I stopped by Baobab Fare in Detroit’s New Center area to try the restaurant’s Tuesday special. Ugali — a traditional east African dish made up of a hearty ball of corn flour dough with a savory okra stew and fish — is on the menu. While eating, chef and owner Mamba Hamissi sat with me, and I asked him how business is for the new restaurant.
Hamissi and wife/partner, Nadia Nijimbere, opened Baobab Fare in the midst of the pandemic. With limited ownership experience, the couple is managing in an environment where staff quit frequently and the cost of food has skyrocketed. Hamissi said he’s considering retail to help stabilize the family’s revenue stream — maybe they’ll sell their bottled passion fruit juice to stores. The duo is also looking to open up their space, free of charge, to entrepreneurial pop-ups.
Hamissi’s optimism seems unshakable. After all, he and Nijimbere have been through tremendous setbacks to realize the American dream of business ownership. Fleeing their war-torn home country of Burundi in East Africa; learning English; developing and financing a business for what would become Baobab Fare, the city’s first Burundi-style restaurant and cafe; and opening during a global crisis.
Indeed, Hamissi, like countless other restaurateurs across the country, is searching for ways to not just overcome the immediate effects of the pandemic, but to transform and sustain his business.
A similar problem exists for food journalism. The last year and a half have exposed myriad challenges that exist in the food industry. The global catastrophe exposed the long working hours and minimal or nonexistent benefits for employees. The sector is rife with abuse. Customers and chefs misuse workers. Rampant racism and sexism exist in kitchens and dining rooms. Hard work is met with abysmal pay. Meanwhile, managers and owners are navigating stress and burnout along with rising costs. Restaurateurs and their customers are also increasingly considering their role in displacement and gentrification.
The pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to innovate.
For every restaurant that closed its doors, there’s a chef who opened his or her kitchen to serve meals to hospital workers or the homeless. For every restaurant worker who was forced to quit, there is now an entrepreneur who is changing the game for themselves and their community.
Though we are slowly returning to dining rooms, we may never go back to “normal.” We can’t return to something that was already broken.
That is why we’re excited to announce a new partnership with BridgeDetroit in which we will develop a series that dives into Detroit’s food world. We will highlight the concerns of diners and food workers while lifting up stories of people in the food space who are reimagining a path forward. The series will include in-depth reporting and virtual events featuring leaders in the food space to inform a comprehensive dining guide to publish in early 2022.
We will shadow restaurant owners to give you an intimate glimpse into the obstacles they overcome to provide for their families and communities. We still care about whether the food at restaurants is excellent, sure, but we strive to go deeper. We will ask: Do these restaurants uplift communities? Do they treat their staff with respect? How do these spaces combat cultural erasure?
We’re not alone in this effort. Food publications and organizations across the country are beginning to recognize the importance of sharing stories that do more than point readers to hot, new restaurants. Food & Wine’s Game Changers series honored 25 people and companies that are transforming how we, as a society, collectively eat, cook, drink and travel. The James Beard Foundation placed its prestigious awards programming on hiatus for two years and instead conducted “an audit of policies and procedures in order to ensure a more transparent and equitable process for the future.” What awards organizers came up with is a holistic approach in which its restaurant and chefs awards committee is asked to judge establishments on their values, not just whether they can serve a beautiful and delicious meal.
This is not uncharted territory for Tostada Magazine. From Day One, we’ve strived to build a platform that centers on communities of color and celebrates those who are creating space for community and culture through the lens of food.
What’s different is that not only are we diving below the surface, we’re asking to hear from you, dear reader, for your feedback. It’s not enough for us to decide which places deserve recognition, it’s up to members of the community to help inform this effort — what restaurants are getting it right in Detroit?
If you would like to provide your feedback, click here and fill out this super brief survey and we’ll reach out to you with more details. Or, feel free to email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After all, you live here. You know the neighborhoods, and have your own values that you would like to see reflected in your dining experience. In Detroit, dining should be about more than just consuming, it should be a way to help feed your neighborhood.
Let’s work together to create a food world that honors culture, community and innovation.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is the co-founder and head chingona of Tostada Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit and specializes on the intersection of food, identity, and culture.
Find her on Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!