It is lunch rush at Rose’s Fine Food. People sit shoulder to shoulder at the bar, and each of the six reclaimed-wood tables are full. Happy conversations are punctuated by the clink of forks on plates and tea cups against mismatched saucers. Vintage mirrors, photographs, and paintings hang on the wall, overlooking the cozy scene. Located on an otherwise empty stretch of Jefferson around the corner from another dilapidated neighborhood, the tiny diner is a green cement box with a white rose painted on the front window, and a “no firearms” sign by the door. Instead of the usual diner fare, the menu boasts items such as roasted local root vegetables with poached eggs; house baked rolls; and something called “Michigan Maple Soda.” The idea is local, high-quality food, with a side of fairly compensated employees.
“We felt that paying people a good living wage was not only what Detroit needs in food, but it’s also the first step in reversing what is a nationwide trend,” said Lucy de Parry, co-owner of Rose’s Fine Food. “Food service is not being looked upon as something that is a dignified thing to do, when in fact it is.”
Despite the ever-present ruin porn, people like Lucy believe that Detroit is still the place to be. According to Visit Detroit, thirty-seven new restaurants opened up in the city between September 2013 and February 2015. Of these, nineteen included words like “thoughtfully cooked,” “high-quality,” “local,” “handmade,” “seasonal,” and “fresh” to define their restaurant. Zagat, a Google-owned curated restaurant review and rating site, named Detroit the #3 hottest food city in America for 2015. FoodLab, a community of sustainable food entrepreneurs in Detroit, has grown from 50 to over 150 member businesses in the past two years. “Food is a job creator,” says Randall Fogelman, the Vice President of Business Development at the Eastern Market corporation.
Sara Soderstrom, assistant professor at the University of Michigan in both Organizational Studies and Program in the Environment, sees FoodLab “as a really impressive model for what food in the city of Detroit and in any revitalizing space can be with respect to their efforts in bringing people together and engaging in neighborhood development in an empowering way that I think really aligns with the lens of sustainability.” Sister Pie, a FoodLab member, fully embodies that model. As the 2014 winner of the Hatch Detroit contest, Sister Pie was chosen by the public as a finalist and ultimately won $50,000 to open their brick and mortar shop, now located on Kercheval. According to David Kirby, owner of Sister Pie’s neighbor Parker Street Market, eight new businesses have now signed leases to open on their block in the next year.
Aside from being a catalyst for neighborhood development, Sister Pie strives to be internally sustainable. “We focus on a triple bottom line mission [maintaining a commitment to employees, the local economy, and the environment] because it challenges us to make decisions that affect the local community in a positive way. That can translate into hiring locally, shopping exclusively from Michigan farmers, and making sure that we are recycling absolutely everything that we can,” said Lisa Ludwinski, founder of Sister Pie. “[We also try] to use our ingredients to their maximum potential, for example, instead of throwing away our pie dough scraps, we roll them out into flaky pie sandwich cookies.”
Avalon International Breads, a bakery in Midtown that opened in 1997 whose owner likes to call the “hearth and soul of Detroit,” is proof that this kind of commitment to the city, central to these relative newbies to the Detroit food scene, is viable and sustainable. “The triple bottom line is why the business is here, that was our road map for how we do a business that makes the world better, sort of like our North Star,” said Jackie Victor, co-owner of Avalon. “I think [our point was] introducing that whole notion of locally sourced and seasonal food in Detroit, I mean it sounds crazy now, but it really was kind of new back then, and then just providing decent jobs.”
Detroit is uniquely posed in this burgeoning food scene. “The food that [Detroit’s urban farmers] grow is so stunning,” de Perry said. “We’re more privileged than a place like NY for example, because we actually have people growing this food here and the quality of ingredients is through the roof.” At the same time, each of these businesses are imbedded in populations that are used to low quality, cheap food, as for many in the city, access to healthier options was limited until recently. This poses a challenge to the entrepreneurs, who must present their purpose to the community in a way that is respectful, nurturing and most importantly, educational.
Detroit is just one in a number of American cities that are turning their focus to food sustainability. According to the National League of Cities, Seattle declared 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture; Cleveland, OH has turned to community gardening; the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Initiative is stimulating grocery store development in Philadelphia; and Minneapolis is increasing their number of small farmer’s markets throughout the city. The mayor of San Francisco even issued a Healthy and Sustainable Food Policy for the city in the form of an Executive Directive in 2009.
Food sustainability is a multifaceted issue. It is about providing healthy, local food; jobs that will sustain the economy; as well as making a commitment to the environment, things that add up to better the lives of the people in a given community.
For the young entrepreneurs who are opening these restaurants, de Parry believes that “‘sustainable’ applies, but it’s really a responsibility issue; a stewardship issue. As we saw with the Paris climate talks, we’re all on the hook for everything. It’s not a trend; these are our values in our generation. Being complacent in our ignorance shouldn’t be an option anymore.”