Build Institute helps cultivate the flavor of Detroit’s food ecosystem

This is part of a reporting series, supported by Build Institute, that chronicles BIPOC-led businesses and entrepreneurship in Detroit. 
Local restaurants are vital to the larger economy. Small business owners pump dollars back into the economy, paying rent, property taxes, and utilities. They hire local residents as employees and utilize local suppliers to create unique menu items, creating more cash flow back into the hands of local farmers and producers. When local restaurants succeed, their surrounding neighborhoods flourish and lay the groundwork for more future growth.

Build Institute’s innovation hub, located in Corktown, helps entrepreneurs connect, learn, launch, and fund their businesses. Working with food startups and businesses is the company’s true ‘bread and butter,’ and their impact on Detroit’s food economy is evident. As an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Build Institute, Heather Levine meets one-on-one with small businesses of any stage. During her office hours, she helps businesses problem-solve and overcome their challenges, utilizing Build resources and expertise. These EIRs are experienced entrepreneurs who provide valuable insight to micro-entrepreneurs in the startup community, and significantly contribute to driving industry initiatives forward. 

Common issues Levine sees in her meetings include hiring employees, managing costs of business and increasing food costs, as well as increasing revenue streams. Working with a range of industry partners enables Build to connect people with experts in each specific field.

One thing Levine is especially knowledgeable of, though, is the business of food. Having opened four food businesses in the last 11 years, Levine’s husband works as a front-of-house manager. The pair’s successful current businesses include The Oakland in Ferndale, Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Midtown, and Freya on E. Grand Blvd., with adjoining bar Dragonfly.

The licensing process is one of the most challenging aspects for entrepreneurs, says Levine. “I think my number one skill there is helping them with the operational side of things,” she says. 

“The restaurant business is complicated for people because there’s no ‘here’s how to do it.’ You have to look around and find things on your own. I can help them assemble a checklist or an order of things to do first: set up an LLC, work on a business plan, pursue funding, and hire an attorney to negotiate lease space. And then ordering furniture and making contacts with different food and beverage vendors. A lot of it is knowing who to form relationships with. And, you know, it’s a fairly overwhelming process.”

Tamela Todd / Photo supplied.

Tamela Todd, T&T Sip ‘n’ Read

For the owner of T&T Sip ‘n’ Read, Tamela Todd, working with Build Institute has made the process much less overwhelming. Her business is putting a twist on the classic bookstore, by pairing it with a wine bar. After meeting with Levine, Todd was given a 15-item checklist for homework. After completing those tasks and returning, the two brainstormed locations for the new business. A few other ‘dream locations’ slipped through the cracks, but the entrepreneur landed a perfect location in Corktown. A recent recipient of Motor City Match, T&T Sip ‘n’ Read is well on its way to opening up soon.

Todd, a three-time published author and wine lover, hopes to create a comfortable environment for book lovers and wine lovers in a one-stop shop in her hometown of Detroit. The store will host book clubs and signing events for local and celebrity authors, where they serve charcuterie boards, bottles of Michigan-made wine, coffee, and tea. 

“This will be the first book bar we have here in the city of Detroit, and I’m looking forward to the experience that we’ll provide to customers,” Todd says. “Just like you pair wine with different foods, we’ll do different suggestions where we’ll tell you if you're reading a romance novel, maybe we’ll recommend a sweet wine to you. If you’re reading a mystery novel, then we may recommend a Chardonnay, or something a little bitter.”

Todd describes Detroit’s food landscape as diverse. “We have a wide variety. Anything that you want to eat, we have it here in some type of location, if it’s Corktown, Midtown, or even on the outskirts of Detroit. We have something for everybody’s taste buds.”

Currently, the business is in the process of completing the architect renderings, before launching the brick-and-mortar location in Corktown. 

Cierra Mcfarlin, Birdie Mae’s Brunch Bar

Cierra Mcfarlin / Photo supplied.Another up-and-coming small business, Birdie Mae’s Brunch Bar is slated to open later this summer. Detroit native Cierra Mcfarlin has a background in workforce development and community development, and is a self-professed foodie. “I’m not a professional chef, but I really enjoy fine dining, I love cooking at home, and I’m also a bartender by trade as well,” she says. 

Inspired by her grandmother, Birdie Mae Mcfarlin, the restaurant is a dream come true for Mcfarlin, who toyed with the idea over a decade ago. 

“Just before the pandemic, seeing how the local landscape in the city of Detroit was sort of going in the direction of encouraging more small business and entrepreneurship efforts, I thought I’d try my hand at making some progress, and turning an idea into a real thing by applying for different programs such as Build Institute, ProsperUs, and Motor City Match,” she says. “When the pandemic hit, I lost my corporate job and had to really pivot, so I got more intentional about building this restaurant and getting it open.”

Mcfarlin’s mission for her business is to be an intentional one, providing liveable wages for employees, including youth, senior citizens, and those who were formerly incarcerated. She also hopes to work with local farmers to get locally-sourced produce, focusing on sustainability and adding value to the community. 

“Besides the fact that this place is going to be a space where folks can socialize, enjoy food and drinks, I want it to be a place that is impactful in the community in its financial contributions as well,” she says.

Mcfarlin says working with Build Institute at a very dark time after losing her job amidst a global pandemic was life-changing. Focusing on the program “was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. Her classmates are now considered lifelong friends who encourage one another, share resources, and have created a sense of fellowship.

Although the startup progress isn’t always quick, and there are lags in development, Mcfarlin says staff checking in and re-engaging with former students and graduates was crucial to success. Being surrounded by other entrepreneurs in similar situations keeps her going. “It can be a tough journey,” Mcfarlin says. “I went from a 9-to-5 to being thrown in the deep end of entrepreneurship.”

Kevin Schroeder of Brown-Schroder & Co., a general construction company, also serves as Mcfarlin’s landlord of the restaurant’s space at 17330 Woodward. “It’s a very iconic, quaint little building with a lot of rich Detroit history. It used to be known as Spears Bar and Grill. It’s adjacent to Highland Park, five minutes from Ferndale, walking distance to Palmer Park and the Detroit Golf Course, so it’s really surrounded by an amazing area. It gives us an opportunity to tap into a number of different walks of life and demographics in that area.”

Birdie Mae's is currently working with architects to finalize the design, via Motor City Match. Plans are to open by the end of summer. Mcfarlin hopes to curate inclusive, engaging events for all kinds of people, and host live music once the doors open.

“My long-term goal is to be a restaurateur and to move into fine dining and hospitality full-time. My hope is that this is the first of many ventures and that this business will have a unique stamp,” she says. 

Aleksandar Acovski specializes in truffles. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Aleksandar Acovski, Old World Truffles

Aleksandar Acovski has a background as a wine distributor for 11 years, working closely with chefs, and traveling Europe frequently. The Macedonia native has spent the last 15 or so years in Michigan. As a wine distributor, he worked closely with local chefs in restaurants, and quickly realized that some of the ingredients they were using were not up to par. 

“I realized that the truffles they were using were old, soft, not good looking, and there was no flavor,” Acovski says.  “I started talking with all the chefs, and they said they didn’t have any options to buy better products.”

Photo by Nick Hagen.

This gap in the market led to the creation of the company, Old World Truffles, which operates out of a warehouse in Troy. The goal is to bring fresh truffles directly from the truffle hunters in Italy and Spain to restaurants all across the state of Michigan. The business also helps educate chefs and the everyday consumer on truffle freshness, how to store them, and how to incorporate them into different dishes. 

Acovski has witnessed the Detroit food scene grow, something he’s proud to be contributing to. “Compared to 2017, these days, we have a lot of good chefs that moved back to Detroit from different states,” he says. “Chefs with a lot of experience, and different techniques of cooking, who started to implant truffles in the dishes, and it’s getting much more popular. They understand more about truffles.”

Co-owner and wife of Aleksandar, Marina Acovski, worked with Build Institute on the social media marketing side of Old World Truffles. Using their tips on scheduling posts, and creating unique, cohesive content, the social media presence has already grown. 

The goal is to keep moving forward with that growth. “We started really small, and right now, we’re the biggest truffle company in Michigan, covering 85 to 90% of all the restaurants in Metro Detroit,” Aleksandar says. 

Old World Truffles has a line of products like truffle oils, salts, tomatoes, and olive oils in smaller jars that are also sold to retail stores. Ingredients, packaging, and preparation take place in Italy, and the recipe comes from Aleksandar himself. They also have a product, truffle honey, which is made in Michigan, and hope to launch another Michigan-made product, truffle hot sauce, in the next few months. 

Acovski hopes to inform people by hosting presentations in stores, and making truffles more accessible to all. “We want to educate and bring the quality product, but also, not make it too expensive,” he says. “ We want the normal people to get the truffle experience all the time. It’s not about privilege, not only for the rich to have. We want to have everybody be able to afford a truffle on the meal. That’s our goal.”

Photo by Nick Hagen.

Levine looks forward to working with even more entrepreneurs like the three listed above, helping them navigate resources, and eventually, contribute to the cohesive small business ecosystem.

“Detroit is a very, very hard-working small business community,” she says. “And I think it's also a very supportive small business community. Often, I'll refer one business owner to another. They became friends. Everyone leans on each other. If I can help business owners avoid some of the mistakes that we have [in our businesses] made over the years, that's a win for me.”
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