Food startups bring new life to Detroit’s century-old Eastern Market

21 October 2016 – Eater

Forr most of his life, Patrick Schwager was, by his own admission, “a pizza guy.” He’d grown up in a middle-class suburb of Detroit called Garden City (home to America’s first Kmart and Little Caesar’s) raised by a Mexican-American mother (his grandmother had come to Detroit in the 1920s) and a father whom he describes affectionately as “a white guy.”

Like most people in suburban Detroit, Schwager spent very little time in the city growing up. Now he spends his Saturday mornings in the recently opened commercial kitchen at Detroit’s 125-year-old Eastern Market, tinkering with recipes for salsa and guacamole that he sells under the label Aunt Nee’s. It’s one of the 20+ small businesses participating in the Market’s non-profit incubator program, Detroit Kitchen Connect.

Situated at the intersection of the start-up and food worlds, the twin obsessions that dominate the post-recession cultural economy, kitchen incubators provide commercial kitchen rentals for food entrepreneurs. A recent study by the American Communities Trust found more than 200 kitchen incubator programs nationwide, 60 percent of which have opened since 2010. Two-thirds of those incubators serve urban areas and roughly a third of them operate, like Kitchen Connect, as non-profits.

Founded in 2012 by the Eastern Market Corporation, a private company formed in 2006 to help the city government manage the Eastern Market food district, Kitchen Connect has, like kitchen incubators elsewhere, played a major role in Detroit’s flourishing artisanal food industry. That industry is itself a direct product of the city’s last financial bust, the silver lining to the heavy economic clouds only just beginning to part over one of America’s most famously depressed metro areas.

Aunt Nee’s, for instance, might never have thrived in a sunnier economic climate. Back in 2006, Schwager was 19 when his parents began experimenting, in their home kitchen, with making dried spice packets for salsa. Both employed in solid jobs, they started selling their product as a hobby at small farmer’s markets and fairs on weekends. In autumn 2008, when Schwager was a junior in college, both parents were laid off. “If you’ve ever lived on unemployment, [you know] it’s really not a lot. We didn’t have much choice, so we just started selling anywhere we could,” Schwager remembers. “That was before ‘buy local’ started to flourish in the Midwest, so people were excited to see a small business like ours.”

Schwager’s partner, Carlos Parisi, joined the company right at the start. Born in Mexico City and raised in Dearborn, Michigan, just west of Detroit proper, Parisi, also 19 at the time, had just returned to Michigan after a year in Vegas selling security systems door-to-door. He and Schwager became friends at a school event and Schwager, knowing the company needed someone more adept at sales, asked Parisi to help out. “When he joined, anything we earned went to paying for groceries and the house,” Schwager says. Gregarious and charming, Parisi was happy to get back to sales and satisfied with payment in free pies given out by fellow vendors.

In 2009, Aunt Nee’s moved production to a commercial kitchen at a nearby VFW post and became one of the first vendors at Eastern Market to sell prepared foods. “When we started, it was just us at one end and McClure’s Pickles at the other end, with a dude selling trees and a dude selling hogs in between,” Parisi says. The Market had only just begun to emerge from decades of decline.

From the late 19th century through Detroit’s mid-century boom years, the sheds and warehouses at Eastern Market were an important distribution point for local butchers and farmers from Michigan’s thumb, as well as an informal incubator where new arrivals to the city would open their businesses. In the second half of the 20th century, the city depopulated, many farms shut down (it was more profitable to sell the land than to cultivate it), butchers moved to the suburbs, and the vendors that remained starting complaining about mismanagement, claiming that public administrators showed preferential treatment to some in the form of discounted vending fees.

Aref Saad, who went against the prevailing trends and moved his halal butcher shop from Dearborn to Eastern Market in the 1970s, remembers friends and acquaintances telling him he was crazy. The market was less than secure in those days (Aref says he came to work one morning in the early days to find robbers in the store in broad daylight; his wife, Aida, added that he had to call the police several times before they finally turned up to help).

Today, as many as 80,000 people might come to Eastern Market on a given summer Saturday to buy goods from 200 vendors, among them large farmers, urban gardeners, and 40 or so prepared-food vendors.

The boom in artisanal food products came about thanks to the combined effects of recession andthe passage of Michigan’s Cottage Food Law in July 2010. That law allowed producers of non-potentially-hazardous prepared foods earning under $20,000 in annual revenue to sell their products directly to consumers for the first time. People like the Schwagers who’d fallen on hard times could monetize their hobbies, while others could formalize home businesses they’d been running for pleasure on the side. “Seventy-five percent of our people have degrees,” says Anika Grose, coordinator of Detroit Kitchen Connect. “These are the folks who lost their jobs or took the buyout and saw an opportunity to build on their passions.”

Starlett Simmons started her baked goods company, Five Star Cakes, in 2009 while still working as a property management supervisor at Wayne State University, a well-paying job that she loathed. Like most people who came of age in pre-recession America, Simmons says, “My whole thing was go to school, get a good job, work the job. I wasn’t thinking about being an entrepreneur. It really didn’t start until I absolutely hated going to my job every day.” Cottage Law made it legal for Simmons to continue selling her baked goods within the office, and by 2012 she’d developed a strong enough following to leave stable employment and pursue her business.

At that point, the Eastern Market Corporation had already developed the plans for a community kitchen as part of a new market shed, but funds had run out early. The Kitchen Connect team, led by Grose, reached out to the community and found a pre-licensed commercial kitchen ready for use at the Saints Peter & Paul Jesuit Church, nearby in downtown Detroit. The Kitchen Connect team helped Simmons navigate the licensing process, which, she says, “would have been a nightmare” without assistance, and set her up in the church kitchen as the second business in the program. Simmons started with 12 regular customers. Today, she says she has at least 100.

Earlier this summer, after making an appearance on her father’s local talk show, Simmons received a direct call from Aretha Franklin, asking to taste her peach cobbler cake. By the next day, Franklin had commissioned Simmons to provide the baked goods for the annual revival at her late father’s church. Within the next two months, Simmons will graduate from the Kitchen Connect program and open her own retail space, joining six other businesses that have already scaled out of the program. As Grose puts it, “we want them to be wildly successful and then we want them to leave.”

Though Kitchen Connect helped people like the Schwagers stay afloat in the recession, it still (like many incubators) largely serves middle-income entrepreneurs — people who can afford the required $1,000 in seed money, which principally goes toward licensing. Racially, Grose says, the Kitchen’s population reflects the demography of the city at large, with a preponderance of businesses run by women and people of color, particularly African Americans, most of them from middle-class backgrounds. Lower-income immigrant entrepreneurs, Grose points out, tend to start businesses in their own communities with support from the local organizations that serve them, organizations that have no equivalent in the city’s larger and more dispersed African-American communities.

If achieving inclusivity is one of Kitchen Connect’s greatest hurdles moving forward, then for Eastern Market (and the Detroit area at large) the problem will be maintaining it. As the Market becomes an increasingly popular destination for culinary tourists, the question becomes, as Grose puts it, “how to maintain the authenticity of a farmer’s market.” For now, the cost of produce remains comparable to grocery stores and the Market continues to serve Detroiters as well as visiting suburbanites (though the lack of public transportation still poses a problem for low-income shoppers). But in order to remain a viable launching pad for young businesses, the Market needs to remain economically vibrant. “We don’t want people just coming with their cameras,” Grose says, “we want them coming with their wallets.”

Elsewhere in the region, cities like Cincinnati and Flint have developed kitchen incubators as part of their own rejuvenated farmer’s markets. Sean Gartland runs Flint Food Works out of the Flint Farmers’ Market, which recently moved downtown, directly across from the city’s primary bus depot. Since the move, the market has seen substantial gains in accessibility and usage, while a grant program administered through United Way has allowed Flint Food Works to reach out to lower income entrepreneurs. Just as Detroit’s incubator program responded to the city’s economic meltdown, Gartland says growing interest in fresh food in Flint has been a direct response to the city’s water crisis. “One of the best ways to combat lead exposure is through foods rich in calcium, vitamin C, and iron,” he says. “This is the one blessing that came out of that tragedy.”

Flint is still in the early stages of recovery, but Detroit and Eastern Market are already a powerful regional and national brand. “There’s cache to being a Detroit-made product. It’s a phoenix story,” Grose says. “A lot of businesses that start elsewhere want their stores to be here.” The result, particularly in the last 18 months, has been a dramatic rise in real estate prices surrounding Eastern Market, as former warehouses become lofts and once-empty retail spaces fill up. This poses a challenge for businesses looking to scale up without leaving the District, but for the time being at least, has not threatened the day-to-day functioning of the market itself.

Despite the success of Eastern Market and other central neighborhoods like Midtown and Corktown, Detroit’s population continues to shrink year on year — though recent reports show the trend is slowing. Yet businesses with a long history in the city (Little Caesar’s and Quicken Loans, especially) have started to reinvest in developments downtown, more glimmers of a future commensurate with the present hype. This kind of economic growth will inevitably introduce issues of gentrification that even a decade ago were relatively unheard of, but the city still offers abundant space and growth, at this point in time, is probably a good problem to have.

Schwager, for his part, seems surprised at his city’s transformation from what he describes as “a coney dogs and beer kind of town” to a culinary destination. To Parisi, it seems natural. Built on immigration, the Detroit area has always been home to food entrepreneurs, Greek, Polish, and Lebanese immigrants staking their futures on cooking. The famous Detroit Hustle never died. It’s just the return to the long abandoned downtown that’s new. “Someone was telling me recently that they considered Detroit the New Orleans of the north in terms of its contribution to pop culture. It’s got that feel,” Parisi says. “The community just won’t give up.”

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