Could Detroit Lose its Flavor?

What will the dining scene look like if only bigger, corporate-backed restaurants survive this crisis?

detroit dining pandemic

In recent years, metro Detroit restaurants have emerged as the crown jewel of The Comeback City. Once a blip in America’s culinary landscape, Detroit’s food scene has welcomed dozens of new restaurants over the past year alone and drawn talented chefs who have garnered attention from Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and The New York Times. “Detroit was a flyover city for many years for the [James] Beard Foundation,” says Anthony Lombardo, executive chef at SheWolf Pastificio & Bar in Midtown. Now, Detroiters are often recognized as semifinalists and finalists by the James Beard Foundation Awards.

This newfound recognition comes from independent restaurants, the creative lifeblood of so many vaunted culinary renaissances. “Local, independent restaurants are the backbone of our communities,” wrote the restaurant-industry advocacy nonprofit Food Policy Action in a petition demanding that business-interruption insurance be retroactively applied to pandemics. “They employ over 13 million people across the country, contribute $1 trillion to our economy, and represent 4% of our GDP.”

They’re also the very establishments facing some of the highest risk of permanent collapse due to the COVID-19 crisis. “Any place that’s undercapitalized is going to close,” says Ben Hall, chef and owner at the wholesaler Little Pot Soup in Eastern Market and a research fellow at Bennington College in Vermont.

“Pretty much every food-based business that doesn’t have the runway to exist as a closed business for 10 days, let alone weeks or months, they just won’t be able to make it,” he says.

It’s a chilling notion I’ve put to several sources: What becomes of a dining scene where only chains backed by multinational corporations survive?

Half of small food businesses across the country with fewer than 50 employees likely will close, a figure that could rise to 75% for independent restaurants, Hall says. Many have sought grants and loans, including forgivable loans in the federal Paycheck Protection Program, designed to help business owners pay their employees during the crisis.

Yet big restaurant chains have taken advantage of the PPP, for which Congress appropriated $659 billion in two bills, with Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sweetgreen, Shake Shack, and Potbelly Sandwich Shop among the publicly traded companies obtaining millions in funding. “The banks selectively picked the bigger loans, so they ended up disproportionately going to bigger businesses instead of small,” says University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson. (Many of those companies have given the money back amid public backlash.)

Small businesses that did land PPP loans are nonetheless struggling to navigate the program’s terms amid uncertain working conditions. Jackie Victor, co-founder of Detroit-based Avalon International Breads, wrote an essay for The New York Times in which she describes her fears about not being able to comply with the loan rules and her worries that she’ll end up having to pay it back.

“Even if we do manage to hire 135 employees and pay them for the next 60 days, it will be impossible for us to retain those employees while revenue is down 50% to 80%,” Victor writes. “In an economy with over 26 million people unemployed, consumer demand will be severely reduced.”

Apart from trying to secure federal aid, some restaurants and food companies are turning to crowdfunding to stay afloat. Others are deploying technology to support takeout and delivery service, merchandise sales, and gift card offerings. But many long-running independent restaurants are literal mom-and-pop shops that lack the savvy to make these adjustments. Without such know-how, many family-owned restaurants and minority-run businesses closed indefinitely at the onset of the pandemic.

“If they’re owned by older parents or grandparents, for example, there could be technology issues,” says restaurateur and activist Kiki Louya, who recently resigned from her role as co-owner of Corktown restaurants Folk and Mink and former market The Farmer’s Hand to focus on community activism. “They don’t necessarily utilize social media or even the internet in the same way that a lot of the newer restaurants are used to using. Information isn’t necessarily filtering all the way down and hitting some of the really vulnerable, hyper-challenged areas of the city.”

It’s also going to be hard to persuade people to risk their lives to eat out in a pandemic, and the large-scale changes to how restaurants must operate in the era of social distancing will bring significant costs that chain restaurants are better positioned to afford than independent eateries.

“Part of what will help the restaurant industry is when the state and local governments come out with guidelines for how they can operate and keep people safe,” Stevenson says. “For big corporate chains, the good thing is there’s a centralized place to try to think through the right protocols to implement them.”

The prospects for a post-apocalyptic dining future are terrifying. Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, outlines one of the bleakest versions: “What I don’t want to happen is that we wake up when this crisis is over and our neighborhoods are homogeneous, that all neighborhood businesses have closed, so now we are a country full of nothing but fast-food, fast-casual restaurants owned by multinational corporations. And guess what? It’s possible.”

Davison’s hypothetical conjures an eerie image of a Detroit dining scene bereft of the establishments that contribute to its charm: dark windows in a once-vibrant Mexicantown. Shuttered Coney Islands. Silence along Michigan Avenue, home to Dearborn’s most popular and acclaimed Mediterranean cuisine. Soul food restaurants that have been in business since the early days of the Great Migration solemnly decorated with handwritten “closed” signs on planks boarding up windows. A city stripped of its mom-and-pop and minority-owned eateries — the industry’s most vulnerable restaurants — stands to lose the very fabric of its culinary DNA.

In early April, the Nigerian-born chef Tunde Wey, a former Detroiter, offered another thought — that the loss of independent restaurants is a necessary catalyst for change. In a widely read essay titled “Let It Die,” he agreed that, federal intervention or not, many restaurants will close, and with those closures will go an industry whose workers are “segregated by race and gender, underpaid and uninsured.” That the death of an entire restaurant industry is upon us is an extreme scenario, of course, but perhaps an existential crisis could forge a new landscape based more on fairness, equity, and the just use of resources.

Louya shares Wey’s radicalism, envisioning the implosion of old systems and the birth of a new movement.

“We need to be thinking about how to rebuild our industry in a sense where it doesn’t look like it did before,” she says. “I’m looking for examples outside of the food industry of sustainability, of workforce support, of community wealth building and trying to figure out how all of those things can connect in a way that makes our food system look even more inclusive. There is soul that exists in every bit of the city, but we stand to lose that if we don’t take a deep, strong look at the system that we’ve put in place and how it plays out in Detroit.”