Serving Hope

A Detroit restaurant creates a recipe to help those who’ve done time
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Photographs by Erik Howard

A cluster of brightly hued balloons marks the vintage building on East Jefferson in Detroit that houses The Sunday Dinner Company. One of the staff, nicknamed Pink because of the neon color of her hair, steps outside occasionally to wave, smile at passing traffic, and urge, “Come and try us.”

Those who notice the balloons — and Pink — may also spy the twinkle of hanging lights in the well-kept dining room, which is visible through the large, uncovered windows of this establishment near Harbortown.

The Sunday Dinner Company restaurant offers a Southern menu served buffet style. But there’s much more to the story than that. It’s a testimony to what can be accomplished by dedicated activists who decide to do something about a lost segment of society.

The staff at the Sunday Dinner Company, as well as the construction workers who labored for nine months on the vintage postal building, are picking up the threads of their lives after spending time — in some cases, significant time — behind bars.

They range in age from 15 to 48, and they’re getting a second chance, thanks to chef Eric Giles and businessman David Theriault. The two met by chance two years ago when Giles catered a corporate event that Theriault attended.

Theriault had soured on the corporate world that had consumed his life for 25 years. (He has since left his job.) Giles was already mentoring troubled youth at East Lake Baptist Church, something he did in addition to his cooking and catering.

They shared their ideas and collaborated on a project that would meld culinary skills and mentoring in a restaurant that would be a training ground for people who were determined to turn their lives around.

The Sunday Dinner Company opened on Mother’s Day this year with workers referred by Goodwill Industries’ “Flip the Script” program.

Giles teaches the cooking and serving, Theriault (pronounced Tarrio, if you give it the correct French-Canadian spin) handles the profit-loss picture. Both serve as kind but firm father figures to the staff. There are rules that must be obeyed: Show up on time with good personal hygiene and wearing clean clothes (meaning crisp, white dress shirts and black trousers for the servers), and be courteous and helpful to the diners.

And Giles is adamant that the food be up to his high standards. It took him weeks to teach his recipe for mac & cheese. Now he can’t tell the difference between what he prepares and what the staff has made.

Those working as waiters earn $2.50 an hour, plus tips. Back-of-the-house workers receive minimum wage, plus a share of the tips.

“Everyone has a story,” Giles says of the crew. One of his prize pupils, who bakes the cornbread and peach cobbler, is Kimberly Wolff. She admits that, at 38, she has her first job. “I’ve been in trouble since I was 12 years old,” she says. She was released from prison in 2009 and completed her parole in June of this year. Her face radiates pride when she adds, “I’m getting my own place on Monday.”

The Sunday Dinner Company recently received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. This fall, the restaurant will collaborate with Forgotten Harvest, cooking food for homeless shelters on Mondays and Tuesdays, when it’s not open to the public.

6470 E. Jefferson, Detroit; 313-877-9255. Open Wed.-Sun.

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