Opening in 2018 as a sister business to the award-winning micro-market and cafe the Farmer’s Hand, Folk almost immediately earned a following for its avocado toast and Aussie meat pies. The come-as-you-are atmosphere and photogenic space with loads of natural light made it a popular spot for weekend brunch and earned the 24-seat cafe accolades not only for the terrific food, but also for founders Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes’ dedication to building a better work environment for restaurant employees.
Leap forward to this summer and much has changed at Folk, though one could say the founder’s vision for the business is clearer than ever before: It all started in June, when Louya and Foulkes joined forces fellow emerging restaurateurs Ping Ho and chef Sarah Welch of Marrow and the Royce to form hospitality group Nest Egg, LLC. As part of the move, the Farmer’s Hand closed to make way for a new restaurant and bar called Mink headed by chef Cameron Rolka — on track to open this fall. (The market is still popping up on weekends and gearing up to reopen in a larger space come 2021.) Folk, meanwhile, hired a new head chef Jessi Patuano in late June to help guide the restaurant into its next phase of evolution.
For Patuano, joining the team at Folk was a chance to work with a group of women creating a business she admired as well as an opportunity to move towards a more sustainable work schedule. “I personally never really set out to be a restaurant chef,” says Patuano, who most recently headed the kitchen at Gather in Eastern Market. However, Patuano says that she became swept up in the industry. Her dedication and passion for food earned her positions at some of the region’s most acclaimed restaurants including the Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake, Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, Torino in Ferndale, and Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Midtown.
Although she loved the work, it came with the industry’s famously grueling hours and made it difficult to have a life outside of the kitchen. Patuano says Folk’s dedication to offering workers a more sustainable wage, paid time off, and maternity leave were just some of the reasons she decided to take the position.
Folk, meanwhile, was looking for a chef who was willing to work in a small kitchen and help the restaurant keep up with seasonal menu changes. Folk’s owners were also offering Patuano an opportunity for long-term growth few other restaurants could give her: a future outside of the daily grind of the restaurant. As she establishes systems at Folk and relationships with local farms, Patuano will be gradually moving into a new role helping oversee development of the Farmer’s Hand 2.0. Part of the goal, Patuano says, is to build a “food hub” that works not only as a grocery store, but also as a middleman connecting restaurants with local farmers.
Sticking to Core Values
From June through August, Folk rapidly revamped its business. The cafe started by adding a liquor license and removing the espresso machine. It’s also focused more on developing private events business, and, with Patuano’s help, has doubled down on its local, seasonal menu. Most significantly, the restaurant raised wages for employees.
After joining Nest Egg, Patuano says that server wages at Folk were also raised from $13.50 per hour to $18 per hour — a huge leap that required some tradeoffs. “We’re not as large of a staff as we once were, [but] now we’re able to give the employees that are on our team the hours and the wage necessary in order to be a ‘livable wage,’” she says.
In addition to reducing staff, changing the menu also helped offset the pay increase by limiting food costs and waste. Folk now offers fewer meat options and avocados — once a big part of the menu at Folk — have also been removed. “They’re just a hard product to have on hand,” Patuano says of the avocados, which have notably gone up significantly in price this summer. “They have that very short window where they’re the perfect eating consistency and then as soon as you miss that window, you lose a very expensive product.”
Playing to Strengths
Although the size of the kitchen is a challenge, Patuano believes it makes Folk more nimble and views it as a chance to build relationships with growers. “Because we’re small, we have this opportunity to work with farmers in a way that some restaurant chefs cannot,” she says. For example, Folk can accept smaller produce orders that wouldn’t be suited to a high-volume kitchen. In place of potatoes, Patuano is serving sides made from in-season vegetables such as tomatoes. She’s also introduced smoothie bowls with Michigan fruit and plans to replace the bananas with local pawpaws when they come into season.
As with any change to a favorite restaurant, the updates have been met with some disappointment with customers who miss certain items. “We have had some guests who are real sad to see some of the old menu items go, but we’re hoping to get them just as excited about the new menu items, and then also hoping to retrain their brain a little bit to expect new things from us each time they come in,” she says.
For now, Patuano is excited by the shifts at Folk and to her own schedule. She’s looking forward to settling into a groove at her new job. “Making the switch from p.m. to a.m. has been a worthwhile adjustment for me,” she says. “Being as fresh as I am to this particular location, I’m probably giving it about as much of my time as I was my previous job. However, I don’t think that that’s a forever kind of thing.”
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