Finding a Way Forward: FoodLab Detroit

FoodLab Detroit is all about connecting food entrepreneurs to the resources they need to be successful. They’re a network-based nonprofit organization, having worked for more than eight years to cultivate nourishing relationships in support of a thriving good food ecosystem in and around Detroit. Currently, they do that work on two different tracks: the first provides “business 101”-type resources and technical assistance to more than 100 members, and the second convenes a twice-a-year fellowship that takes 10 food entrepreneurs on a more intensive journey to success.

Photo by Val Waller

When FoodLab’s executive director Devita Davison reflects on the pandemic’s effects on her work, she describes it as a profound upheaval. “Everything we do in the restaurant industry and in food systems work is about being close to one another. For all of FoodLab’s programming, we gather—in restaurants, cafes, diners, on farms. Restaurant and food systems work is about being fed, but it’s also about closeness and being together, that in-person energy. And now all of that is gone.” 

With their whole world turned upside down, though, FoodLab is not sitting idle; they’re finding new ways to do what they’ve always done, and maybe even to do it better. “I don’t like the term ‘social distancing,’ to be honest,” Devita continues. “We may be physically distancing ourselves, but not socially. We’re finding more and more ways to be socially engaged—we’re figuring out what it means for colleagues, comrades, and partners to be connected to each other, engaged with each other, even when they’re not occupying the same space physically. We’re strategically taking advantage of the moment to build new muscles in ourselves and in our organization.”

In the new social reality of the pandemic, all of FoodLab’s programming has moved online. This includes their monthly, two-hour “On the Table” roundtable conversations, which are open to all their members. Their first virtual roundtable included a whopping 75 participants, and Devita is enthusiastic about how it went. “Not all Zooms are created equal,” she says, noting how FoodLab’s partners at The Work Department embedded themselves in the call, where they worked to parse the content of the conversation, later sending follow-ups to participants that highlighted important resources that had been shared and action items for everyone to work on.

Another way FoodLab is being strategic about the moment has to do with helping food entrepreneurs where they need it most right now: financially. Listing all the things that FoodLab spent money on before the pandemic (facility rentals, food and beverage, flights and accommodations for guest speakers, and more), Devita gets a big smile on her face when she talks about reallocating funds in their budget to go toward the fellows in their cohort. “For the first time,” she says, “we were able to provide our 10 fellows with a stipend.” And it’s not insignificant: $1,000 each to entrepreneurs who really need it.

Now Devita’s eyes are on the future, and the possibility of an even more expansive network—a global one—courtesy of the new, virtual FoodLab. 

And why not? “There has never been an event of this magnitude where things haven’t changed profoundly,” she says. “Our world is going to change, and we all need to be thinking about how we’re going to change with it.”

This is part of a series looking at how Green Garage businesses-in-residence are moving forward during the COVID19 crisis. No one story is intended to paint a complete picture, but taken together, we hope that they will illuminate, in a helpful way, the struggles and successes of some Detroit businesses during these extraordinary times.

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