The following is a guest post from Stephanie Pierce in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Stephanie writes, dreams, and plans at Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. Her unofficial title is Practical Wonderer. Stephanie is a graduate of Albion College, where she studied communications and philosophy, and also dabbled in video art. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce “sauna.”
Just over a year ago, my head was full of the concerned warnings of liberal friends who were startled that I was going to move from the more progressive center of the state to Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It’s too conservative for you,” they said. “Nothing’s happening there.”
Like most warnings you receive about a place you don’t know much about, the more you dig into what the reality is like, the more you find out that — surprise! — people who don’t live there know little about what’s currently going on. West Michigan has its imperfections like every other place, but even though our state is leading the nation in an economic downturn, this region is also leading it in positive ways: in environmentally sensitive buildings and in the philanthropic donations by community residents. Our local food scene is heating up, and a variety of progressive religious institutions are now nestled alongside, and sometimes even working with, the stodgier churches that lend this region its conservative reputation. In the past year I have discovered for myself some of the wonderful people working to revitalize and change West Michigan. I firmly believe this city is way cooler than its outdated reputation. Now I want to introduce you to the West Michigan food scene the same way I discovered it.
To find the friendliest face of G-Rap’s local food scene, you can’t go wrong by making Marie Catrib’s your first stop. Located on an oddly shaped corner called the Center of the Universe in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood, Marie Catrib’s is generally busy for breakfast, bursting at lunch, and bustling for dinner. The intentional care of customers and community is what has made this comfortable restaurant one of this city’s favorites and a chilly Midwestern foodie’s dream come true.
You may have to wait for a seat at Marie’s, but you won’t have to wait for food. If there’s a wait, made-from-scratch cookies and breads are served on the house and coffee is always on and free for the pouring. I visited the restaurant for the first time in February 2007. I was waiting for a seat and happily munching on a molasses cookie some angel had brought on a platter full of delights when I looked at the wall and saw a framed document that said “This building is very special.” It turns out that the building is LEED-CS Gold certified and was one of the first such projects in the nation. It incorporates passive solar design strategies, is a zero storm-water discharge site, and has a green roof and rain garden. At the time, I didn’t know that Grand Rapids was the green hub of Michigan, that it has the first LEED-certified art museum in the world and the first LEED-certified YMCA in the nation, just to name a couple examples. I was about to begin my education in my new city’s foodie scene.
A few months and several Marie meals later, I went on two tours of farms from which I’d started buying food: Crane Dance and Creswick Farms. The tours were co-sponsored by local volunteer group Farms Without Harm and Marie Catrib’s. To find out more about Marie Catrib’s inner workings, and why this restaurant goes beyond local sourcing and works to build community here in the area, I chatted recently with Fouad Catrib, co-owner of the restaurant along with his mom, Marie (the restaurant’s namesake).
In the words of Joel Salatin, a lot of what Fouad wants to do is illegal. State and federal regulations have held him back in many ways from making the kinds of purchases he wants for the restaurant. There are a lot of small farms in the area that sell to individual customers because they can’t come up with the money, or the machinery, to meet Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) or USDA certifications for foods such as eggs. Only a couple small farmers in this region are MDA-certified to sell eggs to restaurants and other large buyers. But Marie’s continues to make progress. All of their eggs come from Creswick Farms, as well as their bacon. Raw Gouda and Lamont cheddar cheeses come from Steve ‘n Sons Grassfields Farm; goat cheese comes from Laughing Goat Creamery. Chorizo comes from Crane Dance Farm, with pork chops on the way. Mud Lake Farm supplies greens year round from their greenhouse and hydroponic set-up, while Trillium Haven Farm supplies other greens and veggies in the growing season.
Fouad continues listing the farmers with whom he’s developed relationships and then smiles: “I want farmers to know they can come to me to sell their goods. I want to serve the community well and be a good steward, and part of that means helping spread the wealth among the local farmers and buying from as many different businesses as I possibly can.”
You start to get the feeling that this business is about more than just business. “It’s really about taking care of people,” he acknowledges. It’s why staff are paid a living wage, given creative license, and are taught things like yoga at staff meetings, so that they can rejuvenate their bodies after a shift. It’s why the food they serve there is as healthy and fresh as they can find. “This is a public house and everyone is welcome here. I don’t want anyone to come in and get served shitty food, period. This is our house and we feel that people coming here should be treated with respect. This is all part of it,” Fouad explains. “Organic and local food may be in high fashion right now, but I don’t care about that. I want that kind of food to be seen as something that’s normal, not special. I want people to come here and assume we’ll serve them quality food.”
I ask Fouad what his vision is for the Marie Catrib’s of the future and he straightens up in his chair, eyes alight. “There are so many ways to use food to make powerful connection and change. I want to be even more locally involved, even more of a steward to my community. I have all kinds of ideas.”
He lists these in increasingly rapid-fire order: a small Garlic Fest to be hosted with the local Slow Food chapter this summer, where community cooks will use local garlic in a cook-off with music and local beer accompanying the food. Finding space around the restaurant to plant a garden where the community could be involved. Increasing farm tours and doing winter farm tours. Hosting a community meal every Sunday where people could come in, help cook the food, drink wine, and meet each other. Trying to build awareness in the community so people know they can use food stamps at the Fulton Street Farmers Market just down the road. Opening the restaurant on Thanksgiving to residents to have a meal or take one home and using it as a catalyst for informing people about their local food. (The church down the road gives away free turkeys, but that doesn’t do a lot of good when you don’t have a stove, and that’s the reality for many people in this community, Fouad points out.)
He leans back. “I want to give people a connection with their food. I’m trying to go slow, to start small. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting better. If you have the love and the passion and a little bit of business sense, you can be as successful as you want to be.”