How one Corktown market is reaching community in gentrifying Detroit

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels. Rohani Foulkes, owner of Folk in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

When Rohani Foulkes looks out of the front door of her business Folk, an artisan market and cafe on the corner of Bagely and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, she can’t help but marvel (and not in a good way) at the many changes that are reshaping the historic community.

“You see this unbelievable, incredible amount of physical infrastructural growth, the Godfrey Hotel’s going up, (Michigan) Central Station’s being redeveloped,” says Foulkes. “Right now, I’m looking at an enormous crane moving, I don’t even know what, along Michigan Avenue, it’s kind of unbelievable, right?”

At the same time, Foulkes says she’s witnessed how longtime residents are impacted by the rapid fire redevelopment of Corktown and the rest of the city and is considering how Folk fits into it all. The market features a large variety of wines, fair trade coffee, and specialty products like white fish pate from northern Michigan, extra virgin olive oil, CBD seltzers — items that some would consider luxuries. On any given day, you’re likely to see well-heeled customers toting designer handbags stop by for a vegan farm egg sandwich or a $6.25 rose latte with oat milk, while parking their Subaru Outbacks across the street, next to the Clement Kern Gardens low-income apartment complex. Yes, the shop carries a number of pantry essentials: organic produce, dairy products, eggs, butchers cut meats, fresh-baked bread — but its price point makes shopping at Folk more of a special occasion retailer (I know I stop in there somewhat every now and then to treat myself). At the same time, some of the cornerstones of Folk’s mission include paying living wages to employees and to source from local and/or ethical producers that espouse similar values around equity. During the pandemic, Folk joined countless other food and drink businesses across the country to help thousands residents experiencing food insecurity with free emergency meals. Still, Foulkes says the paradox — selling expensive food and drinks in a community struggling with gentrification and poverty — does not escape her.

“For me, it starts with the business like, who are we? How have we changed, and how have we worked to stay true to who we have always been and what we believe in,” says Foulkes.

Photo illustration by Serena Maria Daniels via Giphy. The construction site of the Godfrey Hotel, one of many new developments that are redefining the character of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

In 2020, Folk launched the Community Grocery Fund, in which contributions are used to provide heavily discounted and free staple grocery items, coffee, and snacks to its immediate neighbors and other residents in need. According to the company’s website, Folk prepared and provided thousands of free grocery bags, farm boxes and meals during that first year of the pandemic — accepting $25 donations to offset the cost. The cafe has also implemented a Cup of Joe program — in which immediate neighbors and students can enjoy a $2 cup of coffee — born out of concern from barista Desmond Burkett over increasing prices in the neighborhood that made daily pleasures, like a cup of coffee, more inaccessible.

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels. Center back, Desmond Burkett, an alumnus of the former Detroit Youth Food Brigade, now known as the Detroit Food Academy. To his left, Le’Genevieve Squires, small batch business manager of the Detroit Food Academy, along with other current cohorts of the program. The nonprofit prepares youth for careers in the food industry and produces Mitten Bites and other small scale food products, which are sold in businesses like Folk. Burkett now works at Folk and came up with the idea for the Cup of Joe program.

While the pandemic is still very much a part of our lives and the threat of gentrification continues to loom, Foulkes says the Community Grocery Fund will continue on a pay-what-you-can basis. Supporters can now donate whatever they’re comfortable with, whether it be $5, $10, or $25. The struggle, she says, is getting the word out to people who would benefit from the fund. After all, it shouldn’t be up to a barista at Folk to decide who to offer a bag of discounted groceries to. She says she’s been reaching out to local social service agencies that assist food insecure residents to help promote the work.

This kind of introspection comes about five years since Foulkes and her then business partner Kiki Louya launched The Farmer’s Hand in 2016, a small-scale corner grocery store situated just a couple of store fronts from Folk (and the current location for the Mink oyster bar). The duo envisioned a space where residents could consider where their food comes from and let their dollars do the talking to support an equitable business model where farmers, food producers, and the cashiers who worked the store could all enjoy fair wages, and a healthier workplace environment. They went to great lengths to source as many of the baked goods, meats, produce, dairy and other staples from Michigan-based farmers and vendors as possible.

At the time, it felt revolutionary. Foulkes, an immigrant from Australia with indigenous roots, and Louya, a Black Detroiter — both of whom have spent most of their careers in hospitality and are both intimately familiar with the many toxic traits that go along with the industry. Workplace harassment, low pay, a disconnect between consumers, food producers, and the land.

The concept quickly picked up in momentum and by 2018, the pair opened Folk, a beautifully designed day-time bistro. A partnership with restaurateur Ping Ho (of the Royce wine bar, Marrow restaurant and butcher shop, and Mink) followed, along with accolades from the NY Times, celebrating Louya as one of the most important Black chefs in the country. But with time, the Farmer’s Hand folded (there was talk at one point of expanding it), the partnership between Foulkes and Louya dissolved, and during the pandemic, Folk went from buzzy brunch spot helmed almost exclusively by women to more of a grab-and-go cafe with outdoor seating, and a curated inventory of mostly higher end groceries items.

Foulkes didn’t get into too many details about what went down through these various iterations of the business but she did say that she’s using this relative calm during the pandemic to revisit the principles that led to the opening of the Farmer’s Hand and eventually Folk and what her role is as an asset to the community, not an extractive entity.

“I think this past year, I’ve really kind of been able to step back a bit and take a look around and, and look inward at Folk and who we are and what we do, and think a bit more about how we can bring back some of those programs and offer a product to the community,” she says.

If you or anyone you know is in need of a boost in the pantry, swing by Folk, 1701 Trumbull, and let the staff know of the situation. If you would like to donate to the cause, click here for more details.

Serena Maria Daniels

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!

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