In Detroit, LSA Is on the Map
July 14, 2014 | by Rachel Reed, Elizabeth Wason, and Lara Zielin
One at a time, grassroots and entrepreneurial projects are transforming the Motor City, and LSA alumni are a part of it. We've updated our map to include even more alumni who are building the culture, commerce, and cuisine in Detroit. Learn about these LSA innovators by clicking the image above to launch our interactive map.
Jackie Victor (A.B. ’88) and partner Ann Perrault founded Avalon International Breads in 1997 in the Cass Corridor, back before the neighborhood became known as "Midtown." The two saw a need for small businesses in the city, so they brought their organic baked goods to a storefront on Willis Street. Every day, they serve more than 1,000 customers who come for treats like brioche with chocolate ganache or authentic French-style baguettes, and their products are available in more than 40 restaurants across southeast Michigan.
Thanks to plentiful, fertile open land and copious rainfall, Detroit has quickly become an urban farming oasis. One burgeoning new farm, Food Field, located on the former site of both a convent and an elementary school, was founded by Noah Link (A.B. ’07) and Alex Bryan (A.B. ’07). Food Field hopes to help meet the need for local, affordable, organic food in a city that still lacks adequate access to fresh groceries.
Every Ann Arborite knows Jolly Pumpkin, the microbrewery dreamed up by Ron Jeffries (A.B. ’89) and renowned for its classic sour beers. Now, the ahead-of-trend brewpub has added Detroit to its list of hotspots, settling in the heart of Midtown across the street from City Bird, which was also founded by LSA alums! (See below.) Featuring outdoor seating and Jolly Pumpkin’s signature beers, the pizzeria and brewery is already a neighborhood favorite.
It's no secret that Detroit has a lot of vacant land and unoccupied buildings; after all, its population today is less than half of what it was in 1950. Figuring out what to do with those properties (and how to best serve neighborhoods) is the job of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Executive Director Kevin Simowski (A.B. ’79) leads a team that auctions homes, sells vacant land, and demolishes blighted properties in order to support Detroit’s renaissance.
Semester in Detroit students live, learn, and work in the city, engaging with local community organizations and leaders to make a difference—and become invested themselves. Although the program is administered by the Residential College, it is open to students from across the University. Students not only spend their semester living in the city, but also interning with a community partner. The program also co-sponsors a “Detroiters Speak” series of public talks each term, highlighting the history and culture of the city.
Racquet Up Detroit was established in spring 2010 in order to empower Detroit youth through a mentoring program that combines academics and community service with the sport of squash. Executive director Derek Aguirre (A.B. ’02) and academic and community engagement coordinator Rashard Haynesworth (A.B. ’02 Kinesiology) team with several other staff members who are LSA graduates.
The Detroit River, while beautiful, isn’t exactly a sea. But that isn’t going to stop Detroit Seafood Partners from their goal to bring Michigan-raised seafood products to the market. The seafood distributor, started by Michael Noeske (A.B. ’14) and Daniel Bloch (A.B. ’15), began as a fish farm and fish processing facility, with plans to reinvest a portion of its earnings to develop more sustainably grown and organic seafood in the community. They have already partnered with local organizations to employ veterans and to reduce food waste, adding a social justice component to their mission.
If you want to find innovation in Detroit, follow your taste buds. They’ll lead you to a burgeoning food scene with no fewer than 10 soon-to-open restaurants slated to alter the scope of eating in the Motor City. But none of them fill the particular niche that alumnus Evan Hansen (’01) has in mind with his new restaurant, Selden Standard.
“Detroit doesn't have many mid-to-upper-level restaurants that are casual,” says Hansen. “There are great places, mostly inexpensive or fine dining. But in a city where young professionals are one of the fastest growing groups, it can't all be ethnic fare and white linens. We want it to be affordable, upbeat, and fun when you walk into Selden Standard, and every table should feel like its own party.”
To achieve the fun, communal vibe when the restaurant opens in Midtown this coming fall, Selden Standard will offer small, sharable plates that feature seasonal, local fare prepared by former Roast chef Andy Hollyday. The restaurant will also have a tasty but affordable wine list. It’s no wonder Eater National put Selden Standard on the list of “50 most anticipated restaurants nationwide.”
Even with so many new restaurants coming to Detroit, Hansen says it’s been more of a collaboration than a competition. “The city in general—everyone is very supportive and into helping each other. Everyone wants to see everyone else’s businesses do well.”
It’s been three years since Michelle Wilson Brown (’96) and Yolanda Baston (U-M ’95) opened Taste Love Cupcakes, a specialty bakery on bustling Main Street in Royal Oak, Michigan, and business is booming. The cupcakes, which are made from premium ingredients that are organic and locally sourced whenever possible, are hot sellers in-store, as well as in Detroit’s Whole Foods, which carries Taste Love’s half-pints and mini cupcakes.
The idea of opening a bakery in the midst of a recession may have scared off others, but Michigan natives Brown and Baston were confident in their business model. “We thought that Michigan deserved a really awesome gourmet cupcake experience,” says Brown. “We have that pride being from Michigan, and we want to be part of helping the economy grow, and to help the metro area grow.”
Sweet potato, chocolate chip cookie dough, and dark chocolate salted caramel are three of their most popular flavors on a growing list as the founders experiment with recipes and ingredients. Looking ahead, Brown says their goal is to get into more Whole Foods stores, and then ideally open up shop in Detroit and, eventually, Ann Arbor.
“It’s still a good time to have your own business in Michigan, especially in Detroit,” Brown says. “Things are really growing and budding there.”
Red House Imports
In the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit is a coffee company that cares about where its beans come from.
Like, really cares.
Red House Imports sources coffee from a small organic co-op of 24 families in Costa Rica. The co-op harvests shade-grown coffee, dries the beans with solar power, and composts the coffee berries for fertilizer. The co-op also roasts its coffee before sending it to Red House Imports—an unusual practice that allows the farmers to control their product and set a higher price than they would by selling unroasted beans. Founders Travis Heeren (’11), Jamie Olson (’11), and Justin Sterk (’12), all Program in the Environment alumni, say the additional costs are part of Red House Imports’ sustainable model.
“We can pay [the co-op] three to four times what they could command for unroasted beans, and that money can stay in their community,” says Heeren. What’s more, the co-op’s environmentally conscious growing practices not only keep the co-op healthy but also minimize its carbon footprint and benefit downstream farms by keeping the soil and water clean.
That’s all well and good for Costa Rica, but Red House Imports' business model has a local impact, too: In Detroit, the company will devote a portion of its profits to local charities and education programs.
Red House Imports sells coffee on its web site and plans to sell its coffee in food co-ops, cafes, and restaurants in Detroit and elsewhere later this summer. “There’s a thirst for wanting to consume intelligently and with a social conscience,” says Olson.
From Tuesday through Friday during the summer, more than 300 kids all over Detroit conduct science experiments, plant gardens, learn about art, or take field trips to the Henry Ford Museum or the DIA. And it’s all free, thanks to Summer in the City, a volunteer program that seeks to “improve and expand community service” and “address the immediate needs of city neighborhoods” in metro Detroit.
“Having exciting childcare options in the summer is helpful to a lot of families,” says Grace Judge, an LSA junior who is the director for Summer in the City’s youth enrichment program, also called Project Play. “We try to use this time as an opportunity to do fun activities that expose them to new opportunities and use the skills they learned in school.”
Hundreds of volunteers, mostly high-school and college students or recent graduates, engage in Summer in the City’s hands-on volunteer work with Detroit kids. In addition to Project Play, this includes an urban gardening program, Project Plant, and creating murals around the city through Project Paint. Since Summer in the City began in 2002, more than 5,500 volunteers have performed 175,000 hours of high-impact community service.
The work has had a lasting impact on the city itself.
“Quite a few people didn’t consider Detroit the kind of place they wanted to end up,” says Judge, “but then they did the program and changed their mind. After Summer in the City, they realized they love Detroit, and they want to make an effort to work for the city.”
In 2005, brother-sister duo Andy (’06) and Emily (’01) Linn were looking for a way to use their artistic talents to express pride in their hometown of Detroit, while also contributing to the community.
What began as a line of handmade city-themed products in their parents’ basement blossomed into two booming retail stores in the heart of midtown Detroit. City Bird, their flagship, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and carries an extensive and well-cultivated collection of handmade goods from their own line, along with artisans spanning the Midwest. Companion shop Nest, located two doors down, showcases beautiful housewares appropriate for chic city dwellers (and the less chic rest of us).
“Detroit is an especially magical place in that it's big enough to make a difference in the world, but small enough that regular people can make that difference,” says Andy Linn.
So, what’s next for these dynamic siblings? After the recent purchase of the City Bird retail space, they are now planning to reinvent it, adding plenty of room for new products and giving it a fresh new look.
Noam Kimelman (’06, M.P.H. ’12) was investigating food access in Detroit as a student in U-M's School of Public Health management and policy program when he realized that, although there were more than a thousand corner stores in the city, there were a startlingly low number of quality groceries.
“I thought if we could figure out how to transform the corner store from unhealthy food retailer to healthy food retailer, we could have a dramatic multiplier effect on the health of the community,” says Kimelman.
From this, the seeds of Fresh Corner Café L3C were sown. A fresh food delivery and catering service, the business covers an expansive area of the city. In addition to traditional catering, it offers innovative services to local businesses, such as providing a refrigerator it keeps regularly stocked with delicious and healthy pre-made meals for employees to purchase through an app on their smartphones. It also works to connect other neighborhood businesses, such as the Peaches and Greens Produce Market, to healthy food suppliers.
Kimelman hopes that as Fresh Corner Café continues to expand, he can increase access to affordable, nutritious food for all Detroiters.
For nearly 125 years, a Detroiter in want of a bouquet of fragrant, fresh-picked flowers, plump red tomatoes, or even a fine cut of rib-eye steak could wander to Eastern Market on Saturdays, strolling through sheds with thousands of other bargain hunters. Now, thanks to Fiona Ruddy (’10), they can do it on Tuesdays and Sundays, too.
Ruddy, Eastern Market’s director of food access programs, was the driving force behind Eastern Market Tuesdays, which launched in 2011. The Tuesday markets are held from June through October and feature many new fruit, vegetable, and flower vendors. In addition, Eastern Market recently launched the Sunday Street Market, which showcases locally made jewelry, home goods, and art alongside other Michigan-made products.
Ruddy says her interests ultimately lie in uniting the community and increasing local access to healthy food. “These markets are great because they’re community meeting spaces where people can meet and convene…and hopefully buy some kale,” she laughs.
Nestled behind a tiny verdant park in an unassuming red-brick building—a space that feels simultaneously modern and welcoming—sits the first non-chain bagel joint in Detroit in years, the Detroit Institute of Bagels. Who’s behind it? Two LSA graduates: brothers Ben (’06, M.U.P. ’10) and Dan (’10, B.B.A. ’10) Newman.
“We started thinking about what kind of [business] would attract both residents and visitors, and we realized that bagels were a glaring thing that was missing in Detroit,” says Ben.
Pairing a desire to bring life to a vacant building and a dream to bring “fine bagels to the masses,” the brothers Newman began in 2011 by launching a successful, crowd-sourced campaign to buy a commercial oven, and then baked their way to buying their store in 2013. They cook their bagels the old-fashioned way, by first boiling, then baking them. And among the more traditional fare, you’ll also find delightful new options like bacon cheddar bagels with Sriracha lentil spread.
Ultimately, the brothers and their bagel business aim to “make Detroit a better place to live,” says Dan.
In 2006, Riet Schumack and Sheila Hoerauf, residents of the Brightmoor neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side, joined forces to create the Brightmoor Youth Garden, a green space that encourages local kids to get involved with growing their own food, and that fosters important relationships. When others saw the positive impact the garden had, their efforts expanded into a community group called Neighbors Building Brightmoor.
Almost from the beginning, U-M student volunteers from the Michigan Community Scholars Program (MCSP) have been lending a hand. MCSP, a Michigan Learning Community, connects students with a wide variety of academic interests and a commitment to community service to projects and courses that develop their leadership skills and encourage civil engagement.
Through the years, student groups, seminar participants, and undergraduates have collaborated with Neighbors Building Brightmoor to work on the youth garden and learn about the people and history of the neighborhood. One MCSP course, Christine Modey’s English seminar called “Food, Justice, and Community,” collaborated with Brightmoor residents in 2011 to create a collection of neighborhood recipes and stories, which chronicled the area’s renaissance.
“There’s nothing like a hands-on experience to meet people, form relationships, and see things [students] may have read about,” says Wendy Woods, associate director of MCSP. “It enables them to form their own ideas about the city and other urban issues.”
MCSP will host a day of service in Brightmoor on September 6, 2014, to ring in the academic year by helping with community projects and touring the new “Brightmoor Farmway.”
This article is part of a larger series about the impact of LSA students, faculty, and alumni in Detroit. Read more stories in the series:
- Detroit's Bankruptcy: A Beacon of Hope? by Stephen Henderson
- A Victor for People with Disabilities by Dan Shine
- Words Are Power by francine j. harris
- Detroit from the Ground Up by Susan Hutton
Avalon International Breads photo courtesy of Avalon Breads.
Food Field photo courtesy of Food Field.
Jolly Pumpkin photo courtesy of Jolly Pumpkin.
Detroit Land Bank Authority photo courtesy of Kevin Robishaw/Detroit Land Bank Authority.
Semester in Detroit photo courtesy of Semester in Detroit.
Racquet Up Detroit photo courtesy of Racquet Up Detroit.
Detroit Seafood Partners photo courtesy of Detroit Seafood Partners.
Selden Standard photo credit Evan Hansen.
Taste Love Cupcakes photo courtesy of Taste Love Cupcakes.
Red House Imports photo courtesy of Red House Imports.
Summer in the City photo courtesy of Summer in the City.
City Bird photo credit Rob Hess.
Fresh Corner Café photo courtesy of Fresh Corner Café.
Eastern Market photo credit Evan Hansen.
Detroit Institute of Bagels photo credit Evan Hansen.
Brightmoor Youth Garden photo courtesy of Michigan Community Scholars Program.