How Detroit chefs reinvented their food businesses to survive the pandemic

Relish co-founders Le’Genevieve Squires (left) and Brittiany Peeler. Photo courtesy of Relish.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, it hit the restaurant industry particularly hard. In a business already plagued by inequities, where employees work long hours for low pay and little to no benefits, the industry saw mass shutdowns, layoffs, and restaurants closing their doors.

But for Rohani Foulkes, owner of Folk in Corktown, shutting down wasn’t an option.

“It was never a question of if we would close,” she said. “It was more of a question of how we can keep doing what we’ve always done, even if it looks different.”

And that’s what she did. Before opening Folk in 2018, Foulkes and former partner Kiki Louya established The Farmer’s Hand, a grocery store focused on local goods, in 2016. That closed last year (sister restaurant Mink has taken over the former market space).

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued shelter-in-place orders, Foulkes brought back the market model, moving out the tables and chairs in the cozy Folk space to make way for coolers and food displays. The landlord also invested in a walk-up window so customers can pick up orders and — while it’s still nice out — eat on the patio.

The market is just one example of how Detroit chefs reimagined their businesses due to the pandemic. From neighborhood markets to community kitchens, Detroit’s local food business owners are figuring out how to survive while stepping up for their workers as COVID-19 laid bare the restaurant industry’s inequities.

An already challenging business

Restaurants already run at low margins, but the pandemic has devastated businesses’ bottom lines in 2020. According to the Detroit Regional Chamber, the year-over-year number of seated diners fell 78% on March 16, three days after the shelter-in-place orders went into effect. As of Aug. 26, the year-over-year decline in the number of seated diners was 27% — an improvement, but still economically painful.

“We’ve kept our doors open, but also we’ve faced an incredible amount of struggle,” Foulkes said.

For starters, revenue is down around 50% from last year, and that doesn’t take into account an expected bump from the addition of a liquor license.

Over at Saffron De Twah on the eastside of Detroit, before it ceased its carryout service to focus on feeding the community, owner and chef Omar Anani said business from takeout was at “a third of what we did as a sit-down establishment.”

Max Hardy, chef and owner of Coop, located in Detroit Shipping Company, is still planning to open two new restaurants later this year/early next year. He said business has been picking up steadily at the Midtown restaurant, but overall sales are down 60%.

And Devita Davison, executive director of the local food entrepreneur advocacy group FoodLab Detroit, said the biggest challenge that she’s hearing from business owners revolves around labor — specifically safety —  in a new world of masks and physical distancing.  Making sure workers get paid is another concern.

“The common thread is really the concern and the challenges of people,” Davison said.

At Sister Pie in West Village, owner Lisa Ludwinski said the bakery would not welcome customers back into the shop for the remainder of 2020.

“Our space is too small for that to happen safely right now, and we don’t want to spend our time telling people how to wear their masks,” she said. “Instead, having the ability to meet people outside and place orders on our bench is working for now.”

Chefs and owners say that customers generally understand and comply with health guidelines. But there have been some combative moments, and it’s been frustrating for workers to add mask-wearing enforcement to their list of duties. Even though it’s been a challenge, putting people before profit has prevailed.

“There has been a bit of policing of customers,” Foulkes said. “And that is a bit of a struggle. It’s not our job solely to keep our community safe. It’s on all of us. It’s customers. It’s my staff. It’s me. It’s the powers that be telling us, ‘hey, this is what we need to do now.’”

Meanwhile, supply chain interruptions and resulting price increases are straining businesses.

Hardy changed Coop’s menu to make it more cost-effective because the price of ingredients went up. For example, chicken wings went from $75 a case to a couple of hundred dollars. So the challenge was trying to find a balance between absorbing the cost and passing it off to customers when many people are struggling financially.

“That’s tough because customers don’t want to pay $16, $17 for five wings,” he said. “That’s pretty expensive.”

Even the price of disposables is complicating the issue.

“We’ve tried to build that into some of the pricing,” Foulkes said, adding that there’s only so much a business can do before customers raise cost concerns. Folk has brought back the 18% gratuity on checks and, at one point, considered making it 20% and using 2% of that to put toward disposables. But the team decided against it.

“So then what do we do? Do we increase our menu prices? Or do we charge for a plastic cup and disposables? Either way, we have to do these things to provide a safe service to customers and keep ourselves safe. But who pays for that?”

Solutions and experiments

At the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, many chefs found ways to help the community without customers to feed. One of those was Experience Relish, owned and operated by Brittiany Peeler and La’Genevieve Squires. With revenue way down, the pair secured kitchen space at the Brightmoor Artisans’ Collective so they could be a part of Feed the Frontlines Detroit. They also provided 100 lunches for Harambee in the Park with the Flint Freedom Schools Collaborative and partnered with the Detroit Phoenix Center on cooking on a budget series.

Like many chefs and restaurant owners, “there were a series of pivots,” Anani of Saffron de Twah said. “First, we changed all of our protocols for dine-in for safety. Once the storm hit, we had 20-30 pivot plans. Early on, the problem was, how do you pivot when the rules are changing every 24 hours? It wasn’t possible to come up with a sustainable plan.”

Anani initially shut down Saffron De Twah, and during that time, the restaurant fed frontline workers at the height of the pandemic. “When it ended, we needed a better way to serve the community,” Anani said. So in mid-August, he launched Saffron Community Kitchen in partnership with nonprofit Brilliant Detroit to provide community meals.

“Detroit doesn’t need more fine dining right now,” he said. Through the community kitchen initiative, which is fully supported by Brilliant Detroit, people can text 313-488-4321 to request a meal and will be connected with a restaurant to pick up the meal at a designated time and date Tuesdays through Saturdays. And the demand continues to grow; on the first day the restaurant provided 50 meals. This past Saturday, it served 900 meals.

The community kitchen isn’t profitable for the business, so revenue from opportunities like catered events and being one of the Detroit Pistons’ approved restaurants is keeping the restaurant afloat. But even when things “get back to normal” Anani’s vision is to keep the community kitchen going.

“My goal is to keep this thing running forever,” he says.

“When I have hundreds of people knocking on my door needing food, people with money can wait. At the end of the day it’s all about community.”

For the first two weeks after the governor’s orders shut down dine-in services, the Sister Pie team did takeout but halted it after it was too challenging to sustain safely. Ludwinski would hear from the locals that what they needed was a safe way to get staple ingredients, so Sister Pie turned into a neighborhood grocery offering eggs, flour, fruits, and vegetables. They also started a neighborhood grocery fund through which neighbors could buy groceries and contribute to an amount of their choice to help their fellow neighbors. And each employee also had free access to groceries.

“Once we started the grocery service, everything about what we did on a daily basis changed. Not only were we down to three staff members (including myself), but we incorporated all new systems of inventory and sales, working as simply and efficiently as possible.”

Lessons learned: Toward ‘like-heartedness’

What insights from months of a widespread shutdown, reduced capacity, and endless pivots can be brought forth in a post-pandemic restaurant landscape? Chefs say change needs to happen, but there are also opportunities to build equity and resiliency in Detroit’s restaurant industry.

“The service industry as a whole for far too long has been built off of the backs of servitude and people who are treated pretty poorly and compensated pretty poorly for that service,” Foulkes said. “And what COVID has brought to light is that those things are there.”

Foulkes is encouraged by the move among more restaurants to remove the tip line and add automatic gratuity.

“I think that said something about the way the industry has changed through COVID, and some of the models that are being used to get through COVID,” she said.

Ludwinski has implemented a no-tipping model. At first, Sister Pie had to put most workers on temporary leave, during which they applied for unemployment. Then the business was able to bring back all of its 13 staff at full wages in May, with the help of a PPP loan and other financial assistance. Ludwinski said they haven’t had to lay anyone off or decrease hours since then.

“We transitioned to a no-tipping model and were able to provide a couple of raises as we re-examined our pricing structure,” she said.

For Davison, change can’t happen until there is a vision for what victory looks like, and all people mobilize to achieve that vision.

“How do we organize? I can have all the conversations in the world with farmers, I can have all conversations in the world with restaurateurs and chefs, but we cannot transform the food system unless we also have consumers engaged,” she said.

The pandemic has exposed the inequities in the food system, Peeler and Squires said. But it’s also revealed opportunities for fixing those inequities through collaboration.

“We have learned that collaboration in the food industry can help many small food businesses stay in business and feed the community. If we can share the cost of overhead, cross-train and enhance employees’ skills, plus deliver an experience to the community, we hope to change a lot of lives,” they said.

Anani echoes those sentiments. While the pandemic has shown how fragile the industry is, it’s also demonstrated “how strong its community can be.”

“The most important piece is in staffing,” he said. “We talk about people buying into what we are trying to accomplish, but what we need is not like-minded people but rather like-hearted people. Like-minded people usually believe the same things are wrong or bad but may want very different things as a result. Like-hearted people want the same things, have similar hopes and dreams. And that is what it takes to build a change in the industry that is yet to exist.”

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and social justice. Read more of her work on her website www.dorothylynnhernandez.com and follow her on Twitter at @dorothy_lynn_h.

This piece is the first in a three-part series on how Detroiters have found solutions to feed themselves and their communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, reported and edited in partnership with Planet Detroit and funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Detour Detroit

Author: Detour Detroit

Detour is the newsletter for the Detroit community.

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