Column: Restaurants serve up opportunity for locals

Timothy Tharp

There has been a lot of talk lately about what a large company like Amazon could do to boost the revitalization of Detroit. Big employers definitely have a role to play, but if city leaders are serious about helping our city continue to rebound, they’ll focus on helping small businesses such as restaurants thrive. In fact, a vibrant restaurant scene is what will help make our city attractive to these larger employers.

Restaurants, unlike many large employers, mostly hire local residents. We hire, train and promote Detroit citizens of all skill levels, from dishwashers and bussers to chefs and managers. One of my favorite things about the restaurant industry is that these jobs don’t require a specialized degree, or a degree at all – just a willingness to work hard and learn on the job.

I did not set out to become a restaurant operator, though the required work ethic had certainly been instilled in me by my dad. He owned a small business while I was growing up just outside Detroit. When I was a kid, my grandparents and my parents would take us downtown. It was always a place of great myths and magic for me. Even as I watched its sad decline, I always had faith that Detroit would rebound, and I wanted to be a part of making it happen.

The love and wonder of our city is part of what drew me to buy Grand Trunk Pub, which was advertised for sale with a handwritten note on the door. I knew had found a diamond in the rough in which I could invest my talents, capital, and passion into. This would be one of the most important ways participate in the growth of my city.

The seeds that are planted with the development of small businesses such as Grand Trunk Pub often sprout into much larger organizations, like mine has. More than a decade later, Grand Trunk Pub, The Whisky Parlor, Checker Bar and Pop Pizza Bar employ a diverse group of more than 80 people and growing. Nearly all of our team members live within Detroit city limits, and I am proud to say that many have been with us for more than five years. We offer unparalleled room for growth. For example, Checker Bar and Grand Trunk Pub both employ kitchen managers that started out as dishwashers in our establishments. Now they manage multi-million dollar kitchens.

I’m proud of the opportunity we offer our employees, and my restaurants are not unique in this way. Across the country, 90 percent of restaurant managers started as hourly-paid employees. With more than 435,000 employees across the state, restaurants have a unique role to play in training our workforce. That’s especially needed here in Detroit, where local jobs and skills training have been scarce for far too long.

A few years ago, Detroit already had 889 restaurants doing more than $686 million in sales, employing 11,600 people. Now, with more than 1,000 restaurants open across the city, tremendous opportunities exist for even more city residents and their families. Therefore, now more than ever, we need to make sure that these new small businesses aren’t overburdened with regulations that could force them out of business before their grand opening. That is why I am honored to be a part of relaunching the Detroit Restaurant Association (DRA) this month, to give these hardworking entrepreneurs a voice with our city leaders.

At DRA, we are committed to working with elected officials and other leaders to help restaurants thrive. This will provide Detroit residents jobs and the skills which often are transferable to many other professions. Training workers doesn’t just benefit restaurants, it benefits the city as a whole. Hiring local is what gives our restaurants texture and soul, a flavor that is uniquely Detroit. We are inherently community-based businesses and take great pride in our local workforce. With thriving restaurants and a well-trained workforce, Detroit is much more likely to draw in the big employers everyone is talking about.

Timothy Tharp is co-owner of Grand Trunk Pub, The Whisky Parlor, Checker Bar, and Pop Pizza Bar in downtown Detroit, and board chair of the Detroit Restaurant Association.