Detroit Street Filling Station sits on the corner of the street, branded with circular sign and a yellow neon lightning bolt sign. People enjoy dinner on the outdoor tables with umbrellas for shade.
Julianne Yoon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Nestled in between Catherine Street and Detroit Street, a sliver of a building sits — the eclectic and magnificent Detroit Street Filling Station. Surrounded by a moat of picnic tables and potted plants, a tributary of jazz, blues and boogie pours a cocktail of heart, soul and song into the summer streets of Ann Arbor. Inside, the music grows louder as you enter the wall-less patio adorned with upside-down umbrellas and vibrant plants floating from the ceiling. Captivated by the decor, it will probably take a bit before the familiar smell of comfort food wafts into your nose, encouraging you to sit down and stay a while. 

This dynamic and eclectic restaurant keeps up its lively posture by enthralling its customers with an experiential and delightful meal surrounded by a magical atmosphere. The charisma is masterfully run by a team of passionate people with a level of customer service any manager would be envious of. At the front of it all, founder and owner Phillis Engelbert stands attentively, engaging with each customer and employee.

As the night picks up and the colorful lanterns light up the night, the pace increases and the music gets louder, dancing across the block. Despite tumultuous times in the community and in the country, Detroit Street Filling Station remains a shining beacon of positivity and humanity, providing a small retreat for anyone who needs it. The entire space is meant to remind the customers and employees of the spirited potential of life and happiness, Engelbert affirmed as we sat down on a balmy summer afternoon inside her restaurant. 

“Everything feels vibrant and sort of bursting with life and culture,” Engelbert said. “And so the colors, the sounds, the music, the plants, the outdoors, all contribute to having a feeling of being alive and being joyful.”

Named after the 1925 Staebler Family Oil Company, Detroit Street Filling Station expanded into the historic building in 2017. However, Ann Arbor’s first entirely plant-based restaurant didn’t start in the triangular building, or even in a restaurant at all.

“My next-door neighbor and I are both vegan and love to throw dinner parties, and so we had a joint backyard, and we have our friends over and cook,” Engelbert said. “And one thing led to another, and we started doing some pop-up meals at the invitation of a friend who had an event space.” 

After many backyard meals and “pop-up dining events at local retail establishments,” Engelbert and her neighbor, Joel Panozzo, responded to an ad in the Ann Arbor Observer asking for applicants for food cart vendors at Ann Arbor’s “Mark’s Carts.” Their food cart, “The Lunch Room,” ran for the 2011 and 2012 summer seasons, and as their second year concluded, they decided it was time to break ground with their first physical location.

In 2013, inside the vacant restaurant space at the bottom of the Kerrytown Shops, The Lunch Room opened. Its central location quickly transformed its business into an Ann Arbor “must-eat” and actively introduced many locals and tourists to plant-based, sustainable cuisine. 

Two years later, The Lunch Room Bakery and Cafe opened in the downstairs level of Huron Towers — serving as a smaller, more intimate location, as well as headquarters for their homemade baked goods. In 2016, Lunch Room Acres was founded to provide the restaurant locations with fresh produce and flowers, helping the organization to achieve and support sustainable and local farmers. 

In 2017, The Lunch Room opened its third restaurant, Detroit Street Filling Station — which has since become its capstone location. Since its opening, Detroit Street Filling Station has survived the departure of its co-founder, the closing of the Kerrytown location and a pandemic.

Engelbert now runs both locations with the help of over 50 talented staff members and has built an impressive business culture both internally and externally. According to its website, The Lunch Room is strongly rooted in its values for employees and the community. 

“The philosophy behind the business is that ‘work’ should be the pursuit of what you love and should reflect your values and interests,” Engelbert wrote. “Work at The Lunch Room locations embrace freedom, creativity, fun, egalitarianism, social justice and community.”

In her interview with The Michigan Daily, Engelbert called the business a “happy accident,” never anticipating creating and sustaining a central vendor in Ann Arbor’s restaurant industry and community.

“At the time, I mean, neither (myself or Joel) were really looking to get ourselves into something that would be this all-encompassing,” Engelbert wrote. “The journey has just sort of like baby steps, putting our toes in the water and sort of walking through the next open door.” 

Before her successful entrepreneurial journey, Phillis worked as a community organizer and activist for over 30 years. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s of science in 1985 and a master’s degree in natural resources in 1987, she took her passion for human rights and the environment around the world. 

After spending time in Central America and Washington, D.C. and advocating against anti-Islamic bigotry after Sept. 11, 2001, Engelbert returned to Ann Arbor in 1991 where she worked closely with non-profits until 2010. 

In 2003, Engelbert founded the non-profit Michigan Peaceworks, a grassroots organization that advocates for human rights and civil liberties on the local, state and national levels. After that, she worked at a non-profit called MHP Salud, an organization “dedicated to strengthening underserved Hispanic and Latino communities by improving access to health care and social services.”

Engelbert said that many skills she learned from running a non-profit organization and managing a restaurant were surprisingly similar. 

“The amount of work (between both careers is) pretty much the same, but the stressors are different,” Engelbert said. “During my activism days, stressors were much more to do with world events and events outside my realm of control, and a lot of stressors around threats and animosity.”

Now, in the restaurant industry, Engelbert said the stressors stem from financial concerns and personnel efforts.

“So there’s a lot of psychology, a lot of finessing things,” Engelbert said. “You can’t, like, come in with a sledgehammer and say ‘I need this and this and this’ because then nobody’s gonna listen to you because everybody’s gonna hate you. So it’s a toss-up. There’s a lot of compromises that need to be made.”

While it might not have been the typical career trajectory, Engelbert’s past experiences and passion for community activism and human rights found a place in The Lunch Room. Her dedication to the Ann Arbor community and beyond found a place snug at the heart of her business’ values. 

“I just kind of believe that we all need to take care of each other,” Engelbert said. “So if I’ve got something you need, and I can spare it, I’m gonna give it to you, and if you have something somebody else needs, and you can spare it, then share it with them. I guess it’s a theory of abundance. What you have is in abundance, and you act with generosity, and you give things away, then it comes back to you, and it will keep cycling.”

Since The Lunch Room opened, they have helped over 100 non-profit organizations. 

When the pandemic hit, the activism didn’t stop — if anything, it ramped up. Engelbert and the rest of the Detroit Street Filling Station team gave out free meals for industry workers every day to support those out of a job. When the free meals became unsustainable, Engelbert shifted gears to give out groceries for those in need, sometimes donating up to $100 of groceries at once. 

Engelbert even acted in some self-proclaimed “political theater.” In 2020, the Washtenaw County Health Department required that all employees must be tested for COVID-19 every couple of weeks. While this might seem like a simple, obvious ask, we have to remember that this was at the time when tests had barely been developed and were far from widely available. 

“We sent one of our managers to the Packard clinic, it took him 16 days to get his results,” Engelbert said. “By the time he got his results, if he had (COVID-19), it would have been over and done with it.” 

In response to the health department’s request and a lack of resources, the restaurant put on a bake sale to raise money for COVID-19 tests.

“We did that stupid little bake sale to raise awareness for the fact that like, this is not something you should be having a bake sale to raise money for,” Engelbert said. “This should be funded by the government in full, this is a public health crisis. And we’re frigging selling cookies to raise money so you can get a (COVID-19) test.”

The pandemic also inspired the Detroit Street Dispatch, a blog documenting Engelbert’s personal and professional endeavors through the unprecedented times. 

“I started writing the blog because I felt like we’re in a special period of our history, and I wanted to document from my corner of the world what it was like,” Engelbert said. 

Even before the blog, Detroit Street Filling Station was and is active on its social media accounts. Stunning pictures of new menu items and summer specialties flood the feeds of their 8,000+ followers. Their Instagram moves beyond typical local restaurants and features staff from the front and back of the house, adding an additional intimate bonus to their dining experience. 

Their Instagram also frequently features celebratory posts for staff members’ milestones of sobriety. The posts are only a fraction of the supportive ‘culture of recovery’ Engelbert has worked hard to create. 

“There’s no stigma (about substance abuse recovery), which is helpful because if you’re surrounded by people in recovery, there’s no need to keep it quiet, and people are very open about it, and they also hold each other accountable and talk to me about it,” Engelbert said. 

About half of the staff at The Lunch Room locations are in recovery. The other staff are on-boarded and educated about the culture of recovery in the business and are supportive of what a recovery workplace looks like. 

“We have rules like you can’t come in hungover, and no drinking or drug use on the job, which might seem like a no-brainer, but restaurants are notorious for that kind of thing,” Engelbert said. “We don’t even give smoke breaks, so the focus here is on people’s health.”

Engelbert stumbled upon the recovery-friendly workplace model in 2014 when an applicant opened up to her about his struggle with addiction.

“I had one person in 2014 come to apply to work, and he kind of looked like a mess,” Engelbert said. “He told me what was up, that … he was in recovery, a young guy, and had just gotten into transitional housing and needed a job, and I hired him to be a dishwasher. He’s now a lawyer in Philadelphia.”

After he was hired, word got around about the supportive environment Engelbert provided, and the recovery culture has continued to thrive. Because of the inherently turbulent journey of recovery, Engelbert implemented a protocol for employees who go through a relapse.

“We have a whole program about what happens if you relapse and want to return to work,” Engelbert said. “We do let people come back. Like if you get honest, meet with senior staffers in recovery, come up with a return to work plan, work your program, there’s a way to come back, and we will hold your job for you, twice. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee.”

Despite the manual only ensuring an employee’s job will be held twice, in her conversation with me, Engelbert shared that there’s one employee who is on their fifth return. 

“(The employee) had to have an entire year of sobriety before he could come back to work for us,” Engelbert said. “And he did. That was one of his motivators for staying sober for that year was to come back. And that person just celebrated two years of sobriety. Very cool things happen with the right support.”

Offering second chances and opportunities for forgiveness seem to be a common theme in Engelbert’s business and personal values. She said that learning how to move forward and advance makes a difference. 

“I’ve learned it’s always more important to try to change things going forward than it is to try to correct things that already happened.”

Despite the long list of accomplishments and community contributions Engelbert has made throughout the years, when I asked her about the one thing she had learned over the past 10 years, she had only one answer. 

“Be calm,” Engelbert said. “I’ve realized like there’s a lot of things that are out of my control, and I know there are lessons that I learned over and over again, but like learning how to control what you can control and how to let go of what you can’t control and how to tell the difference, it’s important.”

So the next time you make your way through the farmers market or finish a stroll through downtown, I invite you to pay Phillis a visit. As you weave your way through the crowded streets, follow the boogie tunes and smell of comfort food to my favorite nook in the city. You’ll find her in the middle of this nook surrounded by over 155 potted plants, running around the eclectic retreat, grinning from ear to ear. She’ll be the one chatting with everyone passing by, with the sleeves rolled up on her Black Lives Matter T-Shirt, working immeasurably hard to put a smile on your face.  

If you get a chance to chat with her, do me a favor and stop her. Thank her for her dedication and the work she has done for the community. Whether you’re a student, a local, a tourist or somewhere in between, I can say with quite a certainty that she has touched some part of your life and has actively made the town we know and love a much better place. 

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Engelbert currently runs The Lunch Room on her own; the article has been updated to reflect the 50 employees that assist Engelbert in running the business.

Statement Contributor Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.