Detroit Food and Drink Purveyors Change Course During the Pandemic
Saffron de Twah’s Chef, Omar Anani, prepares to deliver hearty meals to first responders.
IAt the end of February, chef Omar Anani scanned the 30th Semi-finalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards, noting that his restaurant, Saffron de Twah, made the list. Arguably an outsider – the quaint, casual Moroccan-inspired restaurant on Detroit’s east side is a far cry from the glitzy downtown restaurants that have been recognized in years past – Saffron de Twah was among the restaurants that have been used by award-winning chefs from Chicago up Santa Monica were headed for the prestigious title of best new restaurant. Although the restaurant did not advance to the finals, the nod spoke volumes to its excellence. Even so, on March 17, despite all signs of his early success, Saffron de Twah closed its doors indefinitely, weeks before its first anniversary.
The term “pivot” has recently become a culinary catchphrase that is more common than “vegetable”. In response to social distancing mandates, restaurant-only restaurants have traditionally offered delivery and roadside service and developed means of contactless pickups. Although it looked like he had gone out of business, Anani’s core mission of serving the restaurant’s surrounding neighborhood became the driving force behind Saffron de Twah’s purgatory iteration.
“If I had let everyone go, I could have stayed open and done just enough to pay the bills,” says Anani. “But we are a community-based restaurant. When I’m closed, I can do so much more for the community and people in the area than I would if I were waiting for assignments to come. “
Saffron de Twah Chef Omar Anani’s dishes for frontline staff incorporate Moroccan ingredients with a modern twist.
Within days of the restaurant’s closure, Anani was preparing meal sets for displaced people from the food industry. He then worked with Elisa Gurule, a hometown heroine who coordinates food deliveries to health care workers at Henry Ford Medical Center-Fairlane, a facility that lacks the infrastructure to provide meals to employees. In a hospital without a cafeteria, workers now treat themselves to warm couscous and comforting bowls.
The linchpin of two-time James Beard Foundation finalist Lisa Ludwinski was also motivated by her own mission to serve the community around her West Village cake shop following the announcement of the closure of Sister Pie. Her priority was to provide groceries to residents of the West Village in need. “We identify as a triple bottom-line company,” says Ludwinski, who prioritizes people, profit and the planet alike. “That was helpful to me at a time when I have to concentrate. It helps me make decisions that can have a positive impact on all of these things. ”
In late April, Michigan’s COVID-19 death toll was the third highest in the country. Ludwinski saw the profound impact the virus had on Detroit and saw an opportunity to use her resources and relationships with grocery vendors in ways that local residents could reduce their chances Containing the virus when shopping for essential groceries. “Just knowing that I have the access to create a space where people can get food without contact and that allows 20% of my neighbors to really stay at home feels like a contribution to me”, she says. “At the moment we can offer security, service and nutrition.”
Sister Pie owner Lisa Ludwinski
Standard orders of sugar and flour for the bakery quickly shifted to buying almond milk, pasta, beans, and even packs of toilet paper. Boxes of produce and eggs fill the space, and refrigerated shelves are stacked with food orders instead of freshly baked cookies. “It looks like a completely different place, but for us it felt like a natural fulcrum,” says Ludwinski. “This is not a financially motivated decision – at this point we don’t even have a full picture of how this will affect us financially – but it is a responsibility to be a company that essentially operates and serves the neighborhood can. “
Beverage factories were also no longer recognizable. To meet the continuing demand for hand sanitizer, breweries and distilleries across the state have reconfigured their facilities to produce alcohol antiseptics for frontline workers and the general public.
At the Valentine Distilling Co., gallons of solution rested on whiskey barrels. Seductive ribbed glass bottles, wrapped in a seal that read Royal Clean, replaced the signature vodka bottles – a completely new product was born.
In the early stages of the crisis, Ludwinski implemented protocols so guests could safely collect their orders.
By mid-April, the Detroit City Distillery had organized deliveries of nearly 8,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to COVID-19 first responders. “We try to give priority to hospitals, health facilities – whether nursing homes or youth and homeless shelters – such as the police, the fire department and the ambulance service,” says Michael Forsyth, co-owner of DCD. “We’re just trying to bring it to people in greatest need. I think if you are asked to go out of your way and serve a bigger cause to help the public, this is what you need to do. This is the Detroit way. ”
Anani stands in Saffron de Twah’s empty 20-seat dining room, preparing around 250 meals for Henry Ford-Fairlane. “We are still in the hotel business. We have rooted it in us to give people the shirt off their backs. We will do everything we can to ensure that the people are taken care of. We’re doing it in a different format right now. “