Dan Evanski's family sausage recipe is so tasty that his neighbors treated it as currency when he was growing up.
"I'm from a Polish family, and we've been making this Polish kielbasa for four generations," he says. "My dad used to barter with it, because everyone enjoyed it. My brother and I hated shoveling our big driveway, and the neighbor wanted the kielbasa and would plow the driveway in exchange for it."
That family recipe was the inspiration for Ski's Sausage, one of five businesses that have recently launched at Rosie's Community Kitchen and are thriving despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Rosie's, located at 235 Spencer Lane in Ypsilanti Township, is an incubator kitchen, which allows small food businesses to use a shared commercial kitchen to safely prepare food.
The other four businesses that started up at Rosie's during the pandemic were Feelings Baking Co., started Aug. 1; Mondays StreetFood, a food truck business started in September; The White Pine Kitchen, starting in early November; and Buczek Pierogi, which started up in mid-November.
Sausage from a family recipe
Colleen Brewer, owner of Rosie's Community Kitchen, says several of her regular clients are struggling, especially those whose main income comes from catering. Two haven't pulled out altogether but have put their accounts on hold.Colleen Brewer, owner of Rosie's Community Kitchen.
On the other hand, the five businesses that have started at Rosie's since March all embrace models that don't rely on in-person dining or indoor events. Ski's Sausage launched the same week Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial Stay Home, Stay Safe order was announced.
Evanski says the sausage business is a "side hustle, but a time-intensive one, so it's almost like full time."
Most nights after his day job, he can be found in the kitchen making sausage. Soon after establishing the business, the Dexter resident began selling his wares at the Dexter Farmers Market, and he recently got into the weekend Ann Arbor Farmers Market, which Brewer calls "a tough nut to crack."
Evanski incorporated his business in 2016, but it wasn't until he attended a food safety training with Brewer's other business, PIC Food Safety and Staffing, that he learned there was commercial kitchen space available at Rosie's. Rosie's offered the refrigerated, frozen, and dry storage he needed for his product, which hadn't been an option at other sites he'd considered, including church kitchens.
The commercial kitchen at Rosie's has allowed Evanski to branch out from his family's beloved kielbasa recipe to offer about two dozen types of sausages, from cheddar jalapeno brats to a Portugese specialty sausage known as Linguica.Dan Evanski, owner of Ski's Sausage.
Evanski calls his sausages "artisan" because he doesn't use premade mixes and chooses his ingredients carefully.
"I know everything that goes into it and I plan to keep it that way," he says. "When I'm talking to people at the farmers markets, people tend to care quite a bit what goes into them."
Food truck innovations
Chris Delusky, owner of Mondays StreetFood, wanted to teach his two children, one a high school senior and the other attending Michigan State University, how to support themselves. So he started Mondays StreetFood, a food truck business selling street tacos, in East Lansing. And then the pandemic hit.Benjamin, Griffin, and Chris Delusky.
"We still put the truck up there, and it's going okay, but East Lansing doesn't have the kind of population it does during a normal school year," Delusky says.
Despite living in West Bloomfield and vending in East Lansing, he ended up at Rosie's because the commercial kitchen he'd considered in East Lansing was almost fully booked and couldn't accommodate a food truck.
That's not the case with Rosie's Community Kitchen, located inside the former Willow Run Middle School. The former school's bus lot is also available for long-term parking of food trucks or other mobile food units.
"When I saw the space, it was perfect, and a fantastic use of that building," Delusky says. "I said to myself, 'These guys have a wonderful facility that needs some life breathed back into it.' It's a fantastic kitchen, and it's so great that we can park the truck there."
Delusky doesn't have any formal culinary education, but he and his family love food and talking about food, including dreaming about opening their own restaurant.
"We started testing recipes during the pandemic, and about April, we really started hitting on a couple of really tasty combinations," he says.
It was then that he and his kids knew they really had something worth sharing with others.
"I wanted to teach my kids that it's not even remotely easy to start a business, but … they need to know how to support yourself and express yourself as best you can," he says.
Delusky thinks the timing for launching a food truck business is pretty good, since so many people are looking for alternatives to indoor dining.
Besides posting a truck at a reserved spot in East Lansing, he's joined a group of food truck owners, started by the owner of metro Detroit-based truck Brother Truckers, that can be hired to serve a neighborhood or homeowner association. The group now has about 30 trucks that can be dispatched to neighborhoods across four counties, and that model is working out well for Mondays StreetFood, which has been setting up shop in a different neighborhood two or three days per week.
"Lots of families want good food, and food trucks are relatively affordable and right there in their neighborhood," he says. "On any given night, in about two and a half hours, we might serve 120 meals."
He says food trucks are taking off in part due to pandemic restrictions, but he believes the neighborhood food truck model will probably persist even after cases go down and a COVID-19 vaccine is distributed.
"I still think people will enjoy having a truck in their neighborhood once a week, because it's an event," he says. "They're having fun and telling their neighbors that they're having a blast."
Providing the dinner-date experience at home
The owners of The White Pine Kitchen have found another niche during the pandemic, providing a dining experience similar to an upscale restaurant in the customer's own home on Sundays and Tuesdays.
Owners Bryan Santos and Forrest Maddox were friends in New York City who took turns hosting dinner parties at their apartments, all the while dreaming about starting their own brick-and-mortar restaurant. When Santos' wife was accepted into a master's degree program at the University of Michigan, he moved with her to Ann Arbor. Maddox quit his job in February with the idea of traveling and trying new regional cuisines, but the pandemic put an end to those plans, and he moved to Ann Arbor to pursue the food business idea with Santos.Bryan Santos and Forrest Maddox, owners of The White Pine Kitchen.
The business model they worked out is somewhere between meal delivery services like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, which provide raw ingredients that customers prepare at home, and traditional restaurant delivery services.
"A lot of times, with that [restaurant] delivery model, your food is lukewarm or not as good as eating it at the restaurant," Santos says. "We give you the food essentially 90% done and you finish up at home."
For instance, the "Dinner in Bologna" menu featured handmade pasta and bolognese sauce. The consumer simply had to boil the pasta and combine it with the sauce. The White Pine Kitchen's menu changes with each delivery, highlighting the cuisines of a different city or region each time.
"We've created an experience that is as good or better than eating it at a restaurant. We provide high-end, quality food, and music playlists, and information about the cuisine and culture to build up the ambience when you're eating," Santos says.
Santos and Maddox are capitalizing on a growing trend of "ghost kitchens," food businesses that don't have a retail space and exist only online.
"A lot of restaurant folks are saying it's going to be a major trend in the next 10 years," Santos says. "The Wall Street Journal came out with an article that said it could be a trillion-dollar industry within five to 10 years."
Though the business is only in its second month of operation, customer response has been encouraging.
"We have had people who have ordered every single one of our meals," Santos says. "About 50% of our business is repeat each week. We're building up that trust within our customer base, and that's going to be key for us to grow."
Maddox says he thinks their dinners are meeting a need people didn't even realize they had around wanting to "feel transported to somewhere else."
"Some folks told us they dressed up for a fancy date night at home, and they felt like it was something special," Maddox says. "This is a fairly new business model, and we weren't entirely sure what the reception would be, but it's been overwhelmingly positive."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.