DETROIT – Take two friends who met in college, add a transplant from Flint, put them on the east side of Detroit, sprinkle in a pandemic, add a few igloos and look at it all through the lens of community engagement, and you have the totally unique dining experience that is East Eats.
“It started as a social experiment,” said Lloyd M. Talley. “If you put 12 domes in a lot on the east side of Detroit for a year, what happens? How do they stand up? Will people enjoy it?”
East Eats was the winner of our Detroit metro area poll for Michigan’s Best Outdoor Dining. They narrowly beat out Benstein Grille in Commerce Township. Coming in third was Bobcat Bonnie’s, which has five locations throughout the Detroit area, and all have some form of outdoor dining.
It’s been quite a journey to bring three friends together to open this space. Talley is from New York, and met Detroit native Kwaku Osei-Bonsu when they were students at Howard University. Talley went on to get his master’s and doctoral degree at University of Pennsylvania, and then attended the University of Michigan for post doctoral work in Human Development. Osei-Bonsu was teaching in the Detroit Public Schools system, and had founded Detroit Black Restaurant Week. Nygel Fyvie is a Flint native, and came on board to consult on the food side of things.
Osei-Bonsu had recently purchased a house in the Chalmers-Jefferson neighborhood that is located on the east side of Detroit, right across the street from the old Chrysler factory. Since he was a neighborhood resident, he had the opportunity to bid on the abandoned lot that was right behind his house. The partners, who all had an interest in doing something for the community, hatched a plan last year during the first pandemic shutdown.
Talley tapped into his training in psychology and human development to formulate a plan. “I knew that people in a few months would have cabin fever, and would be suffering, because they have to be inside so much. They’re going to make decisions that won’t be the most healthful, because they want to get out of the house. Knowing that Kwaku had this plot of land, and that we had a background in community development, we thought why not meet that need? Of the mental health of the community, and trying to preserve the social connection in a socially-distanced world.”
“So we said domes, outside, in a side lot,” Talley said. “People might think that we’re crazy, but once they see it, we think that they’ll really get it.”
Lloyd had seen something similar in New York City, an igloo bar on the rooftop of a skyscraper. “When I went the wind was blowing and it was freezing cold outside. And I thought if these domes can last on a rooftop in New York, they most certainly can help us take advantage of the beautiful Michigan weather and seasons,” he said with a laugh.
This is not your typical restaurant, nor is it just a patio that happens to have a few igloos scattered across it. The entire concept of East Eats is based on the igloos. In fact, there is no actual kitchen on site. Instead, the partners’ company, Tiny Dine, leases kitchen space from nearby catering company LoneStar Catering, which is located just one mile up the street. The culinary team cooks all the food here, and then packages it in individual portions, and packs the dishes into insulated carry packs. Each pack then gets delivered to the correct igloo within 15 minutes of the reservation start time. Guests have two hours to spend in the igloos, and can choose to eat their hot food whenever they wish.
“Once you get into an igloo, you realize it’s not as bad as you thought it would be,” said Talley. In fact, the ones at East Eats are spacious, cozy to the point of being really warm, and charming with twinkly lights. Gazing out around the lot, it truly feels like a garden of glowing domes have sprouted up right in the middle of the city.
This arrangement allowed the partners to totally bootstrap their efforts, combing funds to purchase the 12 specially-designed igloos, instead of investing in expensive kitchen equipment. Originally, they leased a food truck and parked it on site, but as temperatures dropped, this became more impractical. That’s when they reached out to LoneStar owner and chef Maurice Wallace, who liked the idea of his kitchen being used more in what is typically a catering off-season.
They put a lot of thought into what type of igloo would work year-round. “We’ve seen two things occur,” said Talley. “One, a lot of people are going to think that this outdoor dining thing is only for the winter. If you have ever been in an igloo, the ones with the clear plastic on the outside, in the summertime, it’s a greenhouse. If we want this to be able to go all year, we need to invest in domes that don’t just have a plastic cover that as soon as March 15 comes, they’ll be completely unusable. We wanted to have something that would be more versatile.”
The partners decided to go with igloos that come with not only a plastic cover, but also a cloth canopy that can be used in the spring and summer, to create a year round dining space in the lot. “We made a decision for domes that are versatile,” Talley said.
They also invested in building elevated wooden platforms for the igloos to rest on, individual heaters for each one, tables, chairs, and couches for inside, and a shipping container on site for storage. The container boasts a beautiful mural on one side done by a local artist. They also have added a wooden privacy fence, electricity for lights and heat, and several port-a-johns that are uber clean, if a bit chilly.
While wanting to give diners an amazing experience, the driving goal behind East Eats was bringing something special to this neighborhood and community. Talley explained that for many residents in Detroit, heading downtown and spending what might be hundreds of dollars on a dining experience just isn’t possible. The partners wanted to make sure that the people who live in the area could enjoy East Eats, so they’ve kept the cost pretty much as low as possible. There is no rental fee, and no minimum spend. Instead, you get a generous three-course meal, and two hours in the igloo, for a flat rate of $45, excluding tip.
“How do we make something that someone in this community could do, but also how do others experience this and not spend $300?” Talley said they asked themselves. “We really do everything with community engagement in mind.”
“We’re excited to provide this level of experience, a very metropolitan experience,” right in the Chalmers-Jefferson neighborhood, Talley said.
The partners looked to their own backgrounds when creating the menu at East Eats, and settled on East as a theme. Talley’s family is African American and Caribbean, Fyvie’s family is Liberian and Caucasian, Osei-Bonsu’s family is African American and Ghanian. “All of us have some external international experience, and that reflects in the flavors that we like. Add this in with our location on the east side of Detroit, and we put together the cuisine for East Eats.”
The food that comes direct to the table in the insulated carrier changes seasonally, and is all freshly prepared each day. Talley said, “OK, we know our passports aren’t getting any use right now, so let’s bring some of those flavors to us.”
The menu offers a little something for everyone, but definitely has a healthy bent to it, with lots of vegan and vegetarian options. Currently, the menu is described as Indian Soul Food, and features dishes like butter shrimp, roasted chickpeas, a standout salmon tikka and curried cauliflower for main courses. The meal will start off with your choice of a salad dressed with a bright and fresh curried vinaigrette, or a thick and hearty lentil potato soup. Dessert brings cookies and ice cream. Everything is already packaged in to-go containers, so eat the generous portions until your heart is content, and then close them up and take home the leftovers.
You can pre-order non alcoholic beverages to enjoy with your meal when you place your reservation. If you are so inclined, feel free to bring your own wine, beer or cocktails to East Eats, and enjoy them at your leisure in your private igloo.
Looking forward, the group is hoping to possibly expand this concept to Fyvie’s hometown of Flint. They are also exploring creating their very own branded igloos, featuring the multi-seasonal approach to the design that makes them usable year round.
If you don’t feel comfortable dining out in an igloo, no worries. You can still enjoy East Eats cuisine. You can order through their cloud/pop up Black Cloud Kitchen and have the same food delivered by DoorDash if you are in metro Detroit.
No matter what happens with the pandemic, and the challenges that outdoor dining poses “I think it will continue to be a thing in Michigan,” Talley said. “There’s so much opportunity to have really interesting things go on, within the community, and things that are community empowering. I don’t see outdoor dining going away anytime soon.”
The search for Michigan’s Best Outdoor Dining is sponsored in part by Warm Fitness.
East Eats: A Tiny Dining Experience
1018 Navahoe, Detroit, MI 48215
Email: [email protected]
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