By Lisa Baertlein
DETROIT (Reuters) - When Slows Bar-B-Q opened in Detroit's Corktown district seven years ago, the neighborhood was so neglected that the street lamps no longer worked.
The restaurant sits in the shadow of Detroit's abandoned central train station, a few blocks from the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium once stood. "People said we were nuts," recalled co-owner Phillip Cooley. Today, Slows has two Detroit locations that pull in a healthy $6 million in sales annually.
An artisan coffee shop and a swanky cocktail bar have opened near Slows in Corktown, making the neighborhood one of a handful of vibrant residential pockets in Motor City. The success of Slows and other local food businesses is a rallying point for a cadre of entrepreneurs fighting to shake off Detroit's reputation as a culinary wasteland and give people a reason to return.
Progress on the food front is more than an interesting sidebar to Detroit's high-profile attempt to reverse decades of decline. Burdened with a reputation for crime, blight and political corruption, municipal leaders are hoping the burgeoning food revolution will help the city stage a comeback. About 715,000 people live in Detroit, fewer than half the population at its peak in the 1950s when it was a showcase of American industrial might. Hard times in the U.S. auto industry have been driving people from the city since 2000, hollowing out a once-robust tax base and discouraging new investment. Struggling for years with infrastructure costs suited to a city with twice its population, Detroit faces a new era of austerity. Mayor Dave Bing and the city council are trying to come up with a plan to stave off bankruptcy and prevent the city from losing control of its finances to the state of Michigan.
FOOD FIGHT Lack of national supermarket chains causes residents to shop outside the city limits, where they spend an estimated $1.5 billion. Restaurateurs, "guerrilla" gardeners who plant wherever they find space and local grocers are determined to bring that money back to Detroit. "There's far more demand than supply in Detroit," said Cooley, a former model who -- along with his partners -- is planning to open a restaurant that uses locally grown and raised food.
A slew of developers who share Cooley's optimism are snapping up real estate and opening businesses with low overhead costs and, in many cases, hefty tax subsidies from the city. Tony Goldman, a real estate mogul known for his early and lucrative bets in New York City's SoHo neighborhood and Miami Beach's Art Deco district, has spoken publicly about his interest in Detroit property. And Whole Foods Market has plans to open a store next year in the Midtown neighborhood, which is the centerpiece for Detroit's revival. The Whole Foods store will test the city's demand for items like organic kale, grass-fed beef and imported cheese.
Detroit's eclectic food scene was a big reason Whole Foods decided to plant a flag where few big supermarket operators dare to tread.
"We saw a community engaged with food, and that is something we want to be a part of," said Amanda Musilli, Whole Foods' Detroit community liaison. The store will hire about 70 people and focus on more affordable offerings than the pricey fare that earned the company the nickname "Whole Paycheck."
Dinner parties in abandoned buildings, soup bowl fundraisers and renovations in the six-block district that houses the city's beloved Eastern Market are contributing to the buzz.
"The food system could lay the groundwork, the frame, for a new economy in Detroit," said Greg Willerer, founder of Brother Nature Produce. A former schoolteacher, Willerer grows salad greens on a small farm in Corktown. He is one of many urban growers betting that Detroit's economic future lies in things like heirloom French spinach, edible flowers and Japanese mizuna.
In southwest Detroit's Mexicantown area, Tammy Alfaro-Koehler and her husband more than tripled the size of their Honey Bee fruit and vegetable market to 15,000 square feet in 2006. "We're committed," she said. "We have been, even when it was scary." Amanda Sadlier, who lives a short drive from the Midtown site of the planned Whole Foods, intends to splurge on the occasional item when it opens.
She said the store would give a needed boost to this neighborhood of extremes, punctuated by a modern medical center a few blocks from the ruins of the Brewster-Douglass housing project where the families of Motown Records singers Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson once lived. "It's somebody saying, 'We're going to go for it'," said Sadlier, 27, who has five young children.
PEOPLE NEEDED Many central Detroit grocers and restaurateurs who spent decades hoping for a rebound eventually followed their customers to the suburbs. This left residents of the hardest-hit areas to do their food shopping at gas stations and corner stores that mainly sell alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and lottery tickets. Detroit is even short on fast-food chains. "It's pretty bad, the worst I've seen," said consultant Mari Gallagher, who popularized the term "food desert" and penned an oft-cited 2007 report detailing Detroit's lack of healthy food options. City officials have made reversing the tide a top priority, courting national chains like Trader Joe's and smaller private ones like Meijer, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their efforts have been stymied by an inability to complete retail complexes and, in some cases, outright disinterest. Many business leaders in Detroit, one of the poorest large cities in the United States, say growth potential is evident but limited. "There are only so many people here," said Ann Perrault, co-founder of Avalon International Breads. The food pioneer opened her bakery-cafe in 1997 before students, professionals and hipsters pushed out many of the Midtown neighborhood's prostitutes and street dwellers. Starbucks Corp, Tim Hortons Inc and Biggby Coffee have beaten Whole Foods to Midtown.
Perrault has stepped up advertising to compete with new additions to the neighborhood and struck deals to supply bread to competitors like Whole Foods. But, she says, the city must bring its population back above 1 million to meet the expectations of Whole Foods and other businesses. "We need about 300,000 more people instantly to support this kind of growth," Perrault said. "If we get 300,000 more people, I'd say, 'Sure, this is going to take off like fire.'"
(Reporting By Lisa Baertlein in Detroit; Editing by John D. Stoll and Lisa Von Ahn)