Featherstone is changing the narrative of Detroit’s immigrant-owned businesses

Photo by Cybelle Codish.

Over the past several years, Detroit’s dining scene has captured national attention. The opening of farm-to-table eateries, bougie cafes featuring lavender-infused lattes, and $20-a-drink speakeasies became a metaphor for the city’s “comeback” from its historic bankruptcy.

What Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez, founder of Featherstone, a Detroit-based immigrant-owned marketing and public relations agency, saw, however, was that a large section of the city’s existing entrepreneurial infrastructure had been excluded from that narrative. Dueweke-Perez immigrated with his family to the United States from Guadalajara as a child and was intimately familiar with how the community’s informal economy kept Detroit’s Southwest side from falling into neglect. The neighborhood teemed with popular food trucks, tamaleras and mole makers who prepared their delicacies from home, and restaurants that got their starts as weekend-only taquerias. Households were headed by contractors, landscapers, and house cleaners. As a kid, Dueweke-Perez himself helped his mom earn money by selling cheesecakes, which they would then sell by going door to door throughout the neighborhood.

These kinds of stories are almost never highlighted though. Immigrant-owned businesses might have been responsible for holding up parts of the city’s economy for decades, but you wouldn’t have known it based on most of the headlines that have dominated local and national media over the past decade or so.

One barrier to catching the same kind of hype as all the newcomers that catered to more well-resourced ventures, they lack publicity. Without the capital needed to hire a top-dollar PR firm and without the literacy to understand how an effective marketing strategy can impact the bottom line, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer-owned businesses are less likely to gain notoriety.

Dueweke-Perez wanted to change that.

In 2015, he launched what began as Featherstone Moments after completing a business accelerator program with ProsperUS. Much of Dueweke-Perez’s early work centered photography, providing customers with the type of Insta-worthy imagery to catch potential customers’ eyeballs as they scrolled. He went on to become a technical service provider at ProsperUS, then at TechTown.

Soon, he was part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Dueweke-Perez trained with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program and did a fellowship at TechTown. This would prove foundational in the trajectory of Featherstone, though that wouldn’t begin to present itself as clearly until 2020 (more on that later).

These experiences helped Dueweke-Perez to help his clients access the same kinds of resources that he received. He didn’t simply focus on grabbing the type of exposure that better-resourced ventures benefit from, but he also helped his clients navigate an ecosystem that they might not otherwise be familiar with.

As the years have gone by, the team has grown to a crew of six experts: Mia Ruiz and Nadia Batayeh who handle social media; Sabira Rahman who specializes in public relations; Anaelmarlon Luzayamo, a full-stack web developer; and Lucio Delira, a strategist and content creator. They focus on emphasizing the stories behind their clients, not only hyping their products and services. The intention, that customers will feel a deeper connection to the businesses’ stories.

That mission has only been reinforced by the pandemic.

“I think that what COVID did, is that it validated our model,” he says. “It’s easy to talk to (our clients) and say look, listen, people aren’t just buying your food simply because it’s good, people are buying it because they care about you. But in order for us to make a connection down the line… we have to feed different types of information to (the public).”

Much of Featherstone’s client base is in the foodservice industry. In fact, before the pandemic hit, Dueweke-Perez and one of his collaborators Monica Casarez (who was among the thousands of Detroiters who died from COVID-19 in the early months of the crisis) had been attempting to create a Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week that would rival the other weeks-long dining events that have traditionally dominated downtown. The pair pulled it off on a shoestring budget and involved dozens of local eateries. The restaurants created special menus for the occasion to introduce customers to the vast regional diversity that makes up Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean cuisine.

When restaurants were forced to cease serving in their dining rooms and dramatically change their menus to adjust to a new takeout-only reality. In the process, the Featherstone team walked clients through ways that they could pivot.

Case in point, El Asador, the Mexican steak and seafood restaurant on Springwells had been popular for its intimate dining room where guests enjoyed convivial service, tableside guacamole, and halal-friendly prime cuts of meat. Without that setting, Dueweke-Perez’s team had to think of ways to help El Asador’s proprietor Chef Luis Garza to repackage parts of that experience into another format.

In came the restaurant’s family-style offerings, where customers could order spicy chorizo and potato tacos for Superbowl Sunday, sophisticated trays of Mole de Gallina, made up of juicy chicken thighs and legs that are simmered in Mexico’s treasured mole sauce, or satisfying family-sized servings of enchiladas verdes.

Garza also reduced the price of menu items by offsetting some of the profits to subsidize his employees’ incomes, which had been cut dramatically.

Not your typical takeout, but rather a source of comfort while families were strained by continuous stay-at-home orders, while at the same time providing a way to support the workers most impacted by the pandemic.

“We have to think about how to make it easier for people to have the food in a somewhat similar experience… the experience in itself happens through the cooking, the heating, the tasting, and smelling. And of course, the service itself is not going to be the same, but we’re also taking into consideration that families are at home and they’re more than likely not going out. We just talk them through about how to hit multiple birds with one stone,” says Dueweke-Perez.

It’s a trend that has played out at traditional sit-down restaurants across the board, as the state has navigated social distancing requirements. Even as restaurants have slowly begun to increase dine-in capacity, the need to be flexible in how to serve diners will likely be a lasting legacy that the pandemic leaves behind.

Restaurants have turned to selling meal kits online, turning their dining rooms into makeshift grocery markets, and partnering with community organizers and nonprofits to feed food-insecure families.

I interviewed  Dueweke-Perez back in February. He was posted up at his usual work space at TechTown. He fielded Zoom meetings with clients and the Featherstone team. Every now and then he’d peek his head in at TechTown’s onsite childcare center to check in on his two kids who were virtual schooling there on their tablets.

This has been Dueweke-Perez’s reality for coming up on a year now since schools and in-person meetings alike have gone virtual. He’d already been a regular at TechTown so the workplace wasn’t new, except now, instead of running into colleagues and collaborators pretty much daily over the cafeteria counter, much of the co-working and incubator space is empty, save for a few folks like him hunkered down in front of laptops separated by plexiglass and masks.

Along with the change in daily interactions, the pandemic has introduced Featherstone to a new client base: some of the very entrepreneurial servicing agencies that gave him his start.

Featherstone was brought on to provide digital marketing and PR consulting for ProsperUS helping with digital marketing and PR. Dueweke-Perez also served on a stakeholder advisory board with Detroit Means Business, volunteer work that gives him a platform to share with multiple organizations just how his clients have been impacted by the pandemic. Eventually, Dueweke-Perez wants to find a way for his team members to not just be employees or partners, but to create a collective, one in which people of color have an equal voice in the direction of the work that they do.

The effects of the pandemic have yet to be realized in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. But it highlights the importance of the support systems that have been developing for years to empower the types of businesses that Featherstone works to empower.

For Dueweke-Perez, the direction of Featherstone feels like a full-circle moment.

“Not to be corny, but it feels like a blessing,” he says.

This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with the New Economy Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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