Neighborhood Noodle's Jess Daniel on entrepreneurship, community and how food brings us together
Published: March 9, 2011
Jess Daniel moved to Detroit in July, knowing only three people. In order to meet people, she invited her neighbors over for dinner. They liked the food and Jess liked feeding them and getting to know them. Then she began selling noodles from her house, telling her neighbors and putting up a website. On her first "noodle night," 75 people showed up. Her idea has evolved into a once-a-month dinner that can be picked up or eaten at Supino Pizza. The food must be ordered in advance from the website neighborhoodnoodle.com. It's a great way to enjoy a tasty meal on the cheap and to meet a cross section of the local community. Jess has embraced the community, and the community has responded in kind. In a few short months, Jess has become a genuine Detroiter.
Metro Times: What are the goals of Neighborhood Noodle: profit, nonprofit, community activism, a model for a restaurant?
Jess Daniel: I think it's a combination. I think we would characterize ourselves as a social enterprise, and, when we incorporate, as a for-profit. We looked into some new models like a limited profit corporation for which there's a designation in Michigan. We've been recommended to start as a regular LLC. As we add on educational programs and things like that, we'll probably have a nonprofit that is affiliated with our business. We're still very open as to what the model will be. Originally, we were talking about having food trucks. We are putting together a group of about 15 food entrepreneurs with a social mission who are talking about creating a working group. People are interested in the financial sustainability aspect of things too. We're bringing the entrepreneurs together to talk about the real struggles. You're asking me if we are community activists or in business. There's a lot of serious challenges in trying to be both. It's not easy. All of the people in the group fall into the spectrum. Some of them are motivated by "I just want to have a business to support myself" or "I just want to provide really delicious food," while others are completely on the other side, all about providing access to healthy food to people in neighborhoods. Or it's all about environmental sustainability and buying locally, organically produced fruits and vegetables to use in their businesses. There are different values that people bring to the table. There's a lot of commonality and a lot of similarities, but there's also a lot of challenges, especially there's the problem of how you make the values that you have work with your bottom line, particularly in an environment where even traditional businesses are finding it very challenging. Is a socially motivated business going to do better? An example is a local sausage maker who likes to use fresh herbs and fresh produce. That actually makes it more difficult to write a food safety plan because some USDA regulations make it more difficult to do that than to use dried ingredients. So what are the challenges that come from wanting to create fresh local food that benefits the community? Also what are the opportunities?
MT: That brings to mind Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, considered by many to be the forerunner, or most visible one, that is, of the locavore movement in healthful, quality food.
Daniel: I've had conversations with her, and read from her books, and one of her things is that her organization started very organically. Chez Panisse began with a bunch of her friends. She thought it was a cool idea, and in the beginning it wasn't profitable at all. She was a woman with a vision who attracted all the right people to her cause to make it work. I'm hoping that, with this sort of working group, we'll be attracting not only the entrepreneurs themselves, but also a support network of people who can bring legal advice and advice on financing to the table. One of the things that we've been talking about is establishing a fund, a small rotating loan fund for the entrepreneurs just so we could be like, "It would really help my business if I had this piece of equipment. I need $500." And then we would democratically vote to give the money to that person.
MT: Are you getting any funding?
Daniel: Not yet. We're in the very early stage. I've had a lot of personal conversations with people that will be in this group. I'm a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University in community food systems and sustainable ag. I've worked in the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, and my dissertation research is going to be about food entrepreneurship in Detroit. So basically this working group is going to be my research project. I'm lucky enough that the Mott group pays me to be a graduate student and to do this research and for some other specific projects. That means that I can kind of act as a facilitator and help if we decide that we want to write a grant or incorporate as a nonprofit, I can spend some of my time doing that for the group.
MT: What is your background in the food industry?
Daniel: When I was living and working in Cambodia in 2008 for about a year, I started out in girls education. But a lot of the work I did around social justice ended up connecting back to food because 85 percent of the people in Cambodia are still farming. When girls weren't in school, a lot of time it had to do with the fact that they were working in the fields or their teachers were working in the fields. A lot of the issues that spoke to me ended up connecting back to these food and ag issues. I just kept getting more and more interested, and when I moved back to the United States I was farming in Washington state for a while. Through that whole period, I've always loved to cook. That's been my way of connecting with people. When I was in Cambodia I learned to speak Khmer, but language and cultural barriers are always difficult, and I think food is a way of connecting through those barriers. Food is love. It's a very nonconfrontational, very simple way of meeting people and finding commonalities. I learned to cook a lot of interesting things in Cambodia. My mom is Singaporian. She has seven brothers and sisters. They are all amazing cooks, so I've learned to cook from them. But I have no background. Actually the only place that I've ever worked in a restaurant, which barely qualifies, is at a McDonald's at Californian Adventures — which is basically the other Disneyland — when I was 16 years old, and I didn't even touch the food. My experience in food service is extremely limited; but my experience in cooking, I have a lot.
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