Restaurant Reinvention Is Underway In Detroit

What images come to mind when you think of Detroit? Do you imagine 1,600 gardens in backyards and empty lots? Do you imagine small food businesses with radical new models like open book finance? Do you imagine robots humming down the avenues to deliver food?

These aspirations have already been realized. And, despite the extraordinary hardship of the pandemic, countless new efforts are burgeoning to reshape the food and restaurant industries, curated by inspirational leaders like Devita Davison, Executive Director of FoodLab Detroit. I wish this interview could lift off the page — that readers could hear the wisdom, passion and commitment in Devita’s voice. We’re lucky to have people like her driving systems change alongside her community.

Lorin Fries: Tell us about FoodLab Detroit?

Devita Davison: We’re an incubator/accelerator/think tank serving to support and scale food operators, bakers and chefs creating radical business models. FoodLab gives our entrepreneurs room, space and support, surrounding them with 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’re inspired by those who have put those principles into action – especially B Corporations.

Fries: Could you give us examples chefs and restauranteurs you’re supporting, and how they’re changing food systems?

Davison: I love all our fellows. One inspiration is April Anderson, an African American pastry chef. Her business, Good Cakes and Bakes, is located on the famous, historical Avenue of Fashion. April started her bakery out of a church basement in 2013. Fast forward: even in the midst of a pandemic, she’s on track to hit the million dollar mark this year. That speaks to endurance, resilience and brilliance. When you think about communities with an over-representation of Black and Brown bodies, you don’t always think of abundance. Many people describe those communities — often without access to fresh, healthy, affordable, high quality food – as food deserts. We at FoodLab don’t call them deserts, as if they were a natural occurrence; we recognize this as food apartheid. So for April to open a completely organic business with vegan options – not just as a Black woman, but as one who’s also a part of the LGBTQI community – is audacious. 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, breathing example.

The second person I want to lift up is Ji Hye Kim. She’s the chef and owner of Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant that’s part of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Zingerman’s is known for its commitment to community, to quality, and to the wellbeing of its staff. One thing I love about Ji Hye is the care she has taken to center her staff’s needs. Hers was one of the first businesses in Ann Arbor to do away with tipping. She’s also one of the first — with the support of Ari and Paul, Zingerman’s founders – to implement open book finance. These are radical concepts. Ji Hye is also working with University of Michigan students to do contactless delivery using robots. This is thinking outside of the box. For most people in our industry, the current system is not working. So how do you break out of it and begin to reimagine? April Anderson and Ji Hye Kim are two great examples.

Fries: You’ve just published Finding Our Voice, co-authored by FoodLab fellows. What are you seeking to communicate through it?

Davison: This is a clarion call. We wanted to memorialize what has happened in our industry over the last 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 written up in Food and Wine. Everybody shut down. And for the first time, I saw chefs from all over the country beginning to organize. In places like Tennessee, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, chefs came together on calls, trying to solve problems. We started to see efforts like the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Chefs and restauranteurs began advocating on Capitol Hill. Locally owned, independent restaurant owners figured out how to speak up for ourselves, and how to amplify our voices together.

Finding Our Voice is a call to action for when we get out of this pandemic — and we will – so that we don’t go back to normal. There are still real issues that we have to work out in our industry. Just like we found our voice to advocate for the owner class, we need to find it to stand up for farmers, servers, and back of the house staff. Could you imagine if chefs were that passionate and organized about how we pay workers a fair minimum wage? Or how we dismantle the misogyny and discrimination in our kitchens?

Fries: What do you hope may emerge from the pandemic for your industry?

Davison: If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has exposed the rotten core of the restaurant and food industries. The dirty little secret is the exploitation of labor all along the supply chain, from the farmer all the way to that beautiful tomato or strawberry you consume. So this pandemic should have shown us our responsibility to pay a living wage. These workers have been deemed essential now, yet in some places they’re still earning $7.25 per hour. I’m looking forward to continuing the Fight for $15 supported by folks like Restaurants Opportunity Centers. We’re not talking about $15 an hour tomorrow; we’re talking about a gradual increase over five years. I want this debate to integrate real world examples of restauranteurs, chefs, and food operators who already demonstrate what it looks like to value workers and their labor. And, more broadly, I’m excited about real conversations on how we transform the whole restaurant industry. It’s not about putting a single person on a platform; it’s about substantive systems change. I’m encouraged when I read Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter or The Restaurant Manifesto. So much has been revealed in this pandemic. We can’t let that go.

Fries: What structural barriers do your entrepreneurs face?

Davison: I’ve found that many people equate the success of their business to 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 don’t have cash flow or three months of savings. Many folks don’t even go to the bank to ask about a loan; they figure they won’t get it. Some people still harbor the trauma of parents’ and grandparents’ exploitation through predatory lending. But the pandemic ripped off the band-aid and showed something important: it’s not just you, as an individual. This thing is systemic. Correcting the wrongs needs new policy – so we’ve got to continue to organize. The other important piece is access to capital. We’re piloting FoodLab Chicago 2.0 in partnership with Greater Chatham Initiative and South Shore Chamber of Commerce, linking a cohort of Black-owned businesses on Chicago’s South Side with banks, community development financial institutions, and other lenders. Through those connections, business owners secured $1.75 million in PPP funding in 2020.

Fries: You’ve shared a vision for Detroit as a place to seed ideas about reinventing 21st century society, using technology toward equity and justice. Tell us about this?

Davison: It’s a joy to be in a place with so much history. I remember hearing the stories from my mother and father, who fled racial terror in the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration. When my parents arrived in Detroit, they’d had never seen anything like it: the department stores, the beautiful homes. Growing up in the 1970’s, I didn’t realize the impact of living in this bubble of Black excellence and community – piano lessons, the skating rink, choir practice; gatherings in summertime on the front porch with billows of smoke from barbecuing ribs on the Fourth of July.

Detroit went from a population of almost 2 million to a population of under 700,000. That’s in my lifetime. One of the richest cities became one of the poorest Black cities in the country. I’m in awe of those Detroiters that stayed. When there were no streetlights, they refused to leave. When every single regional grocery store closed in Detroit, they refused to leave. I get my inspiration from those elders who saw this as an opportunity to rely on those agricultural skills from the South. Empty lot by empty lot, backyard by backyard, abandoned house by abandoned house, Detroit cultivated. We now have over 1,600 farms and gardens, growing hundreds of thousands of tons of fresh produce each year.

Imagine the radical imagination and creativity this takes. I want to live in a city that loves its children and honors its elders. FoodLab Detroit is supporting those using business to that end. In the process, I get to meet some of the dopest chefs and bakers out there — diverse, caring, gentle, radical, hardcore, passionate folks 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 get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

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