IN MEXICANTOWN, on the Southwest side of Detroit, Chloe Sabatier makes French lava cakes. Sabatier sources as many of her ingredients as locally as possible, including raspberries, strawberries, and spices. She sells at farmers’ markets, cafes, restaurants, and specialty stores across the Detroit Metro area and her commercial kitchen is located in a banquet hall owned by Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral. How is it that French delicacies are being made in a church started by Polish immigrants in a Mexican neighborhood? The answer is an innovative program called Detroit Kitchen Connect(DKC).
By making abandoned or underutilized commercial kitchens available to local food entrepreneurs, DKC helps residents start food businesses with a minimal investment. “It’s an asset-based approach to solving problems and finding the solutions in neighborhoods,” says Devita Davison, Community Kitchen Coordinator at Eastern Market Corporation. In July of 2013, Eastern Market—one of the oldest farmers’ market organizations in the country—joined with FoodLab Detroit—a network of food entrepreneurs dedicated to growing Detroit’s local food movement—to create DKC.
Detroit’s population shrank dramatically over the last few decades, dropping from 1.5 million in 1970 to 700,000 in 2012. While people may have left, however, many office buildings, churches, and community centers remain. Many of them have commercial kitchens that are used sparingly or not at all. Instead of seeing these buildings as liabilities and signs of decay, Davison sees them as assets in a city where many people are struggling to make ends meet.
Like kitchen incubators such as San Francisco’s La Cocina and Hot Bread Kitchen in Harlem, DKC charges a low hourly rate, which gives local entrepreneurs access to facilities that would normally be out of reach both geographically and financially. But its Detroit location sets DKC apart from other incubators around the nation, because the project also has the potential to bring forgotten neighborhoods back to life.
Take the Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church. With its congregation shrinking and participation dwindling, the leaders were at a loss at how to connect with the community.
Before DKC got involved, the church had started a community garden and opened their banquet hall to rent for neighborhood celebrations, but the kitchen was only used on Sundays for a homeless outreach program. Now, the kitchen is a hub of activity that’s in use almost every day. Crème Detropolis makes gourmet sweet potato pies; Five Star Cakes makes traditional layered cakes.
With grant money from the United Way, DKC was able to give the church $5,000 for a new security system, a new door, security cameras, and outdoor lighting. “When we first started the program, this church was suffering,” Davison recalls. “Because the church didn’t have a good door, it was broken into several times.” Since the DKC upgrades, however, the break-ins have stopped.
And DKC provides services beyond the shared kitchen. DKC food artisans become part of the Eastern Market and FoodLab Detroit community of businesses. With these connections DKC tenants learn where to find local ingredients, where to sell their products, and how to navigate the city bureaucracy. Within this community, established business owners share their successes and failures with DKC’s fledgling food entrepreneurs.
As part of DKC, Detroit entrepreneurs also get help with the licensing process—another barrier to starting a food business. There are two types of licenses in the state of Michigan. The first license is for packaged food and is pretty affordable at $70 to $175. But the second type of license is for an entrepreneur who serves food such as caterers, restaurateurs, and food trucks. That license comes from the city of Detroit and costs $1,500, which is around three to four times more than any other city or county in the state.
“In a city that needs to promote entrepreneurism, in a city that is talking about using food as a conduit to grow the local economy, these barriers of entry are stifling growth,” Davison says. Her next task is to work with the city of Detroit to make the catering license accessible to more entrepreneurs.
Currently, 10 licensed entrepreneurs work in DKC’s two kitchens. April M. Anderson used to bake out of her home (under the Michigan cottage food law) but she had to turn down larger orders because her home kitchen was too small. Through DKC, she was able to rent space in a commercial kitchen and within a few months opened Good Cakes and Bakes in a retail space in Detroit. Anderson bakes at the DKC kitchen from 3 to 6:30 am and then heads to her shop at 7:00 am.
“I don’t know if April would have been able to open her bakery if she’d had to purchase hundreds and thousands of dollars of equipment,” says Davison. “She understands full well that this is what she has to do to buy her own kitchen. Until then we are her bakehouse.”
Unlike kitchen incubators in cities that receive generous public funding, Davison says, “What we’ve done here is scrappy. We haven’t gotten a dime from the city.” Private funders, including the United Way of Southeast Michigan and the McGregor Foundation, have footed the bill since the program began.
With nearly a year under their belt and some visible success stories, DKC hopes to expand and open more kitchens. The goals, says Davison, go far beyond food. “We are building a more inclusive food economy in Detroit,” she says. “We are challenging the social, political, and economic structures that reinforce inequities.”