Resilient Neighborhoods: East Side nonprofit builds on market with food truck events, summer fest

On a sunny Friday in June, Keith Kiama takes a walk down the street from a childcare facility he is assessing for work to a pair of food trucks parked next to a cluster of tents and picnic tables near the corner of East Warren Avenue and Grayton Street on Detroit's East Side. The trucks are there for a weekly event called Food Truck Fridays, and Kiama is eager to get a taste of what's happening.

"I'm hungry. It's lunchtime. I was walking by to get something to eat," he says. "The director of the childcare center recommended this spot because he heard it was good."

The truck Kiama stops at is called Cult of the Joe Burger, which is run by a local resident named Joe Susko, who's been a chef for more than 20 years.

"This is our first year in the business. We do—I don't want to say gourmet. We do really kick-ass burgers," says Susko. "We have a small menu so we can focus on everything at the highest quality."

Susko serves a mix of regular burgers, sliders, chicken sandwiches, and falafel burgers. He does his best to source his ingredients locally, from buns made in Hamtramck and Sterling Heights to meat from Fairway Packing Co. at Eastern Market. 

Food Truck Fridays takes place each Friday from noon to 8 pm at 16835 E. Warren in Detroit. It's sponsored by the E. Warren Development Corporation (EWDC), a local nonprofit that also hosts a weekly farmers market at the site. In addition to Cult of the Joe Burger, frequent Food Truck Fridays participants also include trucks like Tacos Hernandez; Longevity's Vegetarian Cuisine; Max Italian Beef; Nu Deli, which serves classic deli sandwiches with an Indian twist; Tacobachis, a mix of Mexican and East Asian offerings; and vendors like Stacey's 2DayTea and Eastside Roasterz, a coffee roasting company. 

Susko has attended either Food Truck Fridays or the Thursday market about six times now. As a new business owner, he has nothing but great things to say about the experience.

"I love it here. All the vendors are great. Everybody's super nice," says Susko. "Tacos Hernandez makes her own tortillas. Nu Deli is unbelievable. Every vendor I've met here is top-notch."

Alex Shammami, a local resident who works from home, regularly walks to the EWDC marketplace to pick up lunch on Food Truck Fridays. In fact, he says amenities like the farmers market and the communal vibe of the neighborhood persuaded his family to relocate there.

"We lived in Ferndale, and we liked that experience, but the market just wasn't there for [our] family looking to buy a home," he says. "And all of that connectivity and environment and neighborhood is already here. So when we were looking for a home, we were like we want to be on the East Side. We wanted to be here."

Cawana and Nina Bradford of Longevity Vegetarian cuisine hold up a sign advertising their business.Farmers and food trucks

EWDC launched its farmers market in August 2020. The weekly event takes place on Thursdays between 5 to 8 p.m. and runs from June to September. It features produce from area farmers like Sempa Farms, Great Scott Organics, and Zola Urban Farms, as well as products from local vendors like TBakesTreats and Preva Body, a beauty supply company.

Joe Rashid, the nonprofit's director, sees the market as playing a vital role in the revitalization of E. Warren Avenue between Mack Avenue and Alter Road.

"As a development corporation, we feel it's our responsibility to drive foot traffic along the corridor to help make sure that there's continued activation to spur other developments and build excitement to engage residents and to really be able to build a sustainable ecosystem for local business," he says.

The market was originally set up near the site of the Ribbon, a mixed-use development project at 16530 East Warren Avenue. A couple of months after it kicked off, however, EWDC bought a former Pizza Hut building a few blocks down the road that has housed the weekly event ever since. Food Truck Fridays started last October as a limited-time experiment and returned this April as a regular event. 

According to Rashid, the two events have generated about $50,000 in revenue this year alone, and most vendors live within a mile's distance from the market. What's more, 15 businesses that started at the market have set up or are in the process of establishing brick-and-mortar businesses in the neighborhood. 

This includes Eastside Roasters, a Detroit-based women-owned coffee roasting company, that regularly runs booths at the farmers market and food trucks events and will soon be sharing a space at 16555 E. Warren Ave. with Next Chapter Books, a soon-to-be-opened local bookshop (co-owned by Model D project editor and reporter Sarah Williams).

"It's been not only a fantastic pop-up experience, because the people are amazing and the location is fantastic. and the community is wonderful," says Rissa Desort, co-owner of Eastside Roasterz. "But it's also been an amazing connection and incubation space. EWDC are the ones that helped who linked us with Next Chapter Books, who are going to be our landlords at the space."

The new streetscaping on E. Warren Ave. is nearly complete.Streetscaping and celebration

While the market and food truck events have proved to be popular, business on E. Warren hasn't been without its challenges over the last year. The corridor began an extensive streetscaping project in June 2022 that is part of a larger city effort to reinvigorate Detroit business corridors.  

The $8.2 million dollar streetscape project is bringing new sidewalks and road pavement, bike lanes, crosswalks, pedestrian isles, on-street parking, enhanced transit stops, and other amenities to East Warren Avenue.

For many months, construction had made parking difficult and limited foot traffic, which impacted the bottom line for many local business owners. Thankfully, the streetscaping project is expected to be finished soon. Most of the work is done and workers are currently putting the final touches on a new $1.5 million parking plaza that will be located on Courville Street 

Cleo Bradley, Director of Operations for the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, who stopped by the farmers market site during a recent Food Truck Friday says the Warren Avenue streetscape is amazing.

"I've been in Detroit all my life, and to see this now is very amazing," he says. 

Matt Daniels, who co-owns and runs the Nu Deli food truck (as well as a seasonal restaurant in Goa, India), is also impressed with the impact the streetscaping has had on the neighborhood.

"What's going on around here, it's almost like what's going on along Livernois. They're really trying to make the neighborhood walkable, bikeable, visitable," he says. "When I heard from EWDC that [Food Truck Fridays] was happening, I got to check it out, and I'm really happy I did."

According to Rashid, the streetscaping work is now about 95% finished and business is starting to flourish again along the corridor.

"Last year with the construction, we were only averaging $1,500. Now we're averaging about $2,700 per market in revenue," he says. "So that means that foot traffic is up and people are parking and things are moving. I definitely think that there's a great opportunity for local businesses."

To celebrate the completion of streetscaping, EWDC is putting together a special end-of-the-summer event called E. Warrenfest, which will take place on Sept. 21 between 4 and 9 p.m. While the details are still being worked out, organizers anticipate the festival will span about eight blocks of sidewalk along East Warren Avenue in the vicinity of the EWDC farmers market space. As for the attractions, EWDC expects to have three stages with an eclectic mix of live music, backyard games like cornhole and giant checkers, vendors, and food trucks. 

"We hope to have a really great festival atmosphere where the community can come out and walk East Warren and support local businesses by grabbing a cocktail at Warren Cafe or getting a book at Next Chapter Books," says Rashid. "It's going to be a really great way to activate the entire streetscape and really be a great end-of-summer celebration as well."

All photos by Steve Koss.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.