In late 2018, Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes decided it was time to add alcohol to the menu at Folk, their all-day brunch café in Corktown that opened earlier that year in April. So they turned to Ping Ho, owner of Marrow, a combination butcher shop and restaurant in West Village; and The Royce, a wine shop and bar near Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. Ho’s extensive knowledge of wine made her the top choice to become Folk’s beverage director.
But Ho realized that her collaboration with Louya and Foulkes could lead to something bigger. At the same time, Ho and Sarah Welch, her Marrow co-owner and executive chef, were developing a new restaurant concept called Mink. And Ho was attracted to Corktown for Mink’s home.
Those ideas led to the creation of Nest Egg LLC, a joint venture between the two restaurant-owner teams. Under this venture, Folk will introduce wine and other alcoholic beverages with Ho as the beverage director. Louya and Foulkes’ specialty grocery store, the Farmer’s Hand, closed June 30 and will re-emerge as the Farmer’s Hand 2.0, an expanded version that will reopen by 2021 on Trumbull Avenue near Folk and Mink. In the meantime, employees who split their time between Folk and the Farmer’s Hand will transition to Folk. To maintain a presence in the community, the Farmer’s Hand will host seasonal Saturday markets until the end of August.
As for the Farmer’s Hand’s former 390-square-foot home, it will be converted into Mink. Targeted to open in September, Mink will be an intimate dinner establishment serving a rotating menu of small seafood dishes and wine pairings.
“We always knew that we all shared a very similar vision and mission for our individual spaces, but collectively, we could be even stronger,” says Louya.
In addition to Nest Egg, another entity called Backbone Hospitality LLC was formed, and it will tie together the back-end services for all five businesses: Marrow, The Royce, Mink, Folk, and Farmer’s Hand. This includes hiring, training, and payroll practices.
It seems that Nest Egg LLC and Backbone Hospitality could be the first women-owned venture of its kind not only in Detroit, but the state’s restaurant industry. Examples of similar partnerships between women could not be identified, according to the staff of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United.
“We have quite often not seen a lot of women in the vanguard of leadership and leading-the-restaurant kind of initiatives,” says Dr. Alicia Farris, deputy director of ROC-Michigan.
Women make up the majority of workers in the food service industry, but they are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions. According to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 22 percent of chefs and head cooks are women.
In terms of ownership, according to the National Restaurant Association, only 33 percent of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women.
“I think it’s just exceptional that these women have come together and are going to work to fulfill a purpose,” Farris says of the new venture between Louya, Ho, Foulkes, and Welch. “The very fact that they have combined their restaurant resources together to make another business is quite innovative.”
Shaking up workplace culture
Since the #metoo movement brought the restaurant industry’s toxic bro-culture of gender inequality and sexual harassment to the forefront, the conversation has shifted to whether any real, systemic change is happening because of it. It’s inspired a grassroots movement, led by women, that’s steadily pushing to reform workplace culture in the kitchen around the country.
In New York, three women – Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks, and Liz Murray – co-founded Women in Hospitality United in 2017, a nonprofit dedicated to reimagining the hospitality industry. As a result of the media’s takedown of prominent male chefs and hospitality group owners, the women in their organizations, and in the industry, have been dealing with conflicting feelings of shock, guilt, and responsibility.
It’s what happened to Meltz, who worked in Mario Batali’s organization for a decade, moving up from the kitchen to management positions. When accusations against Batali became public, Meltz had, what Murray describes as, “a huge personal reckoning” – what role had she played? Was she an instigator? A victim? An enabler?
Meltz channeled those feelings by emailing every woman she knew in hospitality to have a meetup. That meetup turned into a series of meetings last year, including an eight-hour design thinking workshop where women formed teams to work through problems and propose ideas to reform the industry. Teams included the Working Parents Group, Sexual Harassment, the Wage Gap, Mental Health, Financial Literacy, and Mentorship.
“We’ve done a lot of thinking in terms of how we form and operate our organization…” says Murray, director of HR and communications for the Marlow Collective, Andrew Tarlow’s Brooklyn dining empire. “We’re trying to really build a sort of a different paradigm for how women relate to and work with each other that doesn’t fall back on those sort of ingrained ideas of what power and leadership look like.”
Having worked in kitchens, Louya, Foulkes, and Welch know all too well about that structure and being on the receiving end of it.
Kiki Louya of Folk and the Farmer's Hand. Photo by Nick Hagen.“We’ve had many conversations about being a woman in kitchens, and how we’ve been treated over the years,” Louya says. “[From] my own personal experiences, everything from being afraid to walk past a certain station because you constantly get cat calls, to comments about your body, and super lewd language. You know, getting groped or touched inappropriately as you walk by, to even seeing people be promoted above you.”
Louya recalls working at a restaurant and dealing with, as she calls, “things that are incredibly petty,” like having items stolen from her station. Because of it, she would come in at 9:30 a.m. to prep even though service didn’t start until 4 p.m.
“I was the only woman on the entire line,” she says. “I put in a lot of hard work and it was probably the most rejected I think I felt. It was just a very, very toxic kitchen where actual things were thrown at you, and you would be berated on the line.”
With experiences like these as a basis, all four women are intentional about designing a workplace culture that’s quite the opposite. It’s what stands out to Le’Genevieve Squires, who works as a server at Folk and is the brand ambassador for the Farmer’s Hand.
Squires has worked in the restaurant industry for eight years in a variety of roles, including chef, catering manager, and food service director. She says what separates Folk from other work environments she’s been in are the culture, community outreach, and respectful communication, compared to environments where she experienced a lack of teamwork and egos.
“Kiki and Ro strive really hard to live up to their mission,” Squires says. “Their values for sourcing locally, talking to the local purveyors…you can really feel the community in there.”
Change from the Inside
Folk, Farmer’s Hand, and Marrow are known for their employee-friendly cultures. All offer fair and equitable wages, health care, and benefits. Instead of tips, Folk adds an 18 percent hospitality charge to all bills to ensure equal distribution of wages to front and back-of-the-house staff. Staffs at all four businesses are primarily made up of traditionally marginalized groups in the restaurant industry, such as women, people of color, minorities, and LGBTQ.
As a diverse management team made up of traditionally marginalized groups (i.e. all are women; Louya is African American; Foulkes is Indigenous Australian; and Ho is Singaporean and queer) the women are creating their own lane.
Ping Ho, who owns The Royce in downtown Detroit, will be Folk's beverage director.Ho says the goal for Backbone is to have best practices in hospitality.
“There will be differences in the pay structure [across the different businesses], but benefits, maternity leave, health care, and a positive work environment are the things that we want to standardize across the board,” she says.
There’s been lots of discussion about how to structure wage and labor systems at Backbone.
“Our goal across the board is to bring up the effective hourly compensation for each and every employee at each and every entity,” Ho says. She explains that employees can expect a range between $18 an hour to mid-$30s, keeping in mind that the higher end is often achieved in restaurants that have high volume, fast pace, and high check averages.
Ho adds that there is also a focus on making scheduling more efficient, such as at Folk and The Royce.
Experienced industry professionals are interested in seeing how Nest Egg and Backbone can change local restaurant culture. Lisa, not her real name who asked for her identity to not be revealed, has worked for more than 10 years in the industry. She says she’s glad to see women-owned businesses, but she wants to see how that will create a new standard of culture in the restaurant industry.
“When I hear women, that doesn’t tell me anything,” she says. “It doesn’t tell me that they’re doing anything better than the place down the street except that it’s women running it.”
Lisa is taking a break from restaurants and working in a job not related to hospitality for some stability.
“If it doesn’t start at the top, it’s really hard to fix things,” she says.
Becoming leaders together
Murray from Women in Hospitality United in New York says there aren’t many women who own and operate multiple businesses to form a hospitality group. “I think the way women tend to think through those things, and especially thinking about collaboration, is really different and interesting. That’s actually what is so exciting to me about this is that these are women who sort of got over the ego of owning and being the number one person to think about how a collaborative relationship and actually joining forces would enable all of their businesses to grow to the next level that they needed it to.”
Louya and Ho credit national mentorship programs for giving them the encouragement to leap and create their partnership. Louya is a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program, which helps entrepreneurs create jobs and economic opportunity. Ho is an alum of the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, a five-day entrepreneurship and leadership training program for women chefs/owners. This year, Foulkes will be a fellow of the program. And next month, James Beard will host a dinner called Detroit Buzz, featuring Marrow, and prepared by Welch.
Although it’s early, Ho says that the women hope to have more opportunities to add other concepts to their network.
“Kiki and I have discussed how, through Backbone and Nest Egg, we can start incubating new ideas, new startups in the food business, and find new collaboratives,” she says.
Ultimately, Ho says Detroit is the perfect environment for their joint venture to become reality.
“Detroit inspires [this] kind of collaboration, [that] I think, is quite unique,” she says. “To do well in this business, we really have to collaborate...”