Laying a foundation

On July 27, the 101-year-old Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries opened the Cornerstone Bistro, the only sit-down, non-fast food restaurant in urban Highland Park. Hidden away in the basement of an old residential building, it is an oasis, a beautifully appointed restaurant that surprises every guest with its brand-new interior, which belies the age of the original building. The space was gutted and built from scratch, and is now warm and welcoming to everyone who enters the establishment — seemingly out-of-place in gritty Highland Park. Food is the main attraction, an alternative to the so-called urban desert. Now open for breakfast and lunch — dinner plans are in the works — the menu includes the usual morning fare. The lunch menu consists of salads, sandwiches and house specialties, such as the John R shrimp scampi ($8.95), all at prices rarely found at a restaurant of this caliber.

Metro Times: How was Cornerstone Bistro conceived?

Dr. Chad Audi: The whole concept of this restaurant is that we deal with people from all walks of life: homeless, drug addicted, disconnected from the mainstream. Some of them are out of prison. Some are on probation. Some are addicts. Some are just homeless due to certain bad economic situations. You look at the news today and there's more unexpected unemployment. The challenges that we face with those individuals is that they have been disconnected for a long time from the mainstream. We work with them for two to three years to clean them up to get them ready, to get them back on their feet somehow. We provide them with housing and everything, which I call pre-work, for them to become independent individuals, to sustain a long life. The challenges that we're facing are relatively small; these guys are faced with competing for jobs against people who have been working jobs for a long time. They're competing with this type of population to get a job. So it's hard, and what happens to us if we do not secure some type of employment for them after all that we have done for them, the natural thing for them is that they will go back to their old addictions, and that will create a big problem because of all the work that was done and all the things that they've done will have been in vain.

MT: How do you accomplish your goals with these people?

Audi: You get them ready by providing them with housing, case management, all that kind of stuff. If we don't close the loop by finding them employment so they can live independently in their own home, what will happen next? They're going to go back. So we decided to do something special to train them, to give them the tools so that they can compete with other people for a job. We need programs like this that will attack the root of the problem. We need to teach them to fish, not to feed them fish. We decided to work with Wayne County Community College, where they can get an actual certificate from an accredited college. The second thing for people who have been disconnected for a long time from the system, we need to rebuild their résumé. By putting them into an environment where they need to practice and work for an employer, to say, "Yeah, they've been working here," so when they apply for a job they have a résumé, and this is what this restaurant offers. We know that in today's economy you can't train them to become a construction worker. Food is always needed. People want to eat all the time. This is an industry that might go down a little bit, but it will never disappear. We will train those guys who may not become rich, but at least they'll be able to compete for a job and to gain a job. It could be in a fast food restaurant or in a regular restaurant or on their own — they could open a little place and start feeding people. We're giving them the tools to get back on their feet and give them a little bit of positive advantage so that they can compete in the work force in this economy. That's why we felt that the restaurant would be a great idea. We don't think this is a good time to train people to be in the car industry. We know they might not become very rich, but at least they can always find a job to sustain their life and be away from whatever problems they had in the past.

MT: What are the qualifications of the staff that will be providing the training?

Audi: We have a staff that's running it. We have a chef with great credentials. We are hiring a manager to run the day-to-day operation. And we're getting some direction and training from Wayne County Community College Culinary Arts that enables the clients to get a certificate that will enable them to work in a restaurant anywhere they want to go. The college provides a curriculum and the professors that come here to teach. We expect to have 40 graduates every four to five months who should be able to find a job. We provide them with uniforms, training, transportation and housing at no charge to them.

MT: People who have lived on the streets are often volatile. How can you be sure that they don't have a hostile reaction to criticism of the food or the service?

Audi: The training: We got to a point where if someone takes a glass of water and throws it at you, you clean it, take it back, and say, "Apparently you dropped your water," and we'll give them another glass. We know that people get angry, but we train them to absorb their anger. 

MT: Highland Park is not known as a dining destination. How do you plan to bring diners to the restaurant?

Audi: Highland Park is what's called a distressed city. We're tired of hearing all the negative things about Highland Park and Detroit and want to change that image. We provide quality, healthy food and great service; it's a high-class type of setting at coney island prices, all in a safe environment. The atmosphere is very quiet, and at the same time it looks like any five-star restaurant in the United States of America. 

John R Shrimp Scampi
Recipe courtesy Chef Gregg of Highland Park's Cornerstone Bistro


1/2 stick of butter, divided
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
A pinch of lemon pepper
12 large shrimp — peeled and deveined

Sauté the garlic and the lemon pepper and the shrimp in 2 tablespoons of the butter for 5-7 minutes over medium heat until the shrimp are pink and tender. Add 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon. Stir in the remaining butter. Garnish with parsley. Serve with rice. Makes 2 servings.

The Cornerstone Bistro is located in the  Don DeVos housing complex at 13130  Woodward Ave., corner of Winona, in Highland Park; 313-305-5555.

Jeff Broder interviews food folk for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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