SimmerD: Local food scene looking back, going forward

As this column begins its second year, I still marvel at the breadth and scope of Detroit’s food scene relative to its population, particularly the explosion of independent food businesses. This installment of SimmerD looks back at some of the highlights of 2011 and what we have to look forward to in the coming year (hint: You won’t go hungry).

Pop-up power

2010 saw its fair share of pop-ups like Neighborhood Noodle, the Pink FlaminGo and the first Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar. In 2011 the trend continued stronger than ever, and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. More small food businesses began to operate/produce out of more established ones, such as Porktown Sausage at Supino, Anthology Coffee and Detroit Institute of Bagels at Astro Coffee, and Pie-Sci pizza out of Woodbridge Pub. The new business model seems to be: do it at home or in a borrowed location, build your brand and following, and then launch on a larger scale. 

Tashmoo Biergarten intends to do just that. The biggest pop-up of 2011 started as a once-a-week, 5-week-long endeavor and proved so successful (around 20,000 beers sold!) that organizer Aaron Wagner plans to expand the venture into a full-fledged three season biergarten with a permanent location somewhere in the Villages. If these plans don’t fully pan out by this fall, have no fear- the biergarten will return to its original location on Van Dyke.

Pop-up marketplace Detroit Holiday Food Bazaar was back in full force for its second year, increasing its vendors from 16 to 26 based on 2010’s attendance. The event was moved to a larger location above Cost Plus Wines in Eastern Market and brought a crowd of about 600 shoppers, all eager to get their hands on the quality small food products Detroit has to offer. The goal of the Food Bazaar is to give a leg up to fledgling food businesses who may not have the resources to pay vendor fees at farmers' markets or elsewhere, to showcase the great variety of products being made locally, and to give vendors an opportunity to interact with the community and potential customers. 

Crowd funding and Hatching small food businesses

Although ultimately it was retail store Hugh that walked away with the $50,000 Hatch small business grant money, the competition served to get the word out about several food & drink-related business ideas. Six out of the ten semifinalists and two out of the final four were food/beverage businesses, and the exposure and community support built up during the competition is carrying many of these enterprises forward. Finalist Stephanie Selvaggio (Woodbridge Gypsy Den & Tea Room) tells us that while she’s having some difficulty locating an affordable space in Woodbridge, "the dream is still alive," and using crowd-sourced funding is a distinct possibility in her financial plans. She says she likes the idea of involving the community and giving something back to them in return. Here’s hoping things advance in that direction in the coming year! We also checked in with finalist Dave Knapp of Alley Wine, who reports that they’re getting their paperwork and permits in order with the city, and will proceed toward obtaining financing once they are approved for a liquor license.

Bagel-makers Dan and Ben Newman of the aforementioned Detroit Institute of Bagels were Hatch semifinalists who recently purchased a building in Corktown and expect to open in 2012. The brothers solicited crowd-sourced funds initially, raising $10k (the approximate cost of an oven). Perhaps more importantly though, the crowd funding demonstrated the demand for their product-this prompted investors to contact them, which is how they were able to secure the financing for their building.

Crowd funds also launched organic raw juice company Drought Juice last March, with over $13,000 raised. The James sisters originally planned to operate a stand in Eastern Market, but are reworking their business plan as they have discovered there is even more demand than they had anticipated for their product. Currently, Drought Juice can be ordered for delivery here.

Cooking classes, two ways

While we love to sample Detroit’s many great dining options, cooking at home is a lost skill that many of us are seeking to regain- some for economic reasons, some for health, and some for the simple pleasure of creating a meal from scratch. Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution to eat at home more, or eat healthier? Two young and talented Detroit chefs are each contributing in their own way toward making this a reality. 

Chef Jake Williams of Gleaners Community Food Bank is doing his part to help lower-income Detroit residents boost their cooking skills and "shop smart" at the grocery store. Sponsored by Share Our Strength, the Cooking Matters program offers a variety of free classes aimed at assisting adults and families to shop and eat more healthfully on a budget. The classes focus on simple cooking techniques, healthy diet choices, and empowering participants to become more self-reliant in the kitchen rather than resorting to fast food or pre-packaged convenience items. We spoke to Williams recently and were glad to learn that in spite of recent federal budget cuts affecting food banks, Cooking Matters classes are fully funded through 2013. More information about current classes here.

For those who might have some basic cooking abilities but want to take it to the next level, Chef Tenley Lark (whom some might know from her charity work with the Clandestine dinners) has recently started teaching cooking classes in the kitchen of Corktown’s new inn Honor & Folly. The courses cover useful topics like knife skills, egg cookery (think soufflés, omelets and meringue), braising and more. Her self-stated goal is "to help cooks be more confident," regardless of their current skill set. Lark plans to expand the class offerings as the year progresses, inviting guest chefs from time to time and incorporating seasonal themes. Most classes are in the $50 range and include getting to eat the fruits of your labor. More info and registration here.

To experience our thriving food scene, you have only to dive in: eat at one of the many new restaurants opening or re-opening (COLORS; the Green Dot; the Hudson Café; La Musique; the Great Lakes café/wine bar), patronize a pop-up, help crowd-fund a new venture, drink a beer outdoors with neighbors, take a cooking class, or start your own micro food business. Whatever you choose, we’ll be raising our glasses to cheer you on.

Food writer Noelle Lothamer pens the food blog Simmer Down! Her last piece for Model D was on the Hamtramck food scene.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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