfully support local endeavors.

Historically, municipalities have chased chains and “smokestack” businesses for economic development, but academic studies have shown that entrepreneurs have become increasingly more important. “Local entrepreneurship helps explain why some cities grow faster than others,” a 2007 Harvard report noted. Budding entrepreneurship is one measure of a city’s health.

With cheap real estate and a low cost of living, barriers for entry in Detroit are low. Before McClure’s Pickles chose to retool a former American Axle building as its new production facility, they considered expanding their Brooklyn output. In the end, Detroit made better financial sense.

The barriers are even lower for food businesses, Stella says. “Food is accessible to everyone. You don’t have to have fancy college degrees or a whole lot of money to experiment in your kitchen and develop a great recipe. You just have to love food and have patience and some skill in cooking.”

You also need courage. Entrepreneurs are defined as business owners who take on greater-than-usual risks to open and operate their enterprises. That’s true of the Detroit businesses profiled on the following pages, all of which staked a claim in the city’s growing “foodscape,” capturing hearts along the way.

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