By Tunde Wey
November 9, 2012
Chef Eric Giles has an arresting physical presence and commanding voice. He is tall, dark and lean. His voice is crisp, the words thoughtfully enunciated, and his speech – while sometimes … let’s say “colorful” – is frank and marked by perfect diction. These qualities are important for a man like him to possess. He is captaining a crew that at some times needs coddling and other times a stern stare. Chef Giles is the right stew of pragmatic and idealistic. He is at the helm of socially important work that requires both of these virtues in varying quantities. Chef Giles is a social entrepreneur, in the least pretentious and most practical definition of the title.
The Sunday Dinner Company
is a Southern comfort food-style restaurant owned by Eric Giles and David Theriault. If the Sunday Dinner Company were simply a soul food restaurant, its significance might be solely rooted in the quality of its rich lard crust peach cobbler or the buttermilk-battered fried chicken, or maybe even the spice-rubbed hickory-smoked and mesquite-flavored “low and slow” barbecue ribs. If Chef Giles was simply a chef at a restaurant his stock might be measured in accolades from food critics, but the Sunday Dinner Company is more than a restaurant, and Chef Giles is more than his title.
“The Sunday Dinner Company is a social enterprise,” says Chef Giles, with a booming, animated delivery. “We are 25 percent restaurant and 75 percent social enterprise.”
The work of the Sunday Dinner Company is reflected in the staff. “I work with at-risk youth, with returning citizens, the “It’s not about the kids working in this restaurant; it is about them 10 years from now. Will they have learned the relevant social skills that will not have them alienated?”
developmentally challenged, senior citizens, a single mother that has five children – a real mother in terms of taking care of her kids and one of their children is special needs; that’s Detroit.” Chef Giles speaks passionately about what he refers to as his “ministry.” Greatly influenced by his faith, Chef Giles and partner Theriault don’t pay lip service to their commitment to rebuilding their immediate community. Working with labor provided by Goodwill Industries Flip the Script Program
, an initiative that provides employment opportunities to at-risk youth and ex-offenders re-entering society, the duo completely rehabbed the restaurant, which is housed in an 1886 U.S. Postal Service building.
The two met at an event Chef Giles was catering. Theriault, an IT professional with a background in Wall Street, was so impressed with Chef Giles’s cooking that the two quickly struck a partnership. Theriault first invested in the Sunday Dinner Company’s successful public debut at the now-defunct outdoor festival TasteFest that was held in Detroit’s New Center, and later in 2010 in the restaurant itself, located on Jefferson and Mt. Elliot.
The restaurant continues to put the employment of disenfranchised persons at the center of its business model. The problem is acute in a city with staggering racial and socioeconomic disparity evident in a black youth population that is massively un- and underemployed, under-skilled, and lacking the basic resources to succeed. The Sunday Dinner Company is taking a place-based approach that demands everyone be part of the solution.
“I am here at the Sunday Dinner Company – I am in the hood. I employ the hood. I feed the homeless people. There are five guys that walk this area; they pick up trash around the restaurant, they watch my guests’ cars. A half hour before the restaurant door closes, they say, ‘Can I get some dinner?’ I say, ‘Of course’ … but for the grace of God they could be any of us.” Almost on cue Chef Giles’s comment is emphasized when he leaves the restaurant to chat with a customer he sees walking by the front window. He is what he preaches, a transformation of Detroit starting from the ground under our feet to the people within our reach.
The well-mannered, mostly youthful staff at the Sunday Dinner Company, in their neatly pressed uniforms and accommodating smiles, is the main testament to Chef Giles’s “people-building” philosophy. He projects a welcomed paternal concern in every aspect of their lives – from their academic success to their romantic interests. He is also strict, insisting on properly-fitted pants for the young men and conservative attire for the women.
He pantomimes a story of a young man who came looking for a job; pants sagging, slouched posture, unfocused gaze and a disinterested drawl. In classic Chef Giles style he recalls brusquely replying, “If you come back with a haircut, pressed shirt, fitted pants, stand up straight and look me in the eye I might think of possibly maybe
hiring you.” His response was a firm "...These kids are smart, they are survivors, but nobody is teaching them anything.”
reminder to the young man, and the many others that have come to him with a similar disposition, that society expects certain standards and tolerates little excuses. There is intentionality to his disciplinarian streak. He says it is about “sending them away the right way so they can come back … They have to come back sometimes six times but that is how I know they are serious. These kids are smart, they are survivors, but nobody is teaching them anything.”
The vision of the Sunday Dinner Company is longer than its buffet line or even its bottom line; it stretches decades into the future. Chef Giles says, “It’s not about the kids working in this restaurant; it is about them 10 years from now. Will they have learned the relevant social skills that will not have them alienated?”
Still the bottom line remains important. If the Sunday Dinner Company suffers, the kids suffer, and so goes the city. If ten years from now the Sunday Dinner Company ceases to exist due to a lack of sustainable business, then Chef Giles’s vision of Detroit’s future also ceases to exist.
The young staff who would rather stay in the restaurant long past their shifts end than face being mugged on the way back home; the single mother with five kids who makes a living for her special needs child; the octogenarian who sometimes dances with Chef Giles to Aretha Franklin to the delight of restaurant patrons; and Chef Giles and David Theriault, business owners with an evolved sense of community; if all of these players have no stage, Detroit is, well … cooked.
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.