Reprint from the Spring 2010 issue of Edible WOW Magazine.
Detroit’s Eastern Market, the largest historic public market district in the United States, is a place bustling with activity most Saturdays—but nowhere will you find more liveliness on any other day of the week than at Russell Street Deli. Located on Russell St. in the heart of Eastern Market, the deli is known to regularly have long lines out the door during peak hours (and people are certainly willing to wait). Russell Street Deli has become a destination for metro Detroiters seeking fresh, home-cooked, hearty food in a community-minded atmosphere, and is perhaps just as popular for its atmosphere as for its food.
“We don’t have an environment like this anywhere else in Detroit,” explains Ben Hall, co-owner of Russell Street Deli. “There are no railroad restaurants anywhere else in the city…some people are really engaged in that.”
Hall is referring to the communal-style seating arrangement of the deli—long tables that seat six are utilized to their capacity, which means multiple groups of dining partners will sit together and share their meal. Those who are uncomfortable sitting in such close quarters with others will simply leave, even after waiting 45 minutes in line; others come back 3-5 times per week for the experience. “It’s kind of the ‘vibe’ of the place,” Hall says, by means of explaining the deli’s overwhelming popularity.
Well, that, and the food. Regardless of the surroundings, Russell Street Deli offers up a full menu of made-from-scratch items which make for a dining experience that far surpasses your average family diner. It’s not that what they offer on their menu is so drastically different from other places; it’s just that much better. “Probably 97 out of 100 restaurants in Detroit serve clam chowder out of a box,” says Jason Murphy, who owns Russell Street Deli along with Hall. “Ours starts with an empty pot with vegetables in it. That difference really shows through.”
Hall and Murphy consider the Deli to be a “from-scratch house.” Hall notes, “We make our own stocks. We process and cook all the meats here. We grind, pack, and smoke our own sausage.”
Because everything in the Deli is made fresh in-house, almost everything that comes out of the kitchen is locally-sourced. During Michigan’s agriculturally-rich summer months, they buy everything they can from Grown in Detroit, a collaborative of Detroit’s urban farms and community gardens. This includes salad greens, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and anything else that might be available. The deli then sends back roughly 130lbs of organic waste a week which is composted and ends up in gardens all over the city, an extension of the zero-waste ethos espoused by Hall and Murphy.
Bread comes from Avalon International Breads in Detroit and Mickey’s Bakery in Southfield. Apples and cider come from Ridley Orchards in Saugatuck. Corned beef and turkey come from Sy Ginsberg in Detroit. Chicken comes from Capital Poultry in Detroit. Pork shoulder from J+M Farms in Allenton. Michigan maple syrup from Carncross Sugarbush in Clare. Spices from Butcher Packer Supply in Detroit. Coffee is roasted at Schuil in Grand Rapids. Peanut butter from St. Laurent in Flint. Cheese, beans, and dry goods are purchased from R. Hirt, across the parking lot from the deli. And so on. In fact, Russell Street Deli sources so much from Michigan vendors they don’t even receive deliveries from Cisco, a nation-wide corporate food distribution company that supplies just about every other restaurant you can think of.
“Why would we buy lettuce from someone we don’t know when we can buy it from people we do know?” Hall poses. “We don’t buy anything from Cisco; we want more than just a relationship with the Cisco driver.” And he encourages other business owners to adopt the same mentality: “At least get it from the Market! The taxes then go to the city, which makes for a better city, which leads to happier people.”
Happier people are also healthier people, and vice versa, which is why Hall and Murphy try to maintain hearty yet healthful menu options without necessarily beating people over the head with the concept. “You can’t always with words encourage someone to have a relationship with food, but they’ll recognize there’s a difference,” says Hall. “Because a person likes something does not make it ‘good’…we’re always trying to find a product that’s healthier, fresh, and seasoned well…people often say to me, ‘I feel healthier when I eat here.’”
When Hall and Murphy took over ownership of the well-established deli in 2007, they didn’t do much to change the menu. Instead they focused on some other areas of opportunity, particularly their level of involvement with the community. Russell Street Deli is the kind of place where the regulars go almost daily and are greeted by name and asked about their jobs and families. “I know most of my customers,” Hall notes. “I know what they do and where they live. Not everyone wants to go to the bar as the focal point of their social interaction…I’m really proud and excited that people find that sense of community and social interaction here.”
But beyond simply offering a space where a person can go for healthful homemade food and a positive, welcoming atmosphere, the business ethic implemented at Russell Street Deli is also exceptionally community-conscious. In 2009 the deli raised just under $10,000 for Gleaners Community Food Bank, which secures, stores, and distributes food to nonprofit agencies in Southeastern Michigan. They did this a little at a time—replacing the tip jar at the register with a Gleaners piggy bank (and further compensating the cashiers so they wouldn’t feel the pinch); encouraging staff to encourage customers to give; hosting a holiday party inside the deli as a fundraiser for the organization. That $10,000 translates into 30,000 meals for hungry metro Detroiters and begs the only-too-ironic question: what other restaurant feeds hungry people? “We feel strongly that every business in Detroit should be an act of community activism, period,” Hall expresses. “If it's not helping assuage the food, health, education and poverty situation then we feel it’s not worth doing.”