Finley: Detroit waitstaffs lack diversity, too

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island –

A retail business, particularly a restaurant or bar, has little control over who walks in its doors and takes a seat.

But it can decide who waits on those customers once they're seated.

And just as many of downtown Detroit's hottest new nightspots have predominately white clientele, the staffs that serve them food and drinks are not nearly as diverse as should be expected in a city with an overwhelmingly African-American population.

"I've noticed the same thing, but not just downtown," says Dennis Archer Jr., who co-owns 220 Merrill in Birmingham and is opening a restaurant downtown this fall. "Go to any of the fine dining restaurants in our area and the complexion of the front of house staff is not very diverse. I don't know that I have an answer to why more people of color don't see hospitality as a career path."

Neither does Phil Cooley, founder of Slow's Barbeque and co-owner of Gold Cash Gold, both in Corktown. But Cooley suspects Detroit's workforce hasn't caught up with its comeback.

"For the longest time there wasn't a lot of fine dining waitstaff jobs in Detroit, so we didn't have a trained workforce," he says. "That is improving. For the amount of folks that are qualified, it's gotten a lot better than 10 years ago when we opened Slow's."

But both Archer and Cooley agree that simply waiting for black applicants to walk through the door is not good enough.

"It's not just training, it's intentionality," says Cooley. "There are folks who are qualified but aren't applying. It's a Detroit issue in general. If we're not intentional about hiring, the first folks who show up are white.

"We have to recruit."

Archer says black-owned restaurants like Floods and Midtown Grille do better at creating inclusive staffs.

"There are African-American service industry employees, they're just not working in the newer establishments that are getting all the attention," he says. "The bigger question is why they aren't working in those places. They exist, but they are in the minority."

Making downtown Detroit more inclusive is the theme of a town hall discussion I'll lead along with Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV Thursday afternoon at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference.

It's part of an ongoing conversation about how to avoid two Detroits, one predominately white, upscale and downtown, and the other poor, black and in the neighborhoods. The segregation common in downtown bars and restaurants is a major symptom of the problem.

Cooley and Archer note that the new restaurants springing up around Livernois in northwest Detroit are far more diverse, both in clientele and staff, than are those downtown.

"If diversity is important to you, you will go out of the way to find it," Archer says. "It's no different than General Motors. The reason GM wants diverse supplier and dealer networks is that it wants to draw diverse customers."

That's not a bad strategy to mimic in making downtown more diverse. African-American customers are more likely to feel comfortable in an establishment they perceive is committed to hiring black employees.

And for the workers, landing a full-time serving position in a fine dining venue can bring a very decent income. "There are servers in higher-end places who make more than the people they serve," Archer says.

It's an opportunity African-Americans should not be excluded from in Detroit.

There is a training program, the Restaurant Opportunity Center in the Carr building downtown. But it's as much about social activism as it is about training, and that might turn off some employers.

It's worth thinking about whether one of the local community colleges should start a short training program for front of house staff. Given the number of new restaurants and bars opening in Detroit, it's a big growth area for jobs.

"To be a healthy industry we need diversity," Cooley says. "To be a healthy city we need diversity. We have to start addressing these issues."


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.