When Jackie Jackson started a baking business with her mother in 2011, she had no idea that the company would come to mean much more to her than making and selling rum cakes and other decadent treats.
“I would bake and she would decorate,” Jackson said of the mother-daughter origins of Flavor for the Soul, a small food business specializing in liquor-spiked desserts.
Jackson’s mother, a 32-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department, died of breast cancer in 2014 and Jackie found herself baking both as a way to deal with her own mounting anxiety and to preserve her mother’s legacy.
“It’s more than just money for me,” Jackson, 45, said. “I share my mother with the public when I sell.”
In the past, that’s meant delivering the holiday pies she bakes to customers herself. But this season, she’s been able to direct customers to a central pickup location: The D Loft Cafe in Oak Park.
A sort of food-business incubation space or collective, the D Loft Cafe is the food-focused spoke of the growing D Loft brand, which now includes five “social spaces” spread across Ferndale, Oak Park and Hamtramck that provide flexible venues for events and creative gatherings.
While the other D Loft venues sometimes host cooking demonstrations and dinner parties, the Cafe is the brand’s public-facing business incubator where food is the primary product, though a more full-scale restaurant is in the works, too.
“I don’t want to say I’m a restaurateur,” said D Loft founder Brandi Shelton. “I just listen to what people say and I try to take their concept and develop it. Everybody has a great idea. But who is listening well enough to be able to help them grow it from nothing to something? That’s the part that’s hard.”
In addition to running the business, Shelton, 43, is a development coordinator with the City of Detroit who shares years of business operations management and human resources experience with the dozen or so entrepreneurs under her wing at the D Loft Cafe.
“We are an actual cafe with a different twist,” Shelton said. “Instead of it being one signature chef that creates all these dishes, we have what we call a food hub. We are basically a distribution station for food entrepreneurs who have things from spices and preserves to someone who has a few specialty dishes or a specialty item. We work as a distributor to the consuming public.”
That means customers can order dishes for carryout and delivery like at any other restaurant, but here Jackie Jackson’s unbelievably moist rum cakes share menu space with Lucki’s Cheesecake, as well as cajun pasta made by Chrissy’s Cuisine and other signature dishes from its vendors.
“Everybody got a dream,” Shelton said. “But you don’t know how to achieve it if you don’t have the right group around you.”
On Tuesdays the Cafe goes vegan for the day, while Fridays Germain Jordan of Blue VI Catering pops up all day.
“We call them chefs, bakers, tastemakers and innovators,” Shelton said of the group of business owners who are part of the D Loft Cafe community. “You have to fall into one of those categories based on the business you bring to the table.”
The rate for a vendor to participate can be as low as $175, which gets you an item on the menu, or as high as $1,000 for someone popping up for the day.
For someone like Jackson and her Flavors for the Soul line, the D Loft Cafe offers numerous benefits: a built-in following, exposure on third-party delivery platforms like DoorDash, items on the menu, shelf space at the cafe’s grab-and-go case, a central pickup point for holidays and large orders, and a community of like-minded entrepreneurs lifting each other up.
“They receive calls that are like, ‘Hey we need someone for this catering event; do you have anybody?” Jackson said of the types of jobs she’s picked up through the Cafe. “We have our group chat on Facebook. We have our inbox that we go to.
The sense of community — it feels like everyone helps. It doesn’t feel like a competition. There’s always a helping hand.”
Jackson estimates that about a third of her business at Flavors of the Soul now comes from the D Loft Cafe.
“And it made me prepare for the shelf,” Jackson said of the process. “That gave me the confidence to pitch to another commercial business owner, like a gas station.”
In addition to the community and space the D Loft Cafe offers its vendors, Shelton also provides marketing and business advice, organizing headshots and coaching vendors on how to get their name out in the community.
“She meets you where you’re at and then takes you for the ride,” Jackson said of Shelton. “She’s the connector.”
To be sure, it’s been a struggle this year with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person visits to the space, which debuted just before the first cases hit Michigan.
“We are just now getting our feet re-grounded to be able to be visible to people,” Shelton said. “We were not visible for a long time through COVID. We didn’t even have enough money to finish painting the sign. We have seen a hurt. It wasn’t pebbles that were falling from the sky. It was rocks and boulders.”
Shelton said she signed the lease on the strip mall space at 9 Mile & Coolidge in July 2019 and then spent the next four months or so struggling to explain to Oakland County what kind of business she was planning to run there.
The doors opened in February and then came the state-mandated lockdown. That momentum has been hard to recapture, though Shelton said that delivery orders have been steadily rising as the pandemic enters its 10th month in Michigan.
But as 2020 comes to a close, Shelton isn’t backing down from a tough year. Instead, she’s doubling down and is looking for another space to put a full-service restaurant — a D Loft Cafe 2.0, if you will. The chefs have been begging her for it. But finding a space that will work safely in a post-COVID world is yet another challenge.
Shelton remains undeterred.
“I am what they call the pusher,” Shelton said. “I never followed in anybody’s footsteps. I put my bag on my back and I kept it going. … When you see somebody making their first dollar or providing something they never knew they could, to see this every day and see the excitement from these people, that’s the reason why I do this.”
For her, it comes down to serving the community she’s cultivated, both her vendors and the customers that have grown to depend on them. For her, it’s a higher calling.
“If you live in a moment of service, you will always be blessed,” Shelton said. “Remember that. No matter how many times you are pushed down, you have to remember you are doing this for a greater purpose. And you will forever be fulfilled.”
If you go…
The D Loft Cafe: 13710 W Nine Mile, Oak Park; 313-879-0750 and thedloft.com/the-d-loft-cafe. Currently open for curbside pickup, carryout and delivery.
Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik at 313-222-5026 or[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MKurlyandchik and Instagram @curlyhandshake. Read more restaurant news and reviews and sign up for our Food and Dining newsletter.