Guest Blogger: Marisa Gaggino
It was the beginning of the 90's, we were in a recession and I decide this is the time to leave my corporate job and a well-to-do husband to open a shop selling architectural salvage. I picked the best spot I could afford, Woodward Avenue between Royal Oak and the tonier suburb of Birmingham. I was banking on how far I could stretch a divorce settlement if I stopped eating out every night. So as not to lose the rest of my mind, I started practicing that old hippie thing called yoga with the then little-known Johnny Kest. Sweating it out on the mats next to me were two women living in Detroit and trying to start their own business, only they had picked a once notorious place called the Cass Corridor to open a bakery making products from 100% organic flour. And I was taking a leap of faith?
Clearly these two were either on an astral plain altogether higher…or crazy. But hey, anyone who manages to get money on simple interest from a local Buddhist temple and from selling shares they dreamed up called "dough dollars" was plain marketing genius if you ask me. I thought I was going out on a limb running up my credit card. What I don't know about fundraising! They had lofty ideas about feeding the really hungry and building a place using reclaimed materials before it was called "green." I just told them I could do it cheap, bartered some cost for bread and landed one of my first commercial design projects. I showed up with a crew and some crow bars, and together we hauled material out of the condemned YMCA to build their funky little bakery.
Now you never stop hearing about Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor. If it's happening in Detroit, they are donating to it, sponsoring it, or speaking at it. They win national business awards, speak at the governor's convention and have meetings all over the place with big shooters. If you live around here, you already know their bakery really is an oasis called Avalon, and they are its high priestesses. Me, I'm just proud to call them friends. It's still a funky little place with that old stuff we salvaged and I like to think that helps make it such a cozy and popular hang out. After this many years, I know their story and if it's busy in the bakery, I just fill in, a sort of self-appointed marketing consultant.
Last Thursday was one of those days. Dead of winter and the place is packed at 8am. What gives? Who knows? That's Avalon and I jump into spokeswoman mode. Turns out a big group of Albion College students was on a field trip studying Detroit. They are full of idealism and questions like urban agricultural and micro finance. I start with my favorite story about a these two pioneers who use to come to Avalon religiously to harvest their organic matter..like bin after bin of heavy refuse and they couldn't be skinnier. Now Andrew and Kinga's spread is just one of 1300 or more community gardens all over town. I expounded on those early years when there was no place to get a good cup of coffee in the city, nor to gather and start a food revolution, until Avalon. What about small business development? I tell them about Avalon's grass roots marketing ideas, guerilla financing and how many businesses they have helped out. Like the whole block of Willis Avenue businesses sprouted because Ann and Jackie planted the seed.
All the while, I'm late for my meeting cause I'm getting so energized talking about Avalon and Detroit to these young people eager to move here. And, it's really no sales job, truly everything we talk about somehow comes back to Avalon. I send them to historic Eastern Market next and tell them to eat the best pizza ever at a place called Supino's, a great client that Avalon sent my way. A business student asks if Avalon had ever considered franchising. I don't know, but can you imagine a buddhist's franchising concept? The truth is the needs are many in neighborhoods all over Detroit, and here you have Ann and Jackie whose stated mission it is to bring fresh healthy foods to those who still don't have it. I'm guessing the "better locations" with a lot more dough so to speak, are not on this list. Avalon calls it making "right relationships" with their community. I call them one of the best things that ever happened to Detroit and on a micro level, to this small business- woman in particular.