Restaurant reinvention underway in Detroit
What images come to mind when you think of Detroit? Can you imagine 1600 gardens in backyards and vacant lots? Can you imagine small food businesses with radical new models like open book finance? Can you imagine robots humming along the avenues delivering food?
These aspirations have already been realized. And, despite the extraordinary difficulties of the pandemic, countless new efforts are mounting to reshape the food and restaurant industries, organized by inspiring leaders like Devita davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit. I wish this interview could get off the page – that readers could hear the wisdom, passion and commitment in Devita’s voice. We are fortunate that people like her change their system of conduct alongside her community.
Lorin Fries: Tell us about FoodLab Detroit?
Devita Davison: We are an incubator / accelerator / think tank serving to support and evolve food operators, bakers and chefs by creating radical business models. FoodLab gives our entrepreneurs space, space and support, surrounding them with a community that allows them to experiment. Their models incorporate the triple Bottom line accounting methodology, measuring at the intersection of people, planet and profit. We are inspired by those who put these principles into action, especially B companies.
Fries: Can you give us some examples of chefs and restaurateurs you support, and how they are changing food systems?
Davison: I love all of our comrades. An inspiration is April Anderson, an African-American pastry chef. His company, Good cakes and pastries, is located on the famous and historic Avenue de la Mode. April opened her bakery in a church basement in 2013. Fast forward: Even in the midst of a pandemic, she is on track to hit $ 1 million this year. It speaks of endurance, resilience and shine. When we think of communities with an overrepresentation of black and brown bodies, we don’t always think of abundance. Many people describe these communities – often without access to fresh, healthy, affordable, high-quality food – as food deserts. At FoodLab, we don’t call them deserts, as if they were a natural phenomenon; we recognize this as food apartheid. So for April, opening a fully organic business with vegan options – not just as a black woman, but as a member of the LGBTQI community – is bold. During the pandemic, April revitalized and redesigned her entire bakery, expanding her kitchen alongside her shipping and catering capabilities, while hiring and training more chefs. When we talk about radical business models at the intersection of people, planet and profitability, April is a living example.
The second person I want to raise is Ji Hye Kim. She is the chef and owner of Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant that is part of Zingerman Business Community. Zingerman’s is known for its commitment to the community, quality and well-being of its staff. One thing I love about Ji Hye is the care she has taken to meet the needs of her staff. Hers was one of the first Ann Arbor companies to remove tips. It is also one of the first – with the support of Ari and Paul, the founders of Zingerman – to implement open book finance. These are radical concepts. Ji Hye is also working with students from the University of Michigan to make contactless delivery using robots. It’s thinking outside the box. For most of the people in our industry, the current system does not work. So how do you get out of it and start reinventing? April Anderson and Ji Hye Kim are two prime examples.
Fries: you just posted Find our voice, co-authored by FoodLab Fellows. What are you trying to communicate through it?
Davison: This is a bugle call. We wanted to commemorate what has happened in our industry over the past 12 months. When the pandemic hit, we were all in the same boat. It didn’t matter how many awards or Michelin stars you had, or how many times you were entered in Food and wine. Everyone stopped. And for the first time, I saw chefs from across the country start to organize. In places like Tennessee, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, chefs have met on call to try and resolve issues. We started to see efforts like the Coalition of independent restaurants. Chefs and restaurateurs began to campaign on Capitol Hill. Local independent restaurant owners have figured out how to speak for ourselves and how to amplify our voices together.
Find our voice is a call to action for when we come out of this pandemic – and we will – so that we don’t get back to normal. There are still real issues that we need to address in our industry. Just as we have found our voice to defend the owner class, we must find it to defend the farmers, the waiters and the administrative staff. Can you imagine if the chefs were so passionate and organized about how we pay workers a fair minimum wage? Or how do we dismantle the misogyny and discrimination in our kitchens?
Fries: What do you hope the pandemic can come out of for your industry?
Davison: If this pandemic did nothing else, it laid bare the rotten core of the restaurant and food industries. The dirty little secret is the exploitation of labor throughout the supply chain, from the farmer to that beautiful tomato or strawberry you eat. This pandemic should therefore have shown us our responsibility to pay a living wage. These workers are now considered essential, but in some places they are still earns $ 7.25 an hour. I can’t wait to continue the Fight for $ 15 supported by people like Restaurants Opportunity centers. We’re not talking about $ 15 an hour tomorrow; we are talking about a gradual increase over five years. I want this debate to include concrete examples of restaurateurs, chefs and food operators who are already demonstrating what valuing workers and their work looks like. And, more broadly, I’m excited about the actual conversations about how we’re transforming the entire restaurant industry. It’s not about putting one person on a platform; these are substantial changes in the systems. I am encouraged when I read Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter Where The Restaurant Manifesto. So much has been revealed in this pandemic. We can’t let this go.
Fries: What structural obstacles are your entrepreneurs facing?
Davison: I have found that many people equate their business success with their own success. If my business is a failure, I am a failure. So people suffer in silence. They don’t want you to know if they have no cash or three months of savings. A lot of people don’t even go to the bank to apply for a loan; they think they won’t get it. Some people still bear the trauma of exploiting parents and grandparents through predatory loans. But the pandemic tore off the bandage and showed something important: It’s not just you, as an individual. This thing is systemic. Righting the wrongs requires a new policy – so we must continue to organize. The other important element is access to capital. we pilot FoodLab Chicago 2.0 in partnership with Grand Chatham Initiative and South Shore Chamber of Commerce, connecting a cohort of black-owned businesses on the south side of Chicago with banks, community development finance institutions and other lenders. Through these connections, business owners secured $ 1.75 million in P3 funding in 2020.
Fries: You shared a vision for Detroit as a place to seed ideas about reinventing the 21st society of the century, using technology towards equity and justice. Tell us about it?
Davison: It is a joy to be in a place with so much history. I remember hearing the stories of my mom and dad, who fled racial terror in southern Jim Crow as part of the Great Migration. When my parents came to Detroit, they had never seen anything like it: department stores, beautiful homes. Growing up in the 1970s, I hadn’t realized the impact of living in this bubble of excellence and black community – piano lessons, skating rink, choir rehearsal; summer gatherings on the front porch with puffs of smoke from barbecue ribs on July 4th.
Detroit grew from a population of nearly 2 million for a population of less than 700,000 inhabitants. It’s in my lifetime. One of the richest cities has become one of the poorest black cities in the country. I am in awe of those Detroiters who have stayed. When there was no street light, they refused to leave. When all the regional grocery stores in Detroit closed, they refused to leave. I am inspired by those elders who saw this as an opportunity to draw on these agricultural skills from the South. Empty lot by empty lot, backyard by backyard, abandoned house by abandoned house, cultivated Detroit. We now have more 1,600 farms and gardens, growing hundreds of thousands of tons of fresh produce every year.
Imagine the radical imagination and creativity that it takes. I want to live in a city that loves its children and honors its elders. FoodLab Detroit supports those who use businesses for this purpose. In the process, I have the opportunity to meet some of the most gifted chefs and bakers – diverse, caring, gentle, radical, hardcore and passionate people using their business model as a force for good.
This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to adapt them to people and the planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.