Hip Restaurants, Harbingers of Gentrification, Try to Be Better Neighbors

Instead of being an island of expensive food in a poor community, these small businesses want to connect with residents.

The kitchen team at Café Momentum in Dallas. (Photo: Café Momentum/Facebook)

May 9, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner visited the new Café Momentum, she admitted to being surprised by the food: She was served paper-thin rounds of octopus, “pretty as purple and white mosaic tiles,” in a meal filled with “inventive, precisely executed” dishes. The dishes she ate at the nonprofit restaurant, which she gave three stars and called “the ultimate feel-good meal,” were cooked and served by nonviolent juvenile offenders.

Café Momentum is one of a spate of restaurants whose mission, in addition to serving creative, beautifully executed cuisine, is to serve the communities in which they are located. As one of the first signs of gentrification in changing neighborhoods, some restaurants that might otherwise alienate longtime residents are trying to skirt that reality by directly engaging with the community.

“One of the things that’s important for us is to acknowledge it,” said Ashleigh Parsons, creative director and co-owner of Los Angeles' Alma, which Bon Appetit named one of its Best New Restaurants in 2013. Like Café Momentum, Alma operated as a pop-up before finding a permanent home in a changing neighborhood—in this instance, the southern edge of Downtown L.A. “For three years basically, we were the only ones here,” Parsons said of the neighborhood, which is now home to the Ace Hotel and a host of other bars and restaurants. When it first opened in 2012, finding Alma was like “coming across a small wooden box of grace and decorum in a post-apocalyptic world,” as LA Weekly wrote.

But the neighborhood has been important to the restaurant since it opened its doors, and community outreach was built into the business from the beginning. Parsons, who comes to food justice and advocacy work armed with a master’s in education from Harvard, came on as partner to chef and co-owner Ari Taymor a month after the restaurant opened. Her goal: to develop an experiential curriculum teaching students about healthy, accessible food they can make at home by gardening, cooking, and eating together.

“It was really important for us to be working with schools that are connected to the community that we’re working in,” she said. “It’s important for us as small business owners to be participating in the community and helping L.A. to be a more sustainable place for everyone to live and not just for our business to survive.”

In November, Alma Community Outreach became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a core team of volunteers running programs at three schools in the low-income, food-insecure neighborhoods surrounding the restaurant. It’s a needs-based approach, Parsons explained, where collaborating with administrators, parents, and teachers determines the format of the program. At New Village Charter High School, where big-picture learning is valued and many students are on their way to college but have never learned how to cook, Alma Community Outreach teaches improvisational cooking—showing students how to open the fridge and make something healthy on the fly with just a few ingredients. Another school whose core curriculum emphasizes quantitative reasoning requires recipe-based learning. No matter where they’re teaching, the volunteers can count on students to ask the tough questions.

RELATED: Meanwhile, Back at the Snail Ranch

“A lot of students ask us about the restaurant, and we tell them what the price is, and they recognize that it’s a very expensive restaurant,” Parsons said. The broader message, she added, is that they feel the door is still open. “We invite them to come in, and we’ll do a potluck or an event or a fund-raiser here with them so they don’t feel like there’s such a disconnect between the restaurant and them.”

On the other coast, Brooklyn’s Roberta’s, a restaurant and “cultural hub,” was one of the first signs of gentrification in Bushwick—a neighborhood where artisanal mayonnaise and gluten-free muffins are now such clichés, it received its own Saturday Night Live send-up. But in a duo of cedar-lined shipping containers next to the restaurant, the nonprofit Heritage Radio Network is determined to put the same storytelling skills its journalists employ in pieces about, say, pricey farm-to-table cuisine in the hands of local teenagers. Through its 10-week youth program, The Saxelby Scholars, students learn to craft radio segments to share some aspect of their experience with food—with subjects ranging from a basketball player exploring how healthy food affects his game to the social impacts the American diet has created for a new immigrant family. At the end of the program, the shows are broadcast on the station.

“Just by arming these students with a microphone, we’re putting them in a position of power and authority in their community,” said HRN executive director Erin Fairbanks. “They’re out in stores and interviewing their parents and their friends and other community leaders. It’s a really interesting space for them to try on, to be the question asker versus the person who is constantly being asked questions of.”

In one story, Joshua Miranda, a junior at John Adams High School, interviewed his mother in the dark early morning in the car, when she was on her way to work and he was on his way to school. He described the breakfast they were both having—bagels and cream cheese—and said his mother’s energy was flagging.

“I don’t feel good in the morning because I don’t eat good in the morning,” she told him, her turn signal clicking rhythmically in the background.

“You can only spend so much time and money to eat healthy getting something healthy, unlike a bagel and cream cheese, which takes seconds to make and go and will get you through the day,” Miranda narrated.

“Where I live it’s hard to get healthy stuff, even if you wanted to get healthy stuff,” his mom continued, the frustration in her voice apparent as her volume rises. “And healthy food is expensive!”

The program is powered by grants, including money from the Julia Child Foundation and Bill and Pam Saxelby, parents of local cheesemonger Anne Saxelby, who hosts the show Cutting the Curd and is married to the station’s founder, Patrick Martins. Ideally, Fairbanks said, she’d like to expand the program to additional schools throughout the city. The station, which broadcasts 39 shows a week to listeners in more than 200 countries, is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to update its website.

HRN may be best known for covering topics like beginning farmers or home brewed beer, but the station sees its work with low-income high school students as a key component of the station, which was inspired by the pirate radio network started by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini in the 1970s.

“Working with teenage students and college students, they have such an interesting point of view, and they’re coming of age in a pretty confusing food landscape,” Fairbanks said. The pieces the students have created echo the conversations food justice advocates are having in the academic and policy worlds, but the kids bring them to bear in a much more meaningful way.

“They potentially have a super powerful advocacy, too, because the stories are right straight from the people being impacted. And that always brings so much more reality into the situation than a statistic or looking at analytics for a neighborhood, where you see the income unit, the number of supermarkets, the health disparities as it relates to obesity or diabetes, you know, all that stuff,” she said.

“But hearing a kid talk about how frustrating it is that, you know, these chips taste so good but they’re so bad for him, and he’s really confused about that. It’s like, ‘Yeah man, that’s not cool.’ Doing this work feels really core to our mission.”