He became a media darling with his ambitious plan to create a large-scale urban farm in Detroit. But with Recovery Park mired in multiple setbacks, CEO Gary Wozniak is moving forward with a new business venture.
Last week, Wozniak announced plans to open an Ori’Zaba’s Scratch Mexican Grill franchise in metro Detroit. The fast-casual chain was founded in 2001 in Las Vegas, and the restaurant would be the company’s first in Michigan.
Reached by phone, Wozniak tells Metro Times that the opportunity dovetails with Recovery Park’s goal to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs. A recovering addict who served time in federal prison for defrauding investors, Wozniak says he faced hiring discrimination. He launched Recovery Park about a decade ago to help others like him, though its farm project has failed to materialize.
“The food space naturally attracts people with barriers to employment,” he says. “If you look across the spectrum, people working at Eastern Market, in restaurants, at delivery organizations … [these businesses] definitely attract a higher degree of people with challenges.”
Wozniak says he began looking at franchising about two years ago, and became an Ori’Zaba’s fan after visiting its Las Vegas-area restaurants.
One reason, he says, is the freshness of the food. “Nothing is boxed, or canned, or frozen on the menu,” he says. “Everything is made from scratch every day right at the store, which is very impressive.”
The menu is based on street food from Mexico’s Orizaba region. “It’s a different type of Mexican food than we’re used to in this country, and it’s very authentic,” Wozniak says, adding that he noticed the restaurants drew a sizable Latino clientele. “I got to talking with them, and they were reminiscing about how the food was very similar to what they had in their native country.”
Wozniak says he plans to open multiple restaurants somewhere in Oakland and Macomb counties. He aims to start with one and hopefully open three over the next few years.
“Having the first store is putting the flag in and introducing people to the concept, introducing people to the food,” he says. “It’s key that we select the right location.”
Wozniak says he first became involved with franchising with Jet’s Pizza after returning from prison in the early 1990s. He also found other work, including managing money for a local nonprofit. In the 2000s, he got the idea for a nonprofit that could be supported by a commercial farm with a social justice mission, believing that customers would be willing to pay a premium if it was for a good cause.
He launched Recovery Park in 2010, and his story soon made national headlines. In 2015, the City of Detroit transferred 40 acres of land in Poletown to be leased by Recovery Park at a discount, where eight “hoop house” farms were constructed — part of a grand $13 million vision to eventually build a glass greenhouse that Wozniak once predicted would employ 100 workers and generate millions in revenue by 2021.
But in 2021, Metro Times found the Recovery Park property in disrepair, the hoop houses empty. Also that year, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs issued a cease-and-desist order to Recovery Park, saying Wozniak sold unregistered promissory note securities to at least two investors. And in 2022, a court ordered Recovery Park to repay $750,000 in loans from the state for failing to meet payment deadlines.
Regarding the securities, Wozniak says Recovery Park reached a settlement with no fines or penalties under an agreement to not do it again. “I think that the promissory notes were perfectly legal,” Wozniak says. “But I’m not going to sit here and get in a scrap with the state of Michigan over it.” Negotiations regarding repaying the loans are also ongoing, he says. (The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) He’s also accused Lakeland Fresh Farms, a Chesterfield-based operation launched by former Recovery Park investors and workers, of stealing intellectual property. “Theft from a nonprofit for personal gain is pretty illegal,” Wozniak says. (Lakeland Fresh Farms did not respond to a request for comment.)
Recovery Park is also in negotiations with former investors and workers who are still owed money, Wozniak says. “I don’t know where that stands at this point,” he says. “I’ve literally had my hands full just trying to rebuild post-COVID.”
He insists Recovery Park still exists, even though the project’s future is murky. “Our board is very active,” he says. “We meet quarterly like clockwork. Our team and the board will collectively make decisions on how to proceed.”
Wozniak says Recovery Park has invested nearly $100,000 into restoring the farm’s hoop houses. One is being leased by a local chef, and Wozniak says Recovery Park could start growing produce in the other hoop houses and hosting community events starting this spring.
One day, Wozniak says he hopes Recovery Park could supply produce for Ori’Zaba’s.
“If we can figure out a way to grow large-scale successfully, I mean, there’s certainly an opportunity down the road to grow our own vegetables for the Ori’Zaba’s restaurants here,” he says. “Ori’Zaba’s is not opposed to the idea. We’ve talked about it.”
Wozniak says he is paying to open the franchise with personal funds, projected to cost nearly $700,000. He says he has not sold any Recovery Park property except for a donated commercial building near Poletown at 2600 E. Grand Blvd. that wound up being unsuitable. The money from that sale, described as “several hundred thousand dollars,” went back to Recovery Park, he says.
His goal is to open the first Ori’Zaba’s restaurant by the end of the year.
“I’m really excited because it’s going to give us an opportunity to hire more people coming out of drug treatment programs and prisons,” he says. “And to let people know that, you know, we do change our lives, and that we manage the bumps that go along in life as they happen.”
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