It was a little over two years ago when Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes met for the first time. Both women had ideas to build an all-local grocery store and both were in the process of making their dreams happen by reaching out to Michigan farmers and small business around the city. “They were getting us confused,” Louya recalls of her meetings with potential suppliers. They inevitably encouraged the pair to get in touch with each other.
Finally, Louya and Foulkes arranged to meet at neighborhood shop Astro Coffee. “We realized that we were both pretty much at the same point in our planning process,” Louya says. “For the most part we were exactly where the other one was, which was really awesome.” The conversation convinced the pair to join forces in an unexpected partnership. Together they built the Farmer’s Hand, a modest 300-square-foot market and cafe with a big presence in the neighborhood.
Since opening its doors, the shop and 2017 Eater Award winner has undergone a lot of changes including adding a line of wines and cheeses to its offerings. Recently, Louya and Foulkes built on the success of their grab-and-go sandwich and coffee business by expanding into a sister restaurant called Folk that serves all-day brunch, coffee, and ice cream on the same block of Trumbull Avenue. All the while, they’ve have maintained a shared philosophy about supporting local businesses and food systems while building strong relationships with customers. Eater caught up with Louya and Foulkes on a recent morning in Corktown to reflect on the past two years and just what exactly makes the Farmer’s Hand work so well.
What were some of your goals leading up to the opening of the Farmer’s Hand and how has the business evolved?
Rohani Foulkes: The primary goal was to be a point of access [to local produce] and also to act as a gathering space in the community. I think we met those goals and exceeded those goals pretty significantly — more than we had anticipated within the first few months even. We were having storage issues in terms of being able to hold enough produce and meat and dairy to meet consumer demand...
In terms of value added products, alongside the farms, we worked with over a hundred partners and continued to have people come to us over the months with different products. We met capacity really in this space, so we had to start to really curate what we put on the shelves side by side and listen to customers that were coming in the door in terms of what they were looking for.
With limit space, was it difficult for you to narrow down what it was that you were stocking in the store?
RF: It can be, yeah, because consumers are can be demanding. They want everything and you’ve got to be really thoughtful about what you put on your shelves and how you do and don’t choose what you put on your shelves... We have very specific points that we look for throughout the vetting process when we bring someone into the market in terms of how they align with our food philosophy and our mission in the market and not everybody does...
We found ourselves really stretching ourselves to our seams logistically, so we’ve had to be smarter about the way that we source. Part of that is really honing in on the partnerships that we have closer to home — so the Detroit farmers — and really working side by side with them to have in-depth conversations about what they can produce for us, when they can produce, how much they can produce... We have this model in the store and we want to make sure that we’re providing to them the space and the financial return that they are looking for.
In the past year you’ve made some changes to the market in terms of adding beer and wine as well as cheeses and charcuterie. How did those changes fit into your vision for what the Farmer’s Hand should be?
RF: We extended out cheese and wine offerings to what we term “regional,” so coast-to-coast. It’s something that a lot of people were looking for. We first were [selling] all Michigan [products] — so all Michigan cheese, all Michigan wine, and said everything in this store was [from] Michigan, but through conversations and hearing need and thinking too about the longevity and sustainability of what we do in this store we felt a strong pull and need towards expanding those offerings. There aren’t a lot of places in the city that you can go to for really thoughtfully curated selection of cheese and wine. Alongside the other beautiful products that we have in the store, those [regional] partners still meet the same criteria that we look for in local partners.
Businesses in the past have struggled to make small neighborhood markets work in Detroit. What makes the Farmer’s Hand different?
Kiki Louya: I do think that community is a big part of it and I really think that’s [what’s] incredibly important to me and Rohani personally, and, I think, to our staff too... We know people come to us for the staples that they come into us for like bread, eggs, cheese, milk. But I do think that there is something about the Farmer’s Hand where people also come to it because it’s a safe space where people can feel like they can have conversations with us and feel like we truly care because we do [care] about their kids, and their dogs, and their families, and what’s going on in their life. So I’d like to think of it as more than just a little grocer, but really like that kind of grocer that watches out for you.
What were some of your most rewarding moments at the Farmer’s Hand since the opening?
RF: I think that first time that we pulled the report for produce. We have a 4-foot produce deck in the Farmer’s Hand and we sat down and we pulled a report for it. [In the beginning] we had a lot of naysayers like, “Oh, you’ve got 300 square feet. Good luck with that.” We had some farmers that are really curious about how this model was going to work and how we were going to succeed. Anyway, we pulled that first report — one of our first reports — and we figured out that we were selling a ton of produce — a ton, literally, of produce through that 4-foot produce deck every two weeks. So just that alone was for me the first, most rewarding on paper kind of like “wow” moment to have it back backup what we had intended to do. We did it, we’d done it, and we continue to do it.
KL: Our one year anniversary because we did that with the Bearded Lady and Mama Coo’s. Metaphysica hadn’t opened just yet, but all of us had opened pretty close to one another, so we decided on a date in the summertime, right before our [official] one year. It was really nice because it was a collaboration. It further solidified the bond that we have with the other women-owned businesses in the building. That was awesome. But then the other part of it was just that the street was packed. There were tons of people there just having a good time. We had music going, lots of food, our employees had a great time. It was just nice to see that. I think I pretty much saw everyone who I wanted to see and then people who I didn’t even expect to see who came through, drove from wherever, or walked down the block and it was just really nice.
You just finished opening Folk next door. What’s next for the Farmer’s Hand?
KL: I think just to continue to do what we’re doing and to do it well. I think taking on a bigger cafe has its challenges in and of itself, so just maintaining our standard throughout is really important.
I also think that focusing on maybe some internal private events and maybe some more catering opportunities is something that we’re putting in the forefront... We’ve been doing a lot of catered cheese platters and charcuterie boards and some really beautiful crudités platters. We have a partnership now with Brooklyn Outdoor, which is really awesome. So I think just growing that is important.
And then also tackling our storage. The busier that we get with both spaces, that storage situation is at the forefront of our capacity. It kind of dictates what we can and cannot do, so we’d love to be able to grow that and I think that in turn will just grow the businesses.