Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes have a well-established reputation as progressive figures in Detroit’s hospitality world. Instead of relying on customer tipping, their Corktown restaurant, Folk, adds an 18 percent “hospitality charge” to bills, thereby ensuring their staff makes more than 300 percent more than Detroit’s $3.52 tipped minimum wage. They saw it as the only ethical way to run their business and do right by their staff. The duo’s latest move takes this mission a step further.
In May 2019, Louya and Foulkes teamed up with restaurateur Ping Ho and chef Sarah Welch of Marrow, one of Eater’s best new restaurants, to form Nest Egg LLC, a hospitality company that includes Folk and two new projects: the upcoming Welch-led restaurant Mink and a relocation and revamp of the Farmer’s Hand, the Folk team’s Eater Award-winning market. The quartet recognizes that the venture is rare, and not just because the group is led entirely by women. Ho points out that forming a partnership with existing businesses makes Nest Egg unlike any other restaurant group she’s been a part of. “We’re pretty confident that it might actually be that we’re somewhat trailblazing here,” says Louya. There are also concrete perks to the merger, from flexibility for employees to stronger relationships with farmers and other suppliers.
The collaboration came about out of practicality. Louya and Foulkes were looking to add a drinks program to Folk. They approached Ho, who opened wine bar and bottle shop the Royce in 2016. “The conversation was around not just having alcohol but the intentionality and the thoughtfulness of the situation. We didn’t want to talk to someone into a beverage manager position.” They realized their partnership could be further reaching.
Instead of one beverage manager, Louya and Foulkes got two new business partners. Ho brings her drinks expertise and a background in finance to Nest Egg, but she says they all contribute in different ways to the newly formed hospitality group. Welch is overseeing the development of Mink, the new restaurant and wine bar the group is opening in the space currently occupied by the Farmer’s Hand. Executive chefs at Nest Egg restaurants will report to Welch. Louya and Foulkes, meanwhile, bring their experience running a market with deep ties to the community. “We all come from very similar backgrounds but also differing expertise,” Foulkes says. “So when you pool all of those things together, just as when Kiki and I met, you’re only stronger together.”
Louya isn’t speaking metaphorically. With more restaurants in their portfolio, the group has more clout with vendors. For example, Louya says, if they want to serve a bottle of wine that requires them to commit to ordering a particular quantity, now they can. “As one restaurant, we might not be able to do that, but as four or five restaurants we can potentially have that competitive edge and advantage.”
And so Nest Egg works well from a structural standpoint, but more importantly, Foulkes, Ho, Louya, and Welch share the same values, starting with treating employees well. “Employees that are still feeling the brunt of an industry that’s broken have to feel strong enough alongside of us and brave enough to air the concerns of an industry that has been taking advantage of the workforce,” Foulkes says. “We’re in this together and we have to make sacrifices along the way.”
Nest Egg wants to foster long-term careers in hospitality, and so it offers health benefits, parental leave, and stipends for furthering education in the industry. And, once again, the mere fact of the new hospitality group makes it easier to extend these benefits to staff. According to the restaurateurs, at Nest Egg, an employee who took parental leave from working the dinner shift at Marrow could perhaps return to work friendlier daytime hours at Folk. “There’s a lot of opportunity that we can offer the workforce here in Detroit,” Louya says. “We can also accommodate various lifestyle changes that are inevitable as you grow and evolve in the food industry.” Folk’s head chef Jessi Patuano told Eater Detroit that server wages at Folk were also raised from $13.50 per hour to $18 per hour after Nest Egg formed, although the team shrunk to accommodate that change.
Ho says that by making working in restaurants sustainable for staff, Nest Egg can create sustainable businesses. To this end, the hospitality group also aims to become a part of the communities that surround their restaurants. “We’re very cognizant of being welcoming to as many walks of life like at Marrow,” she says. “It’s a little neighborhood butcher shop and restaurant and we try to keep our meat as affordably priced as possible. It’s something that we pay attention to.” The group will deepen its ties to Corktown, specifically, when it opens 22-seat restaurant and wine bar Mink this fall and, later, reopens the Farmer’s Hand as a larger neighborhood grocery store with substantial grab-and-go options, prepared foods, and sourcing from local farms.
These projects — Folk, Mink, and the Farmer’s Hand — are just the beginning for the four women. After all, it’s only been a few months, but, seemingly, a good few months. “Between the four of us, the four brains and the network capacity, the resources that we have collectively, that in and of itself is powerful,” Louya says.
Working together, there’s no “fear of competition or fear of diluting their own glory,” as Foulkes puts it. Instead, they support each other. Plus, she adds, “We’re having a good time working together.”