In Detroit, a Bet That Healthy Restaurants Can Help the City

DETROIT — April Anderson built Good Cakes and Bakes, her bakery on this city’s west side, by attracting customers to linger over cupcakes and cookies inside a 70-seat storefront on Livernois Avenue.

“It worked for us,” she said, “until we had to close the doors on March 17, 2020.”

But when it came to facing the difficult new reality the pandemic imposed on restaurants, Ms. Anderson held an edge: the experience with hardship that she and other Detroiters share.

Ms. Anderson, 49, belongs to a generation of business owners bringing vitality back to neighborhoods after decades of economic decline. Many have received help from a network of philanthropists, activists and civil servants united in their belief that locally owned restaurants and food businesses are critical to reviving Detroit’s economy and that Black, immigrant and women entrepreneurs are a valuable resource historically neglected by investors.

Those efforts, which began more than a decade ago, have helped diversify dining options and create jobs and wealth. The pandemic has both stress-tested and reinforced these accomplishments.

Good Cakes has helped turn the Avenue of Fashion back into a thriving commercial corridor.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Today, Ms. Anderson is looking ahead to the fall opening of a second kitchen near Good Cakes to fulfill online orders that have snowballed since the Covid shutdowns.

“We’ve got three freezers now, but we don’t have any more space,” she said. “I’ve got people ordering cakes on Goldbelly from Idaho and South Dakota.”

The city’s economic troubles — its current population of roughly 640,000 is less than a third of what it was in 1950 — are extreme and persistent. In a January survey by the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, more than three-quarters of the state’s restaurant operators said their businesses were less profitable than before the pandemic, and that conditions were worse than three months ago.

But as cooperation among the public, private and nonprofit sectors becomes more common across the country as the restaurant industry struggles to recover from the pandemic, Detroit provides an example of the results that communities can expect where entrepreneurship and activism converge.

To keep Good Cakes alive during the pandemic, Ms. Anderson, along with her wife and business partner, Michelle Anderson, turned to the network of public and private agencies that provide support, including grant money, to small businesses in Detroit. This coalition of local charities, government programs and community-development institutions was forged in the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, which hit Detroit’s auto industry hard, and in the financial struggles that led the city to file for bankruptcy protection in 2013.

Ms. Anderson said she raised $290,000 in 2020 from a variety of local groups, as well as from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. “They made sure we got grant money, so that when this is all over, we’ll still be here,” she said.

Keri Youngs wrapping chocolate chip cookies in the Good Cakes and Bakes kitchen.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times
Some favorites in the display case at Good Cakes and Bakes.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

That infusion financed an expansion of the bakery’s kitchen, enabling it to grow its takeout menu and meet rising demand for mail-order cakes. As a result, Ms. Anderson said the business generated $730,000 in revenues in 2020, a better than 50 percent increase from the year before. Last year’s take was $1.3 million.

Many of the sources that helped Ms. Anderson reinvent her business come from the same network of organizations that assisted her when Good Cakes first opened, in 2013.

That’s the year Devita Davison returned to her native Detroit, after her home on Long Island was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Through FoodLab Detroit, the nonprofit group that Ms. Davison created to provide business, legal and technical assistance to minority-owned start-ups, she has become a leading voice for building a more inclusive local food economy to address persistent racial inequities.

Ms. Davison gave Ms. Anderson early support for her bakery, arranging the use of a church’s commercial kitchen. She regards Ms. Anderson, who has an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan, as an example of the Black talent that had been ignored by lenders and developers in a city where 78 percent of the population is Black or African American, according to data from the 2020 census.

Devita Davison moved back to her native Detroit after losing her house on Long Island to Hurricane Sandy. She started FoodLab Detroit to address inequities in a city “hollowed out as a result of poverty and white flight.”Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

She credits Ms. Anderson for helping to catalyze an economic revival on Livernois Avenue, the spine of a historically Black neighborhood that is also known as the Avenue of Fashion.

“Detroit was hollowed out as a result of poverty and white flight,” said Ms. Davison, 52.

But the city’s decline offered an opportunity, just as Covid has elsewhere, to “disrupt the flow of capital so it doesn’t only go to people who look like cisgender white men,” she said. “We can determine who is going to be located in the storefronts of our Black and brown neighborhoods.”

A short history of influential restaurants to open in the last 20 years would include many associated with the revival of a neighborhood — places like Slows Bar BQ in Corktown, Supino Pizzeria in Eastern Market, and Selden Standard and Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Midtown.

All of those neighborhoods fall within the 7.2 square miles of Greater Downtown Detroit, and all are owned by white men. The emergence of similarly influential Black- or women-owned businesses outside downtown, like Sister Pie, a bakery in West Village, and Good Cakes and Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles on Livernois, followed recognition that the money that flowed into Detroit in the 2000s and early 2010s did not benefit the marginalized communities outside downtown.

“The Whitewashing of Detroit’s Culinary Scene,” a 2017 article for Bloomberg CityLab by Tunde Wey, a writer, artist and chef, captured the anger over the Black population’s exclusion from the city’s economic revival.

Lashawna Manigault is one of the people trying to correct that. Ms. Manigault joined the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a city agency, in January 2020, to provide assistance to small businesses in a mainly Black section of Detroit that includes Livernois Avenue.

Livernois Avenue, also known as Avenue of Fashion, is the spine of a historically Black neighborhood in Detroit.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

“We understand that African Americans typically live in marginalized communities, and that because of this, disparities continue,” said Ms. Manigault, 48, who is now the director of small-business attraction and retention at the Growth Corporation. “Our intention is to rebuild those neighborhoods by rebuilding our commercial corridors.”

Paul Jones is a director of Invest Detroit, a nonprofit that supports community building projects like Ms. Manigault’s and is fully financed by the New Economy Initiative, a philanthropy focused on small-business development in southeastern Michigan. Last spring, the organization created a $20 million fund to bolster that effort, amid concerns that the pandemic threatened gains that small businesses had made, particularly in neighborhoods where home foreclosures had already eliminated an opportunity for many families to pass along generational wealth.

“The goal is that through these funds, we help 12,000 businesses, half of which are owned by people of color,” said Mr. Jones, 45. The pandemic galvanized community support agencies “to make sure we were working together as an ecosystem, to make sure our restaurants and our employment providers didn’t go away,” he said.

The local drive to stimulate more business success in Detroit’s immigrant communities helped Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere open Baobab Fare last year. The restaurant, which specializes in the food of the married couple’s native Burundi, is in the New Center neighborhood, on the same block as the West African-Caribbean restaurant YumVillage.

Baobab Fare and YumVillage — along with enterprises like Warda Patisserie, a bakery in Eastern Market that received early help from FoodLab, and Folk Detroit, a food market and cafe in Corktown — are among a number of new Black-, immigrant- or women-owned businesses that are now thriving downtown.

Baobab Fare, a Burundian restaurant in the downtown area, has been a hit with diners and critics.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times
The restaurant’s owners, Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere, came to Detroit from Burundi, attracted in part by the services the city offers refugees.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Like Ms. Anderson at Good Cakes, Mr. Mamba, 41, used local community development grants to raise the money for his stylish restaurant. Because immigrant restaurants are often undercapitalized, Mr. Mamba said several contractors turned down his project for fear he wouldn’t pay them.

But Baobab has been a hit with customers and critics. “Last year was an amazing year,” he said. “My sister saw how people were embracing us, even not knowing who we are. She told me, ‘Mamba, don’t leave Detroit.’”

It is unclear exactly how many businesses have benefited from local grant money. But there is fear that entrepreneurs who have, like Mr. Mamba, could become victims of their own success, by attracting well-heeled customers who move into the area and ultimately price them out of their neighborhoods.

Rising real estate prices remain a concern. In a scathing 2018 review, Mark Kurlyandchik, then the restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press, wrote that his dinner at a restaurant in a luxury apartment building felt like “a longtime Detroiter’s gentrification nightmare playing out in real time.”

“It seemed like the future of the Detroit dining scene was going to become very vanilla if someone didn’t say, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t cheerlead every business that opens,’ ” recalled Mr. Kurlyandchik, who is now a director of Frame, a business that provides pop-up space and support for chefs and food professionals to test ideas. “There’s a real conversation to be had about extractive economic practices.”

Staff members of Freya, a new tasting-menu restaurant. From left, Thor Jones, general manager; Ben Robinson, pastry chef; Doug Hewitt, co-owner; Phoebe Zimmerman, chef de cuisine; Sandy Levine, co-owner; and Catherine Kurth, beverage director and sommelier. Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Locals point to the articles by Mr. Kurlyandchik and Mr. Wey as examples of Detroiters’ hard-won awareness that not all development is for the better. The impulse to be driven by more than profit informs the ambitions of already successful restaurateurs like Sandy Levine, an owner, with Doug Hewitt, of Chartreuse and of Freya, which opened last fall.

In January, Mr. Levine and Ms. Davison, of FoodLab Detroit, traded stories about the city’s urban gardens, square-cut pizza and exemplary Middle Eastern cuisine over a multicourse meal prepared by Phoebe Zimmerman, Freya’s chef de cuisine. In 2020, Mr. Levine was in a class of FoodLab fellows charged with supporting one another to, in Ms. Davison’s words, transform “the restaurant industry into a more sustainable and equitable industry.”

Thor Jones, Freya’s general manager, is trying to advance that cause with Full Hands In, Full Hands Out, a program he is starting this month to train young people of color for hospitality jobs.

“Detroit is at this point where it can have Black excellence in hospitality, or it can go in the other direction, where the people in restaurants don’t look like the people living in the city,” said Mr. Jones, 34. “The goal is to create more Black hospitality participation, which I think will lead to more Black ownership.”

Detroit’s activist food community stretches well beyond restaurants, and as Harriette Brown knows, the strategies designed to combat inequality within it are often imperfect.

A chef, minister and mother of 10 children, Ms. Brown, 59, grew up in Black Bottom, a haven of Black-owned businesses and culture then threatened by urban renewal projects. It’s where she said she learned “how to provide care behind a fork.”

Harriette Brown, known professionally as Chef Bee, preparing a vegan food pop-up in February.Credit…Elaine Cromie for The New York Times

Known professionally as Chef Bee, Ms. Brown started Sisters on a Roll to bring free food to disadvantaged Detroiters. Last May, she was informed by email that she would receive grant money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion federal program that provided Covid relief for small restaurants and bars.

She was later told that the approval had been rescinded, after white business owners successfully sued to challenge the fund’s policy of prioritizing grants for racial minorities and women. “The problem is, I’d already spent the money on a truck for my business,” Ms. Brown said.

She was sitting outside the basement kitchen of St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven, a Roman Catholic church in West Detroit where she’d prepared a free lunch of roasted ham, sweet potatoes and vegan pesto pasta for employees and neighbors.

Ms. Brown is still trying to raise the money to pay the debt on her truck, but remains undeterred.

“I’m going to feed the people, no matter how,” she said. “It’s not charity. It’s solidarity.”

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