Over vegan pancakes and burrito bowls, we march on

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 - 1:43pm

The site of the OFW event

The site of the OFW event Buy this photo
Courtesy of Detroit Filling Station

It is a cool Saturday in late Oct. and as most of Ann Arbor sleeps, Kerrytown’s Detroit Filling Station wakes up with the intent of changing the world. As I arrive at the activist brunch event, I have little idea of what to expect. All I know before arrival is that the event is a partnership of sorts between the owners of Detroit Filling Station and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, who are currently advocating for the Michigan One Fair Wage Campaign. The One Fair Wage Campaign is a national campaign advocating for better working conditions and higher wages for restaurant workers around the United States. The server-for-an-hour event held at the Ann Arbor restaurant on Oct. 27 was just one stop on a tour of public appearances across Mich. this past weekend featuring actress and activist Jane Fonda, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United co-founder Saru Jayaraman and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Also at the event was congresswoman Debbie Dingell, former state legislator Rashida Talib (who is running unopposed in Nov. and will become one of the first two Muslim-American women elected to the U.S. Congress) and state representative Yousef Rabhi.

Restaurant Opportunities Center co-president, Saru Jayaraman, educated me further on the cause and the current reasoning behind their stop in Mich. when she gave some opening remarks as the event began.

“The Michigan state legislature passed the law for a $12 minimum wage for tipped employees in the state of Michigan, and now they are trying to take it off the ballot,” Jayaraman said passionately as patrons nodded in agreement. Her rousing speech had a common thread: urging everyone to call their senators and condemn the removal of One Fair Wage (OFW) off the ballot.

The public appearance of these celebrities to advocate for OFW was well placed at Detroit Filling Station — a restaurant that ensures the respectful treatment of their employees. They make sure to provide fair wages, with everyone — from dishwashers to servers to cooks — making between $14 and $19 an hour. Additionally, all who work at least 30 hours per week are eligible for Michigan’s top-of-the-line health & dental plan, ensuring that employees can cover all of the necessary costs of living.

As the event carried on with gusto and charisma, I walked around and talked to some of the customers and local community members about what they thought of the event, as well as what brought them there.

“It is super exciting to be a part of something in this community dedicated to a fair wage,” said Ann Arbor resident Lynn Dils, who was enjoying her coffee and waiting for the event to begin. “We have waitresses in the family, so it’s great to be a part of something locally that supports them too.”

Many other patrons who I had the chance to speak with shared her sentiments exactly. There was something stirring in the air as the diner bubbled with passionate discourse between one another.

“I am so excited to be here with national celebrities who are lending support to a local issue… and it’s also my favorite restaurant,” said patron Marian Gonsior when asked about how it felt to be at an event like this in Ann Arbor.

The event was an amalgamation between so many different people from the Ann Arbor community, all sharing a common love for social activism and vegan food. It pushed people to want to leave the doors of Detroit Street and go out and spread the word about One Fair Wage. Activist and actress Jane Fonda, the biggest name on the bill, had a lot to say on the topic of paying it forward and marching on past the doors of Detroit Street, in order to really make a difference.

“My former husband (Tom Hayden) came from Royal Oak, went to the University of Michigan and was the editor of The Michigan Daily, and he taught me to really love this state,” she began when she took the microphone to speak in front of anxiously awaiting customers.

“This is a midterm election and it is the most important election that I’ve ever lived through. If we don’t at least take back the House, we’re in even more trouble, and it’s very important that everyone understands to vote down the ticket,” she said.

“Call your representatives after the election and tell them you will not stand for them repealing One Fair Wage, or for taking it off the ballot,” she finished strongly, before introducing co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, who agreed with and elaborated on her sentiments.

“Black Lives Matter has really been on the front lines of changing the debate and the conversation about racial justice in this country and also around the world. And I think that this particular bill really challenges the idea of who is deserving and what they deserve. We live in a country that has built our foundation on who is inferior and who is superior,” Cullors said.

“So in our efforts to challenge the state and local governments to make sure that this bill isn’t gutted — it’s going to take everybody in this room. It’s going to take all of our work, all of our love and all of our commitment,” Cullors said. “I hope that after today you go home. You talk to your family members, you talk to your co-workers, you go on your social media and you make sure that you say that this One Fair Wage bill cannot be gutted in Michigan.”

With her conclusion, the crowd roared in agreement, picking up their forks again to finish piles of thick vegan pancakes, layered with strawberries, whipped rice cream and Mich. maple syrup.

I overheard Congresswoman Dingell expressing her commitment to being involved and present at the local activist events over last weekend — including an event for domestic violence and a breast cancer awareness event. Right away, she asked the manager of Detroit Street for an apron, so that she was ready to serve.

“I can’t just stand here and not remind you that we’re 10 days away from an election,” she began, which elicited a laugh from the audience. Many of the speeches by the guest servers surrounded voter mobilization. In recognizing that, for the Democratic Party especially, this election is extremely important, they emphasized the issues of unfair working conditions and low wages to bring to light the necessity of voting in the coming election. They expressed repeatedly that the only way One Fair Wage will see light on a Mich. ballot in the future, and maybe one day become a reality, is if everyone in the room and beyond goes out and votes.

In addition to the myriad of celebrities present, Paul Saginaw, co-owner of Zingerman’s Deli, took the floor to agree with all of the previous sentiments and offer opinions of his own. Zingerman’s is another restaurant that, like Detroit Street, treats its employees well and stands in support with One Fair Wage.

“It is very easy to not be political,” he began. This, to me, spoke directly to the eligible University students who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. Of eligible voters, approximately 44.7 percent voted in the election according to the National Study of Voting, Learning and Engagement 2016 campus report.

On the topic of voter mobilization, I was able to talk directly with Rashida Talib. She is a passionate speaker, an astute woman and a fierce individual. She expressed how excited she was to have a hands-on job serving people in the restaurant that morning.

“So many of us march together and won’t vote together,” she said when asked why voter mobilization is so important in young people.

“You are needed,” Talib said. “You and your peers have a really important role right now in coming out and selecting leadership with compassion.”

The air was filled with chatter and the mouth-watering scent of breakfast food as the morning progressed. I overheard young girls who couldn’t be out of middle school declaring they’d be an activist at some point in their lives, people at neighboring tables sharing moments between one another and co-owners Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo connecting with everyone around them, ensuring the event was running smoothly.

I had the privilege of stealing Phillis Engelbert away from her busy life as a restaurant owner and activist for a moment to say a few words about the restaurant’s mission and the event itself.

When I asked Engelbert what she and Panozzo thought the intersection between the restaurant industry and activism is, she had a lot to say.

“For us, they go hand in hand. My business partner Joel Panozzo and I both have histories of social activism. So it makes sense that we apply a community organizing model to our restaurants,” Engelbert said.“We see our restaurants as resources, to be used for building community and making social change. We try to set an example for other businesses by offering our employees a fair wage, health and dental benefits, earned time off, retirement benefits and a fitness bonus.”

Engelbert and Panozzo have a commitment to the food they serve, but an even bigger commitment to the community they foster through their restaurants.

“People eat at our restaurants monthly, weekly and sometimes even daily. We are told time and again that we are their favorite restaurants. I believe that, yes, our food is good, but that is only one thing that keeps people coming back,” Engelbert said. “The other thing is that people feel welcome and a sense of belonging here. I have been told by some, that they were first attracted to Detroit Street Filling Station by the rainbow flag, hung near our entrance. Others have mentioned being comforted by our Black Lives Matter signs.”

Clearly, the team at Detroit Street is motivated on so many levels of social activism and in so many different topics, but when asked specifically about One Fair Wage and how Engelbert incorporates it into her businesses, she was very passionate and excited.

“We try to stay ahead of the curve. When activists were pushing for earned sick time, we brought them into our restaurants and helped them collect petition signatures. And we began offering it to our employees,” Englebert said. “For us, One Fair Wage is do-able, and it’s the right thing to do.”

After attending such a riveting event, I was curious when I could come back on my own accord to taste more of this activism and vegan food fusion. I inquired what I could expect in the near future, so I could mark my calendar, tell all my friends and make the trek over to Detroit Street for some gluten-free Tater Tots and social advocacy.

“You can expect bold new directions in vegan cooking, a continued lineup of great music, expanded opportunities for activism — buses to the women’s march in DC anyone? — possibly a mural, a vegan Thanksgiving Feast on Nov. 20 and a New Orleans-themed New Year’s Eve Dinner Party,” Englebert said. “Everyone needs a good party, right? As Emma Goldman said: ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’”

That sentiment certainly rang true at the event on Saturday. Though a lot is at stake in the coming elections for many people and the issues at hand are severe and life-changing for large groups, everyone was able to be light-hearted, silly at times and overall just excited to try and make a change. Their positive attitudes and spirited words mingled with the great food, warm environment and strong sense of community etched in the walls of Detroit Street. It may seem unconventional for you to enjoy a side of social activism with your Saturday morning brunch, but I urge you to head over to Kerrytown and try it — at Detroit Street. It just makes sense.