In a small, unassuming space on the corner of Bagley and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood stands The Farmer’s Hand market. A simple sign with simple script bears a message outside its doors: The Farmer’s Hand · Coffee · Tea · Sandwiches · Salads · Gifts · Local Produce. And yet, what lies beyond its entryway is so much bigger than inscribed. Step inside this unique grocery on one of Detroit’s notoriously cold afternoons and you will experience the cultural intersection of colorful produce, handmade goods, freshly prepared sandwiches and friendly debate among patrons; all a prismatic contrast against the concrete city just outside the doors.
The food shelves are sumptuously arranged, showcasing pastas, dairy, sauces, meats and produce, to name a few. Wooden crates of oddly shaped potatoes, squash varieties, and an arrangement of carrots are among those vegetables still wearing bits of the dirt from which they were pulled. The glass case of prepared food at the counter holds a selection of salads and sandwiches whose aromas richly scent the air. Handcrafted baskets, frames, ceramic cups and greeting cards surround a seating area where friends gather to discuss politics. The atmosphere is simple yet inviting, making those that visit slow to leave and quick to return.
But what is most interesting about this organic, locally sourced market, pantry and kitchen is the subtle reminder it gives of the big ideas happening in Detroit and just how impactful one small blip on the city map can be. All the more so when one learns that the concept of The Farmer’s Hand began literally two worlds apart before owners Rohani Foulkes’ and Kiki Louya’s fortuitous introduction just a short time ago.
Foulkes was born and raised in Cairns, Australia, and found her career in culinary arts early on, working along the eastern coast of Australia for years in restaurants, hotels and island resorts before graduating from the University of Sydney with her bachelor’s degree in Design Technology & Vocational Education and her Master’s degree in International Education and Policy Development. She later moved to New York to work with the United Nations. But despite living in these “highly multi-cultural” locations, as Foulkes puts it, there was something special about the nature of food and community in Detroit that drew her to the city while working with Detroit’s Gleaner’s Community Food Bank.
Foulkes’ experiences fostered in her a deep commitment to wholesome local food and community nutrition, giving her the desire to open a market that would offer just that within the city. She began developing a model for a local business with honest, nutritious, Michigan-sourced food offerings. Little did she know, however, that Detroit native Kiki Louya was busy developing the very same vision at the exact same time.
Louya grew up in Detroit’s Rosedale Park and devoted her life to culinary arts. She volunteered at farm stands in Brooklyn, worked at famed Chicago restaurants like The Bristol and Balena under Chef Chris Pandel, and cultivated her culinary skills under the direction of James Beard Award-winning chef, Paul Kahan (Blackbird, avec). In addition, she had also been a barista, bartender, cook, baker and banquet server along the way. But what resonated with this graduate of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, was the importance of food process and accessibility. Louya endeavored to bring the luxury of “real food” with no artificial ingredients – just genuinely healthy, wholesome food – to her hometown where locally sourced and organic grocery stores were all but non-existent.
It was adventitious that Foulkes and Louya would not only begin pursuing the same passion in Detroit, but would also just so happen to continuously cross paths throughout the process, as if destiny was taking them by the shoulders and driving their convergence.
“We kept meeting the same farmers and producers and they were getting us confused with one another, so we connected and decided to sit down for coffee,” said Foulkes. “We both were feeling that we needed someone to partner with. Our vocational backgrounds complimented each other. It was serendipitous.”
And just like that, Foulkes and Louya became partners in the business of bringing healthy, organic food offerings to Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
The small business community in Corktown really enticed us,” explained Foulkes. “There wasn’t a grocery store in the area. This is the oldest neighborhood [in Detroit] and there was no grocery.”
Foulkes and Louya took seriously the opportunity to provide Detroiters with the healthiest options and began working tirelessly to identify farms that were either certified organic or used organic methods.
“We vetted them by visiting their facilities and seeing their practices. It took a very long time to go around the state visiting the partners that we have in the store so we know them all personally.”
Both residents of Corktown and the Greater Detroit Community alike are appreciative of the value that The Farmer’s Hand has brought to the city.
“I think it’s a really special place. Detroiters now have healthier opportunities at their doorstep. I’m encouraged by the fact that they are so supportive of local farmers. I’m from a farming community and growers in the industry wish there were more people with bright ideas like this,” said Jessica Walsh, a Michigan native and frequent Farmer’s Hand visitor.
The bright ideas that Walsh is referring to are not just that of bringing fresh food to Corktown, but also the major return that farmers receive by partnering with The Farmer’s Hand. While a typical grocery store gives approximately 17 cents on the dollar back to producers, The Farmer’s Hand returns 70 cents on every dollar.
“In a conventional grocery store, a traditional distribution line has 5-7 steps or parties involved. We work directly with our partners. They come directly to us and drop off,” explained Foulkes, regarding how they are able to return so much value to their producers.
In addition to forging meaningful ties with Michigan farmers themselves, The Farmer’s Hand is working to forge them directly between producers and the community as well.
“I really want people to understand that while there are other groceries out there, it is our passion to support the farmers that we work with and it is a really nice way for customers to be part of making a significant contribution,” said Foulkes.
As for the future of The Farmer’s Hand, Foulkes and Louya hope to expand their food service, create more jobs, and continue to get to know the community.
“It is very important to us to be an accessible neighborhood grocery that people can walk to from their homes. This is a gathering space.”
It has been said that the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation of humanity. The Farmer’s Hand is encouraging just that, acting as a conduit between farming and the community in a special way. Be it stopping in for lunch, or collecting the ingredients for a fresh meal, patrons leave with an inevitable feeling of connection to local agriculture and to Detroit.