Devita Davidson of Foodlab Detroit on the Local Dining Scene’s Labor Movement

The executive director weighs in on why innovative Detroit restaurateurs see their workers’ welfare as an essential ingredient
Devita Davidson Foodlab Detroit
Devita Davison is working to improve Detroit’s food service industry.// Photograph by Val Waller

Good food has never been so readily accessible. GrubHub, Postmates, UberEats, Seamless — technology has so rapidly changed the nature of the restaurant industry that great food can now be delivered straight to your doorstep. Yet there’s still a demand for dine-in restaurants, and that’s because of the experience they offer.

We go to restaurants to take in the atmosphere and to interact with others, but just as important, we go to have someone ask us how we’re doing and serve us carefully plated dishes — an experience that is dependent on quality employees. And the way in which a restaurant cares for its workers directly affects the kind of experience it can offer its guests.

That’s why a mission to nurture workers is at the heart of Detroit’s growing restaurant industry. Culinarians are pioneering change, which begins with envisioning new ways to define workers. Waiters and waitresses, line cooks, and dishwashers are no longer “the help.” Instead, they’re staff members, and they’re owners. Take the example of PizzaPlex in Southwest Detroit. As a part of the hiring process, the leadership team asks every candidate how they feel about being a partner, with the goal of eventually transitioning into an employee-owned business. So, while customers come in praising the casual pizza joint for its traditional Italian pies — shortly after opening in 2017, PizzaPlex attained a certification from the Verace Pizza Napoletana Americas, which certifies that its pizza is authentically Neapolitan — the real mission of the place is to create a business model of collective ownership.

December is fantastic for tip-wage workers due to the volume of folks going to restaurants over the holidays. But how are those workers cared for when it’s not a peak season? Retaining dedicated team members is a challenge in Detroit. So, many chefs are thinking, “How can I secure my staff? How can I change the culture to limit turnover?”

Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, co-owners of Folk, make their attempt by paying their employees equitable wages. They were recognized in an article that Detroiter and James Beard Award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan wrote for Food & Wine in March titled, “19 Great Restaurants to Work For.” Note that it wasn’t just “19 Great Restaurants.” Similarly, Brad Greenhill, chef and owner of Takoi, made a major decision in September, when he announced his new restaurant, Magnet, would include tip in its prices so that servers will have a stable income that is less dependent on foot traffic. In 2019, FoodLab Detroit, in partnership with The Work Department, co-produced a discussion series titled “On the Table” to foster a dialogue on how to improve the labor that’s powering, growing, transporting, preparing, and serving food in Detroit. The panel discussions have sparked a radical transformation in thinking about the value of labor in our local food industry.

All of this points to the idea that waiting tables should no longer be thought of as just some job you work because you can’t find anything else. Leaders here are focusing on ways to secure their staff, create opportunities for professional growth, and turn hospitality into a sustainable career. It also points to the spirit of activism built into Detroit’s DNA.

In 1926, Ford Motor Co. pioneers created the 40-hour work week. The labor movement that grew out of the 1930s has deep roots in the Motor City. We’ve championed over-time and holiday pay, and are home to the formidable United Automobile Workers. In Detroit, we stand up, we push back, we use our voices, and we organize to change the system.

That’s because we’ve lived in a city where capitalism has failed. We’ve seen our government put all its eggs in one basket — the auto industry — and we’ve seen what happens when that one industry leaves. In 2008, Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” He argued a managed bankruptcy was the only way out of the auto industry’s “suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product
inferiority, and never-ending job losses.” It was a time when Detroiters weren’t sure if the local government would save us. So, we know life after the apocalypse. The seismic changes the restaurant industry is experiencing are a function of us marching forward to our natural rhythm.

When you dine at a restaurant during the holidays, I urge you to help support the movement in considering those in the back of the house. It’s important that customers realize their own experience depends on the people serving them. And a good experience is a two-way street.

Devita Davidson is executive director of FoodLab Detroit, where she works for an inclusive food economy that acknowledges food justice, health equity, representation, local ownership, and sustainability.