One rainy weeknight in Detroit, approximately 50 people braved the downpour to attend a Detroit SOUP dinner. It’s a popular happening about town. People pay $5 each to hear entrepreneurs tell why they should win the proceeds collected at the door, plus any additional donations, to further their business plan.
On this particular evening, four entrepreneurs made their pitches before a crowd at 1917 American Bistro, a restaurant on Detroit’s historic Avenue of Fashion on the city’s northwest side, just a few blocks south of 8 Mile Road.
Wearing her signature black T-shirt, emblazoned in white with the logo “Lush Yummies Pie,” Jennifer Lyle began timidly. But with each word her passion to use pies to add sweetness to a troubled city and nation became crystal clear. Her idea to push a pie cart around the city to spur conversation in a “Pies for Peace” campaign was inspired by her grandfather years ago in Alabama. She told a heart-tugging tale of how his delicious pies always brought people together.
“We want our pies to serve as a sweet taste of peace in the community,” Lyle said, concluding that her project “is to share my pies right from grandad’s heart to your plate, and hope that we can give pies and encourage a bit of peace.”
Lyle, who already sells her pies at Good Cakes and Bakes just down the street; the Eastern Market and other purveyors across metro Detroit, won the night’s $230-plus take. But every entrepreneur there was a winner, explained Kim Tandy, an executive with the City of Detroit neighborhoods department and SOUP board member. Every entrepreneur had the opportunity to spread the word about his or her business to a captive, caring audience. Even if they didn’t take home the cash, they got attention.
Detroit SOUP is one of several creative paths to funding for business ideas in the city. Since 2015, SOUP dinners have raised more than $100,000 for local businesses, after-school programs and other projects.
But it’s just one way entrepreneurs are scrapping for a spot on the city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial landscape. Businesses are making in-person, on-paper and social media-based pitches for out-of-the ordinary loans and grants. They’re competing and sharing space in incubation hubs. And they’re coming up with clever schemes that gain money and something just as important—notice.
Many determined entrepreneurs get started before they fully open for business. Detroit Vegan Soul opened in 2013. But co-owners Kirsten Ussery and Erika Boyd created a website and took orders for lunch and dinner (and delivered those meals) for months before they opened their popular eatery on Detroit’s east side. And that was while they both worked full-time jobs.
“This is the best time to be an entrepreneur in the city of Detroit,” says Nicole Farmer, owner and founder of LifeLine Business Consulting Services, which helps entrepreneurs navigate the path from plan to establishment.
She cited available resources for money and space as well as growing interest in helping Detroit become a more vibrant place to live and work.
“It’s exciting to see all the new businesses opening up,” says Devon O’Reilly, manager, Entrepreneurship and Detroit Engagement at Detroit Regional Chamber. “I’m one of the people who likes to be up on the latest bars, restaurants, clubs, and retail stores opening in the city and that’s getting hard to do.”
O’Reilly says Detroit is now recognized as a national hub for entrepreneurship and innovation.
Matthew Roling, business development director for Rock Ventures, says one of the great things about development in Detroit is that it is happening in neighborhoods throughout the city, as well as downtown.
“There’s power you bring to an area when you have small businesses opening up and supported,” he says. “Businesses bring vitality and jobs that people recognize and appreciate. When you have vitality, that’s where people want to live.”
Several factors have combined to make Detroit a special place for entrepreneurs. Available spaces at reasonable prices, support from a bevy of funding sources such as Detroit SOUP, Motor City Match, various foundations and helpful hands-on guidance from places like TechTown Detroit, Build Institute and the FoodLab.
April Boyle, founder and director of the Build Institute, says she’s heartened by the variety of businesses and people opening up in the city.
“I’m seeing so many paths and visions of success,” she says. “Yes, folks see opportunity here. But I’m also seeing people who see gaps in products and services that they can provide in a neighborhood and they want to fill that gap. They want to fill the empty storefronts and hire the neighbors. It’s not just this individual saying, ‘I want to make a bunch of money.’ It’s also about giving back, investing in communities and re-developing neighborhoods.”
The level of cooperation and coordination among people and organizations helping local entrepreneurs makes Detroit “an incredibly promising place” for people who want to start a business here or those already here that want to grow and develop, says Jeff Aronoff, founder Sidewalk Ventures, which is itself among the unique funding opportunities in the city.
“What makes Detroit incredibly promising is the level of cooperation and coordination within an organization helping to get businesses going.”
Roling says Detroit is also unique in that prominent foundations and nonprofits see investing in new business as investing in people and communities.
“There’s power in bringing an area to life with small businesses made of people who live in and care about the community,” he said. “Small businesses bring vitality and jobs to communities.”
Meet a few Detroit entrepreneurs who are hustling hard:
In 2015, Lisa Ludwinski held a 24-hour dance-a-thon, surpassing her $25,000 goal a year after winning a $50,000 Hatch Detroit grant. Both helped her open what’s now the nationally recognized bakery, Sister Pie, that same year. It’s a popular spot at the corner of Kercheval and Parker in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood.
From The Hustle to The Robot, Ludwinski boogied to all kinds of music spun by a rotating group of DJs who stopped by a local record store during that 24-hour stretch. Others (read: hundreds) joined her, including a youth tap dancing group.
Ludwinski says looking back she’s unsure how she got the idea. “I just like to dance like any ol’ person,” she says. “It was a good way to show people I was serious by committing to this insane challenge.”
Little did she know, that early fundraiser would influence her bakery’s workplace culture. Even now, she says, employees occasionally take dance breaks to relieve stress during the work day.
Ludwinski’s business does the things for which independent neighborhood businesses are most appreciated. She provides employment for Detroiters and has helped revitalize a once-dormant corner of the city.
CORIANDER KITCHEN AND FARM
Alison Heeres and her business partner, Gwen Meyer, co-owners of Coriander Kitchen and Farm, have combined their affection for farm-fresh foods with their love of water sports into “Kayak to Farm Dinners.” Together with friends who recently purchased the Detroit River Sports Marina, the duo offers progressive dinners along a scenic, serene canal whose existence may surprise even a longtime Detroiter.
Since starting in late July 2016, they’ve held five dinners, each attracting 25 to 35 people (a few of whom don’t even go on the water).
“What’s a more wonderful way to end a day than coming off the water and dining with the people you’ve been kayaking with,” she says. “It’s such a peaceful and beautiful place.”
Coriander Kitchen prepares a multi-course dinner mostly with produce and fresh flowers from their farm or other local sources, and have raised about $6,000, all of which goes back into what they hope will be their own food truck next year and eventually their own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Margarita Barry was among the first in the city to get started with pop-up shops. By building temporary yet chic vignettes at festivals and within other businesses, Barry built her brick-and-mortar overhead while simultaneously spreading the word about her brand. Now Barry’s shop, Bohomodern, is one of three stores located in MASH (a mixed-use space named for the variety of business tenants within its location at the corner of Mack and Ashland on the city’s far east side).
At Bohomodern, Barry offers her own and other curated lines of whimsical products, handmade and fair trade products including posters, prints and pillows, and Bohemian lifestyle products including home décor, furniture, clothing and more.
Barry was a 2015 Hatch Detroit semi-finalist, the Comerica-funded Opportunity Detroit initiative that provides capital, mentoring and more to independent businesses.
Barry also raised money through a $5,000 Kiva loan campaign that was matched with a $5,000 grant from the Knight Foundation.
Kiva is one of several crowdsourcing platforms. People can check out your plan online, or in some cases in person, then loan to you through Kiva. Barry held her Kiva lendraiser party in July of this year, a month after MASH opened.
When Jacob “Jay” Rayford started Social Sushi pop-ups in 2012, he said his primary goal was to give the growing number of entrepreneurs a place to network. But his sushi gained so much popularity he’s now pursuing plans to someday open his own place.
His regular pop-ups roll through Our/Detroit Vodka bar in Corktown each Saturday. A $5,000 Kiva loan also helped him get started.
In addition, he’s currently using a relatively new type of loan: Equity Eats. Entrepreneurs get pre-sales from customers who are then paid back with revenues based on future sales at the company. For example, a community investor who loans $250 gets $300 worth of credit toward future Sushi Social sales.