The best way to see your favorite neighborhood restaurants through the three-week pause is to keep eating—with safe take-out or delivery options, of course! Here’s the story of a chic eatery nestled in a historic neighborhood.
DETROIT—As you leave Detroit’s iconic downtown district, the narrow streets of Jefferson Avenue widen as they wind eastward toward Belle Isle.
Beyond “The Isle,” the lush mansions of Indian Village quickly greet and bid you farewell as the historic East English Village looms ahead on the north—the exclusive harbor and homes situated along the Detroit River that laps against the Canadian shore to the south.
Here, the buildings are old—some more than 150 years—brick, and covered with ivy vines. The homes are unique, with no two being alike on the same block. The yards are lush and manicured during the spring, and sidewalks are politely plowed during Michigan’s brutal winters.
Years before the homes came to be neighborhoods and the modest boats docked in that harbor, the area was covered in ivy. The green vine is a regular visitor to neighborhood structures, though the city fines certain businesses for not removing them in the present day.
This is where Detroit native and entrepreneur Nya Marshall chose to open her latest business venture.
“I didn’t start out as a restauranteur. It kind of grew organically.” Marshall said. “This ivy just kept growing [on the side of my building] and, no matter what I did, it grew back.”
The persistent nature of the plant triggered Marshall’s thought process. She researched its healing properties, learned of its tenacity, and was reminded of herself. Her restaurant, Ivy Kitchen + Cocktails, was officially born.
Marshall grew up on Detroit’s east side, so the venture was more than an economic opportunity—it was an opportunity to invest in her home. She conducted extensive market research and found that over 87% residents of the chic, historic neighborhood wanted a new restaurant.
“So many times businesses are put in our neighborhoods that we don’t want, don’t need, or don’t know is coming—I didn’t want that to be the case [with my business],” Marshall told The ‘Gander. “I had more of a communal approach.”
She noted that during the second half of 2019, many restaurants bursting onto the downtown Detroit scene didn’t seem to cater to Black clientele. In some instances, people reported not feeling welcomed at all, Marshall said.
“[Newer restaurants] didn’t have the kind of alcohol we would drink, they didn’t have the kind of food we would prefer,” she said.
So Marshall decided to listen to her future customer base and give the neighborhood what it wanted.
Grand Opening with a Side of Pandemic
Less than 90 days after her highly-anticipated grand opening, Marshall’s restaurant was forced to shutter its doors in response to executive orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer amid the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, she would not be able to receive relief funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) because she’d just opened mere months before the outbreak made it to the US.
“It took forever to even find out that I was ineligible [for the PPP],” Marshall said. “The banks were not communicating, no one was communicating.”
Responsible for a staff of more than 20, Marshall called local and state elected officials in hopes of securing funds. But nothing worked. She was forced to close Ivy Kitchen to help prevent the spread of the virus. She stayed closed longer than other area businesses because of the lack of federal funding.
Local Help Keeps Ivy Kitchen Open
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) received some of the federal dollars allocated to Michigan with the passage of the federal CARES Act. Ivy Kitchen was able to secure a grant that would match each dollar they raised on their own.
Lifelong friends like Oshana Brooks-Moore donated to the fundraising campaign to see the restaurant succeed beyond its tumultuous start.
“Her success is our success,” Brooks-Moore told The ‘Gander. “I had to make sure that I could do my part, however big or small that was, to make sure that we kept that going for her.”
Retired Detroit entrepreneur Paul Harlan began eating and mingling at Ivy Kitchen shortly after its grand opening. After owning his own successful restaurant franchise, he also saw investing in Marshall’s success as an investment in the community at large.
“I’ve had the gamut of experiences here [at Ivy Kitchen],” Wilson told The ‘Gander.
“The food has been delectable and I’ve watched [Marshall] grow. She listens to the community and gives them what they want.”
The Army vertan is no stranger to the restaurant scene, owning his own successful ventures in Detroit before retiring.
Between Brooks-Moore and Harlan, the two estimate that they’ve referred some 100 hungry, curious patrons to the East Jefferson Avenue eatery.
Marshall raised over $7,000 from the very community that asked her to open her doors to them. Because of the dollar-for-dollar grant match, she was able to put close to $15,000 toward reopening the restaurant.
Now, another 90 or so days later, Ivy Kitchen’s dining room is temporarily closed. Again.
Weathering the Pause
Indoor dining service at area restaurants is among several business operations paused throughout the state to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Regular operations are scheduled to resume Dec. 8.
The ‘Gander asked Marshall how she was preparing to close her doors to diners again.
“I have a whole staff that relies on me, they have families. I’m not making any money,” she said.
While Marshall pointed out that having no income isn’t ideal, but that her priority as a Michigan businesswoman is to maintain a level of business that allows her to keep her staff paid during the entire three-week “pause.”
The team at the restaurant is small these days, with operations drastically scaled back due to the pandemic. Some employees had to leave for other industries that weren’t as easily affected by the pandemic—they, too, had families. Others needed to rely on unemployment benefits, and Marshall said she doesn’t fault anyone for doing what is best for their home.
But restaurant manager Ashely Michele has been with Marshall since the beginning—before the grand opening, the press, and the social media.
“[Nya and I are] both problem-solvers,” Michele told The ‘Gander of her working relationship with Marshall, “We’re always going to make it work.
The restaurant manager explained that she spends more time working with local officials and scouring city ordinances than she does complaining about the precarious state in which the pandemic is leaving the restaurant industry. Together, she and Marshall pivoted the restaurant’s business to help feed first responders and other essential workers during the first closure to the general public.
As both building owner and tenant, Marshall is able to save money in ways many other local business owners cannot, but she will still largely rely on curbside and delivery services to pay her staff during the near month-long period. The restaurant also offers limited outdoor seating on its heated patio.
Businesses like Ivy Kitchen + Cocktails are working overtime to ensure they can meet the demands of their customers’ needs from a safe distance.
As residents and local businesses enter the holiday shopping season, the best way to help economies thrive is to continue patronizing businesses from home.
Marshall says she looks forward to reopening her doors to the East Village and its neighbors in December.
“Ivy is for everyone, but it really was created out of love for this community at large.”