Ethical Restaurant Guide

by Meg Marotte

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Countless news articles have touted the new, unique culinary options and ambience of Detroit’s  restaurant scene revival. With all the new eateries popping up all over the city, it’s hard to know what your dollars are really supporting. Do  these new establishments support a brighter future for Detroit? While on the surface many new restaurants provide much needed jobs in the community and healthy food options, a closer look reveals that, behind the scenes, they are business as usual.  

Here at Critical Moment, we wanted to talk to restaurant owners whose business practices match our own criteria for what makes for an ethical business. In order to be considered ethical, restaurants needed to have good policies regarding the treatment of workers, community engagement, and environmental impact.

Treatment of Workers

If you’ve been following the national fight to raise the minimum wage and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) report that came out in 2014 highlighting many workplace discrimination practices running rampant in the restaurant industry then you would know the very real challenges facing restaurant workers in Detroit. Many restaurants will not disclose how they pay their employees or how racially segregated their workforce remains. According to ROC to be considered a “high-road” establishment, employers needed to provide $7 or more to tipped employees, $10 or more for non-tipped employees, have an internal promotion policy meant to combat occupational discrimination, and provide paid sick days. Most restaurants do not meet these criteria but the ones that come close are examples of employers that value the work of their staff and the quality of the work environment.

Community Engagement

In order to be engaged in your community, restaurant owners need to be rooted in their community, which means living in the city. It also means hiring locally and providing affordable menu options. You can’t just cater to wealthy out-of-towners. Community engagement can come in the form of donating to local charity groups or providing a neighborhood discount. It could mean restaurant owners being involved in their neighborhood block club or developing training opportunities specifically targeting long-time Detroit residents.  

Environmental Impact

Using local sources not only supports the local economy but also reduces the environmental impact of businesses. All too often we see businesses sourcing the majority of their food supply from big name food distributors that in addition to being trucked in from all over the country are grown in mass quantities using environmentally harmful techniques. Given the rich agricultural offerings of Michigan and the local urban farming going on in the city, it is imperative to highlight the restaurants that make a special effort to seek out local foods. Restaurants that feel an ethical obligation to be a steward of the environment care about the waste they generate by recycling and composting.

Among the restaurants Critical Moment investigated, Rose’s Fine Food, Sister Pie, COLORS Restaurant Detroit, and Brooklyn Street Local ranked highest in ethical practices.

Rose’s Fine Food starts every employee at $10 an hour and all tips are divided evenly by the staff. Employees routinely receive promotions and have the opportunity to learn new skills. Co-owner Lucy Carnaghi described her staff as having a family feel. She and her business partner Molly Mitchell have both helped staff resolve transportation issues and helped provide childcare. They would eventually like to offer paid sick days to employees but say they aren’t quite there yet. Every employee is offered a free meal with their shift from the regular customers menu. On weekday mornings, Rose’s offers a $5 breakfast deal and provides a 10% discount to residents. Lucy told Critical Moment that they are committed to hiring a diverse work staff and encourages their staff to learn a multitude of tasks.

Learning is at the core of COLORS Restaurant. The restaurant itself acts as a training center for ROC. COLORS has partnered with culinary and hospitality programs around the region to offer training to local employees. As an affiliate of ROC, COLORS Restaurant follows the “high-road” standards outlined by ROC.

In addition to COLORS restaurant, they have also developed COLORS Co-op Food Academy, a one-year training program that gives local food entrepreneurs the knowledge needed to set up their own worker-owned food businesses supporting the social and economic success of their communities. This January they hope to launch 2-3 new businesses that have successfully completed the program. The Detroit Food Security Network is among their new graduates hoping to set up their own food business this year.

Another food entrepreneur incubator helping to cultivate ethical food businesses in Detroit is FoodLab. FoodLab offers business workshops, personal guidance, and community connections to new startup food businesses in Detroit. They are committed to the “triple-bottom line,” a business model that considers not just profit but the social, environmental, and financial impact of doing business.

Sister Pie is a proud member of FoodLab. This recently opened bakery starts all their employees at $10 per hour, pooling and distributing all tips evenly. Every employee gets a free meal each shift and a free pie each month.  Since its opening last April, owner Lisa Ludwinski reported that every employee has received a raise.

When asked about community engagement Lisa stated that, “We have goals in 2016 to start a business/block association for the tenants on Kercheval and Parker, in an effort to have conversations about how we can continue to benefit, support, and include the community around us. We also would like to eventually create some kind of sliding scale program. We want to promote our space as a place to have community gatherings and events, and as we go into Year 2 in the bakery space, we will be making that a priority.”  

Another new restaurant in Detroit committed to the ‘triple-bottom line” business model and a FoodLab member is Brooklyn Street Local. Their non-tipped employees receive $10 or more per hour and they offer a 401k plan for employees that have worked for over a year. All employees get a meal with their shift. In an effort to promote a more diverse staff, Brooklyn Street Local has recruited applicants from the Dorsey Culinary Institute, the Ruth Ellis Center, FoodLab, and Detroit Food Academy.

Their website states, “One of the things that makes Detroit such a wonderful place is the sense of community. We collaborate with other businesses and organizations, hire our staff from within Detroit and offer PWYC (Pay What You Can) holistic skill-shares.”

All of the businesses mentioned have stated a commitment to recycling and composting. Locally sourcing food is of the highest priority. Each is committed to offering healthy food options and promoting awareness of where their food comes from.

It is no small task to operate an ethical restaurant. Considering the health and well-being of your community, staff, and environment takes special care and strategy and may also come at the expense of possible earnings for the restaurateur. What these restaurants demonstrate is a willingness to prioritize enhancing their communities. Critical Moment applauds their efforts and asks that the public supports ethical business models by making informed decisions about which restaurants they frequent.

Check out these restaurants at the following locations:

Rose’s Fine Food
10551 E. Jefferson Ave.

COLORS Restaurant Detroit
311 E. Grand River Ave.

Sister Pie
8066 Kercheval St.

Brooklyn Street Local
1266 Michigan Ave.