Hannah Harshe: Activism through good food

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 - 5:05pm

The Lunch Room didn’t start with a business plan or a value proposition. Instead, it started with two neighbors cooking food together in their kitchens. After eight years, three brick-and-mortar locations and success beyond what anyone could have predicted, its origin story isn’t hard to believe. Step inside any of The Lunch Room’s three locations and you’ll instantly feel like you’re at home having a meal with your family. The Lunch Room emanates a casual, almost hippie-like vibe, with meals that taste home-cooked and posters on the wall promoting The Lunch Room’s social activism with the Youth Justice Fund. In a city like Ann Arbor, perhaps those qualities alone could account for its incredible success as a restaurant.

But Joel Panozzo, co-founder and co-owner of The Lunch Room, hopes his restaurant’s success is due to more than just its location in a notoriously community-focused, activism-centric city.

“I’ve been wanting to think that it’s possible for businesses to do the things that we’re doing, even not in Ann Arbor,” Panozzo said in an interview at The Lunch Room’s Kerrytown location. “That’s what my personal longer-term goal is — to be an example that a restaurant can do these things. A restaurant can pay its employees a livable wage, it can provide health and dental benefits, it can provide gym membership reimbursements, it can farm its own vegetables, it can work with formerly incarcerated adults, it can work with people recovering in the community, regardless of what town you live in. It helps that a community like Ann Arbor identifies with those things, but I’m hoping that it grows further from there.”

Panozzo’s sentiment may be more controversial than it initially sounds; how many diners do you know that pay their employees a livable wage? However, it seems to be working for The Lunch Room. This past summer, The Lunch Room opened its third location, Detroit Street Filling Station, which is right across the street from its original location in Kerrytown.

“You’ve probably seen what it’s like when (The Lunch Room) gets super busy and there’s a line down the hallway,” Panozzo said. (For the record, I have seen The Lunch Room that busy, just about every time I’ve been there). “It turned into be an issue. I would run into our regulars on the street and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in so long, what’s been going on?’ And they’d be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t come anymore cause it’s so busy, it’s crazy.’”

Not many restaurants have this problem, and Panozzo acknowledged “it’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.” When space opened up across the street, Panozzo and his co-owner, Phillis Engelbert, immediately jumped on it.

What put The Lunch Room in a position to be so successful that it was forced to open another location? It appears that Panozzo and Engelbert don’t view most of their decisions as business decisions, but rather as opportunities to provide the highest quality of service. First and foremost, this means good food. The Lunch Room is an all-vegan restaurant, meaning it doesn’t use meat, eggs or dairy (like cheese) in any of its menu items. According to Panozzo, this isn’t to hit the niche market of vegans in Ann Arbor. Rather, it allows them to create the highest quality of dishes that other restaurants may not be capable of creating.

“When you are using really heavy creams and cheeses and animal fats, it can kind of mask a lot of the other things that you have going on in your food,” Panozzo explained. “When you’re using entirely plant-based ingredients, it’s like an opportunity to find other spices, herbs, crazy vegetables. It’s an opportunity to actually make something that hits a flavor palette that somebody has maybe never tasted before. Or a flavor palette that could be there, but then it’s got melted cheese is all over the top.”

The Lunch Room doesn’t hesitate to give back to its community. Recently, The Lunch Room began a partnership with the Youth Justice Fund, a nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated youth in the Ann Arbor area.

“That kind of grew out of a separate program that we were running,” Panozzo said.

The Lunch Room used to have a 10 percent giving program, where each month it promoted a particular nonprofit. On Saturday nights, the nonprofit would advertise The Lunch Room to its donors and employees, and 10 percent of the restaurant’s sales would go to that nonprofit. Over time, The Lunch Room used this program to partner with local prisoner-rights attorneys and create the Youth Justice Fund.

This form of charity appears to be a no-brainer for Panozzo. When I ask him to explain it further, he emphasizes the need for such a nonprofit in the community, rather than explaining why it helps The Lunch Room as a business. This attitude is characteristic of Panozzo; he views The Lunch Room as an opportunity to make the right life decisions, not necessarily the right business decisions. The business success follows, almost as an afterthought.

As for long-term goals, Panozzo doesn’t plan on expanding any further. “I imagine us starting to work more on an advocacy level, where my business partner and I would start stepping out and maybe teaching other businesses how to do what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s great that we’ve been able to do the three places that we have been able to do, but like I don’t think more locations is like necessarily … we’re feeling very content with the amount of craziness that three locations entails.”

As for Panozzo, The Lunch Room is still the place that he began cooking in his neighbor’s kitchen back in 2008.

“Yesterday, I was cooking on the line for like eight hours,” he said with a laugh. “It would be nice to just step back a little bit.”

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu.