Action. Community. Hospitality. Part 3: Russell Street Deli

By Sean Kenniff

By

Sean Kenniff
Russell Street Deli in Detroit
Russell Street Deli in Detroit

Part 3: Russell Street Deli

It’s hard to say which facet of Ben Hall’s work is most important. Is it his contributions to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act? Is it the soup he provides to Detroit public schools? Is it his work in food waste reduction? He’s proud that since buying Russel Street Deli 10 years ago, business has tripled but they still have the same single dumpster out back. Or is it his less wonky, more personal, day-to-day work at Russet Street Deli that matters most? Whether Hall is acting as a member of a task force or interacting with an employee on the line, his motivation is rooted in one ideal: “I want to create equity for staff, so they don’t have the same problems I had,” says Hall. 

Years ago when Hall entered the workforce, his outlook was bleak. He had no high school diploma, no skilled training, and his meager prospects offered wages almost impossible to survive on. He got a job washing dishes at the Deli and got down to work. 

Hall had a realization. “Food is really a path to self-actualization, because a skillset in food allows you to give like no other,” he says. So, when he hires a new employee, he’s offering more than a respectable gig with a decent wage. Hall is offering a path forward. “Most of my employees don’t know another person with a job,” he says. There’s almost universal unemployment among specific communities in Detroit, especially in black communities. Nearly 83 percent of the city’s population is black, yet you would never know that from walking into its top kitchens and meeting its cooks. Hall’s kitchen is one of the few that actually reflects the racial make-up of Detroit. 

The average yearly income in Detroit for a family of four is $26,200, according to Hall. The average minimum hourly wage at Russel Street Deli is $15.91, which translates to an annual salary that’s $7,000 above that average. In this way, Hall is making change on a micro as well as macro level.

Through his urban farms and other local partnerships, Hall is taking back the means of production. Combine that with his hiring practices and higher wages, and Hall is remodeling the unsatisfactory restaurant model that we’re accustomed to. “If you are desperately moving toward failure, do I want to fail on someone else’s template?” Hall asks. “The restaurant model is broken.” Fixing it may be Hall’s most important work.    

The Facts:      

Business: Russel Street Deli
City: Detroit
Neighborhood: Eastern Market  
Industry Leader: Ben Hall 
Employee Average Hourly Wage: $15.91 
Percent of African Americans Living in Detroit: 82.7
Percent Chance that Hall’s Staff Looks Like the City: 100 
Money Donated by Customers to Gleaners Foodbank: More than $85,000 (225,000 meals)
Gallons of Soup Produced Weekly: 5,000
Number of Public School Children with Access to Healthy, Affordable Russel Street Soup: 55,000
Cost of Soup on Hall’s Menu: $2

Check back tomorrow for Part 4 in our 5-part series.

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