Friday, May 27, 2011

Detroit Institute of Bagels: Filling the Void of Detroit's Bagel Desert

If you live in the city of Detroit and have a craving for a soft, fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee in the morning, good luck to you. And if it’s a weekend you can just forget it entirely. Not only are the greater downtown districts of Detroit sorely lacking in decent coffee shops – yes, we love Café Con Leche and Café 1923, but they’re not exactly walking distance from downtown or Midtown; Starbucks and Biggby cater to coffee-as-your-daily-caloric-intake crowd, and Stella International and Rowland Café satisfy the craving but don’t really excel beyond the basic need. Plus almost all of them have extremely limited hours, typically closed nights and weekends (catering more to the business crowds and less to the locals). And nowhere, NOWHERE can you find fresh-baked bagels, like from a bakery (and I’m not talking about Tim Horton’s here).

Brothers Ben and Dan Newman joke that Detroit is a “bagel desert.” They started Detroit Institute of Bagels in response to the city’s utter lack of quality, flavorful fresh-baked bagels, and not only to fill that bagel void – Detroit Institute of Bagels was also created as an effort to continue to build the city’s momentum as a place where local entrepreneurs make fresh, high-quality food products in a community environment that encourages independent businesses and food shops as destinations.

“People are coming down here especially to go to Slows," says Ben Newman. "People want to connect with the city and do it in a way that’s comfortable. [Places like Slows are] offering a way for them to come down and get something to eat. There’s also a big push to get creative class down here and living here," he continues, "with Quicken and other big companies moving [to Detroit] and pushing the idea if you just put jobs in the city you’ll get people in the city, but that isn’t the case if you don’t have cafes, coffee shops, etc.,” referring to some of the auxiliary amenities people in a major city have come to expect from a major city. “We want to provide that for people as a café."

Right now the DIB’s operations are done entirely out of the brothers’ shared flat in south Corktown, with plans to open their own bagel shop and cafe in the near future. "In Detroit you have to build your business really organically, do it from the ground up," Ben explains. "We're giving people the chance to try our bagels now, and are also developing relationships with people who do place large orders of  bagels so when we’re ready to launch we don’t have to deal with the headache of finding customers."

The idea to start a food business in the city was born our of Ben's own experiences working at Short's Brewing Company in Bellaire, as well as his passion for urban renewal born from his academic background as an urban planner. "I saw firsthand how [Short's] created a food and beverage establishment that people will drive five hours to visit, and the redevelopment that this has spurred in Bellaire," he explains. "Also, I finished my Masters of Urban Planning in the fall and did a lot of work on vacancy in the city. I feel like food businesses can fill vacant spots, create desirable places to live and visit, and offer job opportunities, among other things. Right now, in addition to making bagels, we are looking for a brick and mortar location, some commercial scale equipment, and a few dollars that will make it easier to produce bagels for the masses."

But while in hindsight bagels seem to be an obvious choice, they weren't quite so intuitive at the time Ben was brainstorming what kind of food business he wanted to start. “I was looking at food businesses that are lacking here,” he tells me. “I wanted to do pizza but we’ve got pizza covered” (this is said with a smile and a wink towards Dave Mancini and his very popular pizzeria in Eastern Market, Supino Pizzeria, which is widely considered to be the best in metro Detroit). “I always loved bread and a friend said, ‘Why don’t you make bagels?’ So, we're making bagels to fill the 'bagel desert' that is Detroit. No one is offering bagels in Detroit, and every vibrant city has bagels.”

Eureka! Let there be bagels.

So in December Ben starting playing with different bagel recipes, making hundreds of bagels he would then give away to friends and family while trying to find a recipe that was consistent that he could also add different items to the dough to make flavors that excel far beyond the basic salt or poppyseed bagel. “We also had the idea that we have to do something different to get people to drive out of their way to get bagels from the city.”

This is how they ended up with such flavors as bacon cheddar, dried cherry chocolate, blueberry ricotta, and rosemary/olive oil/sea salt. “We're making better bagels than anyone else and with flavors that you can't get anywhere else ... with the ambition of making bagels a destination food product to draw more people into the city,” says Ben.Which is the goal of a growing number of local food entrepreneurs hoping to reshape the city's identity with hand-made organic food products ranging from sausage to jam to sauerkraut. And, now, bagels.

There has been no shortage of food start-ups in recent months with the July 2010 change in cottage industry laws. Brand-new businesses and businesses that had been previously operating on the “DL” formed, but after less than a year the laws are still unclear and those who braved those first legalese aftershocks are now the ones who are actively shaping them.

There is a Detroit-based food entrepreneur group which works as a networking opportunity for current and future owners of food start-ups to meet, discuss their businesses and the obstacles they face, and help each other start their businesses. If you've been following Detroit's budding food start-up scene, names like Jess Daniel from Neighborhood Noodle and Will Branch from Corridor Sausage Company will be familiar; these are the people actively involved in the group. "Will from Corridor is sharing his experience of how to start a business in the city; that’s the beauty, people reaching out to find a way to help you get set up," Ben states.

These same people - Ben, Jess, Will, and local activist Vince Keenan - recently approached city council to fight the vending code which states that your food can't create a smell. While their numbers are small and their approach very do-it-yourself, the efforts of these people now will have a tremendous impact on the future of the laws on food start-ups and mobile food vendors in the city. And, as I've mentioned before, the opportunities that a shift in the perceptions (and thereby a loosening of the restrictions) of these businesses would bring with it are almost endless.

"500 food carts is 2000 jobs; that's as many as Quicken is bringing down," Ben outlines. "Those employees would actually be living in the city. The food trucks are also providing jobs for people who don’t have a secondary education and provide them with a skill set that is transferable because there are always jobs in the food industry. That’s what changes your city from your suburb - having nice dense clusters of food businesses and independent places. There’s got to be something unique that’s giving people more reasons to reside in the city of Detroit; Slows and Woodbridge Pub and LJ’s Lounge are unique places in the city that do that."

Despite these early activist efforts, the minds of the government officials who are ultimately the ones who must decide to make and change the laws are predictably uninformed and closed-minded. "Someone from the Health Department said that there’s no reason to change vending codes because 'there are no commissaries in the city.'" And so once again the citizens must initiate themselves what their city government is too short-sighted to address.

"The idea that [Detroit] is a 'blank slate' where you can start any business isn’t true," Ben says of the often prohibitive regulations. "We’d love to follow the laws if they were clear but no one even knows what they’re supposed to do – a lot of people are doing things on the sly. [The government] needs to make the law in a way that the people who want to follow it can follow it because people who won’t follow it won’t anyway."

And once again, the Luddite concern that mobile food businesses will cause all other food businesses to lose all their customers and go bankrupt and shut down forever and ever is just preposterous ... yet it is still an obstacle that hopeful mobile food vendors are facing. "They're not cutting into brick and mortar places' business. People come out and smell food or see it and decide they’re hungry. That creates a vibrant community of people in the streets. In Portland there’s been an increase in brick and mortar businesses because now people are out looking for food. It’s a bigger piece of the pie; brick and mortar places are now starting their own carts because they see it as a way to test their products and grow their marketing." Echoing the frustrations of many others who are trying to operate non-traditional food businesses in the city, he concludes with, "In Detroit you’re incentivized to do everything under the ground."

In the meantime, this food entrepreneur group continues to try to shape Detroit's future in food by defining what is "good food" (more than just healthy and organic but also the economic development aspect) and discussing the possibility of forming a kitchen incubator, such as Starting Block on the west side of the state where Suzanne Vier of Simply Suzanne Granola got her start. "It's optimistic to hear people at least talking about the right things," says Ben. "It doesn’t happen overnight because nothing does, but the conversation is the first thing to bring people to the table. Food can do this – if you offer people free food they’ll come together and have conversations they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Food is something that brings everyone together; people congregate around it. Certainly if you fry it and roll it around in sugar."

That last part is in reference to their best-seller Fragelrocks!: deep-fried raisin bagel holes tossed in cinnamon sugar.

Prior to starting Detroit Institute of Bagels, Ben's only formal training was taking a bagel-making class at Zingerman's. Not that you'd ever be able to tell: the bagels are chewy, airy, dense and soft, with just the right amount of crispness to the crust (and not so hard that you feel like you're going to slice your gums open trying to take a bite). The name came from a brainstorming session in February; it was originally a play off of the DIA but also in a way paid homage to the brothers' grandfather who started the Detroit Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehab. "Something in our genes made 'Institute' sound good," Dan jokes. Dan is the one responsible for all of the branding, the website design, and pretty much everything else that isn't the baking of the bagels themselves. (Which includes the quirky imaging which also plays off of the DIA by taking famous paintings like American Gothic and adding bagels to them.)

The flavor ideas were more trial and error. "Bacon cheddar was something I really wanted to see happen," Ben says. "Rosemary/olive oil/sea salt was from a friend who saw it somewhere else, and blueberry ricotta started as blueberry feta." They look towards pizza for ideas for their savory bagels because "pizza and bagels are kind of analogous," citing Motor City Brewing Works' pear and gorgonzola pizza as another inspiration. They also look towards cookies for the sweet bagels, like the dried cherry chocolate bagel with a little salt and mascarpone cream cheese. They've also had a bagel flavor contest on Facebook - the winner was jalapeno garlic. "We talked to Jim [Geary] of Woodbridge Pub, and [he told us] 'give customers a sense of ownership in your business.' People will feel a connection and tell a story [about it]. This is the beauty of Detroit versus other cities where they would just be like, 'Open a bagel shop or don't.' Here Greg Mudge [of Mudgie's Deli], Ben and Jason from Russell St. Deli and Dave from Supino are all willing to talk to us."

Right now Ben and Dan are looking for a storefront so they can increase their production - which currently is extremely limited by the time it takes to make X number of bagels and the space in their home refrigerator to chill the dough - and provide customers with the full cafe/coffee-and-a-bagel urban experience. In the meantime, they're also looking into distribution to places that sell coffee and sandwiches (like Mudgie's). To get your bagel fix now, place an order on their website at at least one day in advance (recommended two days, especially for large orders). Limited delivery is available.

Ben and Dan will be launching a crowdfunding campaign (like Kickstarter) soon for their bagel shop; keep an eye out for the campaign (follow them on Facebook and Twitter for updates).

Even though starting a food business in the city is by no means easy, the greater potential of such businesses is what gives Ben the energy to keep going. "I need to have a reason to get out of bed and do this every day. Working together to build businesses, grow the food economy, see more food trucks and start-ups, and help build that community is that reason."