Neighborhood Noodle's Jess Daniel on entrepreneurship, community and how food brings us together
Published: March 9, 2011
MT: What about your partners?
Daniel: Chelsea is a chef. She works at Le Petit Zinc cr êperie. She grew up in this area. She was living in New York for a while, managing an Asian food truck. She has perfect experience. She's a vegetarian, mostly vegan, and has a lot of background in developing that sort of area. Allison has a lot experience in the front of the house and on the servicing side. She's been waitressing since she was 15 years old. She's worked at Supino Pizza and a couple of other places.
MT: Would you categorize Neighborhood Noodle as part of an underground movement?
Daniel: "Partially" might be the answer. Some people have told me that the cachet of Neighborhood Noodle is that it's somewhat underground. Especially when it was out of my house. It's kind of trendy. You have to get in before the deadline. You have to order online. You come and pick it up. One of the women in the working group, who runs Detroit Brunch, has a similar setup where she's operating out of her house. She's surprised to be getting people from the suburbs, trying to get them excited about Detroit, but, on the other hand, she is concerned about serving her neighborhood and her neighbors. She wants to have people coming to her by bicycle and ordering food from her. It is technically underground because we aren't incorporated. We don't have everything we need to be aboveground. But, on the other hand, serving the community, all of us are working toward that, and one of the goals of the collective is to try to create the tools to make it easier to be legitimate businesses. Most of us, because of our missions and visions, we want to be a stable part of the neighborhoods and the community. A lot of us want to be in it for the long haul, to be real established businesses. Neighborhood Noodle is operating out of a commercial kitchen and we have our food handlers' licenses. We're good. I think that some of us are finding that it's difficult to figure out what the rules are and how to follow them. I think that part of what this group is that we want to learn from the experience of people who are a little further ahead of us to understand what are the hoops that we need to jump through, and then, how can we work with the city to make it a little bit easier; not easier in terms of more lax regulation, but easier in terms of more transparency. There's a lot of red tape.
MT: You're a big booster of Detroit. Your Facebook page proclaims, "I love Detroit." Are you originally from here?
Daniel: I had no connection to Detroit. I was planning to go to graduate school in California to focus more on the production end of things, on food supply chains and looking at how to help producers get more return on the products that they were producing. It was kind of like eco-labeling, but making sure the end-consumers knew what the qualities were of the product that farmers were creating, like sustainable, no-till, etc. So I was going to work on that and food distribution issues, but from a pretty academic perspective. At the time I was working in Washington, D.C., on federal agriculture policy, and I was going to conferences around the country and I ended up meeting a few people here in Detroit. Dan Carmody, head of the Eastern Market, was one of them. Talking to some of them about some of the interesting and innovative things that were going on, I got more and more interested. Finally I approached Dan. He thought there were some projects that I might be good to work on. I wasn't sure if there would be enough money to support me, so I ended up approaching MSU and asked them if I could come on as a graduate student. That ended up working out. Now I'm not doing any formal projects with Eastern Market, but we're talking a lot about, like, for example, their Shed 5 renovations. They're planning to put in a community kitchen, so we're talking with them about hooking up this group of food entrepreneurs with what they're planning, to make sure that there's communication going on in terms of needs and what people are looking for. So, that's what brought me here. You might call it inspiration.
MT: Can grass-roots businesses, in your case a food business, have a significant impact on the city of Detroit, or does it take the likes of a reborn General Motors to pump lost vibrancy and spirit back and economic success into the community?
Daniel: It's not an either-or question. Just like an eco-system, there needs to be diversity of sizes of businesses, types of businesses, and operators of businesses in terms of who has the power over the businesses. I don't think that it should be only General Motors or large tech companies. I also don't think that it's going to work if all we have is a million food trucks. Who's gonna eat from the food trucks? My sense is that it takes both. Local businesses can have an impact by hiring locally, sourcing locally, essentially reinvesting in the community. Food can help create a place-making and culture-making potential of these businesses. The same way that people talk about the creative crafts and artists bringing young educated people into cities and getting them excited about staying, wanting to be here, I think that's one of the things that food businesses, in particular, are going to bring. Younger people, even those who grew up here, have a shorter memory in terms of what Detroit was before and what it is now. They tend to see the potential rather than what has been lost. The exciting thing about a lot of the businesses is the people who run them are challenged to make them work, at the same time they have a fierce love for Detroit.
MT: Do you have any favorite cookbooks?
Daniel: Takashi's Noodles is one. I have a friend in Chicago who's been meaning to introduce us and become my noodle mentor.
> Email Jeff Broder