When Detroit gives you potatoes…
The streets on Detroit’s near east side are some of the most vacant and blighted in a city where neglect and poverty have reigned for decades. But they weren’t always that way. For most of the early and middle part of the twentieth century, they were packed with working class European immigrants, and later, working class African Americans. Large families lived in the brick and wood frame houses lining these once-leafy residential streets. Neighborhoods were intersected by commercial thoroughfares brimming with small, family-owned businesses—grocers, dry cleaners, and hardware stores.
Today, those vibrant communities are a distant memory. A series of social and economic calamities—the 1967 race riots, the loss of thousands of well-paying auto industry jobs during the 1970s and 1980s, the “Great Recession”—have left neighborhoods here in tatters and deep poverty. While a few have managed to hang on to some of their structures and residents, many of the homes are vacant—scorched by fire, collapsing, or gone altogether.
The majority of properties are in some kind of tax distress or foreclosure, according to data from Detroit-based mapping company Loveland, LLC.
Community organizer Michael Wimberley has been working to fight the tide of despair here for years. In 1994, he launched a nonprofit community development organization, Friends of Detroit & Tri-County, with the goal of building hope in a community where so much of it had been lost. The organization dubbed the area “The Hope District.”
Through the years, they’ve tried to revitalize the neighborhood with a community center, a health clinic, public art and a market. But none of these ventures have been able to staunch the continued decline of a left-behind neighborhood in a bankrupt city.
One of Wimberley’s ventures is a community farm with a focus on growing potatoes. Owing to its surplus of vacant land, Detroit’s urban agriculture scene has blossomed in recent years. But even with low-cost land and labor, the farm couldn’t achieve enough productivity to compete with commodity potato growers on price. So Wimberley began looking around for an alternative.
“A friend suggested that we climb the food chain and make potato chips,” he recalls.
Wimberley took the farm’s unsold potatoes and began testing out potato chip recipes from neighbors and friends in the nonprofit’s community kitchen. Then he started serving samples at the local soup kitchen.
[nfe_dropcap]Enterprises like Detroit Friends Potato Chips, which add value to urban agriculture, are important to the viability of the city’s land use vision.[/nfe_dropcap]
“At first, people were giving them back to us because they were terrible,” he laughs.
But after some experimentation, he eventually settled on two flavors, lemon-pepper and barbecue, that were a hit.
Once the product was refined, Wimberley went through the FoodLab Detroit BASE program, a local food business development curriculum designed around a triple-bottom-line approach of “people, planet and profit.” That was in 2013. Since then, he’s taken what he’s learned about marketing, branding and packaging and run with it.
Detroit Friends Potato Chips are now available in about a dozen grocery stores and restaurants across the city. The chips are made in small batches of 15-20 pounds, thick-cut and deep-fried with the skins on. What makes them unique, according to Wimberley, is their crunch, heartiness, and distinctive golden color.
Wimberley even got a call from “Oprah’s people” to send samples to be considered for the famed media maven’s “Favorite Things” list for 2015. Even though he didn’t make the cut—this time—he is confident in his product and the potential it has to offer hope to his community. He says the venture is profitable and is contributing to the larger goals of Friends of Detroit & Tri-County.
“We make thousands of bags of chips,” he says. “Our sales team works tirelessly to increase our sales. Our kitchen staff works just as hard to maintain quality.”
Modeling success in a community that has seen so little of it is equally as important to Wimberley as profitability.
“Part of our mission is to make a big impact in the community by hiring people, so they can have gainful employment in their neighborhood instead of having to commute to the suburbs for work,” he says. Currently, he employs four people in the enterprise, including himself. “We also want to be an inspiration to people in the community who see us as a model; if we can do it, so can they.”
The business model is in line with plans for the area outlined in the Detroit Future City Strategic Framework, which calls for an “innovation production” zone defined as “landscapes of innovation where productive development types predominate.”
“Innovation production means uses that are land-based, but produce something—whether food or forestry products,” says Detroit Future City director Dan Kinkead. Examples include the Hantz Woodlands project that is growing trees on vacant land, and Recovery Park, a project that will grow food in high-tunnel hoop houses while employing veterans and those returning from incarceration or rehabilitation.
Enterprises like Detroit Friends Potato Chips, which add value to urban agriculture, are important to the viability of the city’s land use vision, according to Kinkead.
While only a tiny fraction of the potatoes used to make the chips currently come from local community gardens (the bulk are procured through vendors at Detroit’s Eastern Market), Wimberley’s goal is to eventually source at least 51 percent of his potatoes locally by expanding gardens and training residents to be producers.
It might be small potatoes at the moment, but Wimberley sees big potential to make a difference in a way his previous ventures have not been able to. He notes that the success of the chip business is a result of lessons learned from those other ventures.
“One of my biggest inspirations is for us to be a producer in a community that’s filled with consumers,” he says. “I think that’s an essential key to building a local supply chain.”