Michelle Lutz has 20 years of experience as a grower and once owned an 80-acre certified organic farm. But the incredibly modest RecoveryPark Farms manager doesn’t like to be called an expert.
A who’s who of metro Detroit chefs might strongly disagree. She’s been hailed for the incredible produce she curates.
“She is such an asset in our market,” says Luciano DelSignore, chef and owner of Bacco Ristorante and Bigalora: Wood Fired Cucina. “We love her products, everything she does. The quality is phenomenal; it’s unmatched.”
Lutz helps manage a dedicated eight-person team at RecoveryPark Farms. And its future appears to be as bright as Lutz’s red hair. In less than two years, the farm has achieved fast growth and popularity.
But there’s more to the story than fresh vegetables. RecoveryPark Farms is a social enterprise arm of the Detroit-based nonprofit, RecoveryPark, launched by Gary Wozniak.
RecoveryPark was started to create permanent jobs for Detroiters and people facing barriers to employment. The idea is to leverage Detroit’s underutilized assets: a large workforce, abundant open space, access to fresh water, and extensive infrastructure.
Through partnerships with nonprofits like Self Help Addiction Rehab (SHAR), RecoveryPark will hire people coming out of prison, as well as those with substance abuse recovery issues.
Wozniak — who has more than 30 years of experience in finance and used to own several businesses — is also an openly recovering addict. In 2007 he sold all his businesses and joined SHAR to help restructure their organization, which sparked the RecoveryPark vision.
“The opportunity to help these types of people is important work. It needs to be done,” he says. “The No. 1 thing to prevent people from going back into the penal system and achieve long-term sobriety is full-time work.”
“These people are very eager to work,” says Lutz, who trains all the employees. “It’s very therapeutic working with soil and plants.”
RecoveryPark is the first of three for-profit businesses the nonprofit plans to launch. And although not certified organic, the farm uses all non-GMO seeds and practices sustainable growing methods.
At press time, RecoveryPark had just moved from their original 5,500-square-foot pilot project space in Detroit to a one-acre climate-controlled agricultural space in Waterford, but they moved for good reason — their local produce is hot.
“We can’t even keep up with demand right now. I have a list of restaurants we normally deliver to on a weekly basis, but I have another list of restaurants that are on the waitlist,” Lutz says. “Ten years ago if you were trying to do this you’d be s— outta luck, but in the last three to five years there’s been a big change and more chefs are willing to take what’s great day to day.”
From their new Waterford space, the team generates enough produce for weekly drop-offs to restaurants like Bacco, Selden Standard, Gold Cash Gold, Republic, Townhouse, Streetside Seafood, and The Root Restaurant & Bar.
In June, the farm was waiting on final approval from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office to relocate to a 40.5-acre plot of land on the east side. Plans are to start training a workforce and planting seeds by the end of the summer.
“[Duggan’s] people have been aggressively working with us on this project to get it done,” Wozniak says. ”Staying on this scale isn’t going to cut it. There’s a lot of urban farms out there, but we’re doing it on a much larger commercial scale.”
Once in their new home, the plan is to build a modern farming infrastructure with glass-based greenhouses and hydroponic systems. The goal is to be as energy and economically efficient as possible.
“Chefs want to get local, seasonal produce year-round if they can get it,” says Charles Wilson, director of business development. “So our ability to grow year-round is important to us, especially since it’s really important that the population we want to employ has access to jobs year-round.”
He adds: “The customers’ needs and desires are dictating the growing methods we use.”
Some chefs are saying just the opposite. “[Lutz] has this incredible knack for giving chefs what they want … now I tell her, ‘bring me whatever you want,’ ” says Doug Hewitt, executive chef at Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails. “I don’t even order from her. She just brings me food, and I open the box and let my imagination go.”
That’s how the Recovery Park salad at Chartreuse was created. It changes depending on what RecoveryPark delivers during its twice weekly drop-offs.
“Her lemon basil is insane. I’m actually doing a dessert right now with a vanilla pudding, lemon basil syrup, and lemon basil cookies,” Hewitt says. “It’s so fragrant, unlike anything I’ve ever smelled.”
Hewitt isn’t the only fan. If you’ve eaten at a metro Detroit “it” restaurant, you’ve probably sampled RecoveryPark produce. Think beets and heirloom carrots from Selden Standard, mixed green salads at Republic and Gold Cash Gold, or even edible flowers and radishes at one of Stockyard Detroit’s pop-ups.
“Without a doubt a lot of higher-end restaurants are using Michelle,” Hewitt says. “She’s very selective in who she wants to represent her to make sure her vegetables are showcased with the upmost integrity — and us chefs love that about her.”