A common complaint among longtime Detroiters of the growth of the city’s dining scene is it doesn’t feel like it’s for them. Rather, there’s an unspoken understanding that many of the new restaurants hitting neighborhoods throughout the city were designed with newcomers — and their disposable incomes — in mind.
That’s exactly what a pair of developers who are renovating the Deco Building at 16703 E. Warren Ave. in Detroit’s East English Village neighborhood are trying to avoid. In April, Brandon Hodges, founder of Tribe Development, and business partner Damon Dickerson, an architect with Dokes Design Architecture, closed on a two-story mixed-use brick building built in 1935 on East Warren Avenue that, prior to sitting vacant for several years, previously housed a beauty school. The duo are renovating the six studio and one-bedroom apartments upstairs and hope to bring in a food business to occupy roughly 2,000 square feet on the ground floor.
Instead of simply white-boxing the space and seeking out a viable tenant, however, Hodges tells Eater and he and Dickerson are in the midst of a community engagement campaign in which they’re asking residents of East English Village and surrounding communities what they would like to see in a neighborhood restaurant.
The pair have been spending the past few months tabling at public events and reaching out to residents for their feedback. So far, they’ve garnered just under 100 responses to an online survey that asks respondents to share details about their dining out habits: how much money they spend for an average meal, how often they eat at restaurants in the immediate area, the types of cuisines they favor, and the kinds of amenities — like price point, ambiance, whether a place is kid-friendly — that folks seek out in an establishment.
“We’re lovers of food, we think food has a really catalytic effect for neighborhoods, if done the right way,” says Hodges. “What we didn’t want to do is make kind of broad assumptions around one, what we would like to see there, because you know, we don’t live in the neighborhood specifically, although we have a good sense of what’s there, and [two,] we wanted to make sure that what we brought was going to be in alignment with what residents actually wanted.
“We kind of thought about this community engagement process as more oriented towards the curation of that food tenant, and really getting a lot of good insight from the neighborhood and from the east siders as to what they want to see,” Hodges adds.
Hodges and Dickerson first got to know each other around 2018 while Dickerson was a participant in a real estate class run by the nonprofit, Building Community Value, which equips residents with the basic skills and connections needed to become small-scale developers in their own neighborhoods. Hodges was a teacher’s assistant for the course and the two bonded over their shared aspiration to do impactful community work on a neighborhood scale.
They initially were interested in purchasing a different building nearby in 2019 as early planning began for the East Warren/Cadieux Neighborhood Plan, among 10 neighborhood improvement initiatives supported by the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund. The pair did not get that property, but later found the East Warren building. The city of Detroit owned the space and was was seeking proposals from developers on how to reactivate it. Hodges says that at the time — 2020 at the height of the pandemic crisis that forced countless restaurants to shutter — the two realized that if they were to open a food business, it would have to both be able to serve the needs of the community as well as beyond a rocky economy.
Hodges says he and Dickerson are hoping for another 50-60 responses before proceeding to identify which food businesses might be a good fit. For that, they’ve enlisted chef Ederique Goudia, who owns In The Business of Food, co-founded Taste the Diaspora, and previously had plans to launch Gabriel Hall.
“We’re trying to get smarter around how to make people more comfortable in their own neighborhood and if we can introduce some of that to our project,” says Hodges.