Action. Community. Hospitality. How to implement change—big and small—through your restaurant

By Sean Kenniff


Sean Kenniff
Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie
Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie

Purposeful, hands-on work. Historically, it has meant a lot to Rust Belt residents. It’s also the reason so many people join the ranks of hospitality professionals. As the restaurant industry continues to gain social currency and deepen its community ties, a full restaurant and superior craft are only part of the picture of success. Altruism and activism have become a serious force from within the food and beverage business, and the greatest minds in the industry are turning their attention to the neediest among us.

In Houston, Bartender-turned-Restaurateur Bobby Heugel launched nonprofit OKRA Charity Saloon and has given away more than $820,000 to date. Recent New York import Claus Meyer (of noma fame) has established cooking schools in Danish prisons, impoverished parts of Bolivia, and, now, in the under-served Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. New Orleans-based Chefs John Besh and Aarón Sánchez are partnering to mentor and send aspiring chefs from the Latin community to culinary school in New York.

These are the stories that are unfolding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, in which industry leaders are creating meaningful work and paying it forward. From practical, simple programs that spread goodwill to breathing life back into an old steel mill town, professionals in the Rust Belt are proving that hospitality can be a transformative force for change in America.                


Part 1: Pie It Forward

Rising Star Pastry Chef and Michigander Lisa Ludwinski nurtured her creative impulses and developed her confident, fearless cooking style at Milk Bar in New York City. She came home in 2013 to found her own bakery in Detroit, and Sister Pie opened in the West Village neighborhood two years later. “I’m not like a chef at a restaurant. I’m a businesswoman running a restaurant,” says Ludwinski. “Over time, you have to make an impact on the community, and that’s especially true in Detroit. People think, ‘Look at all these white people who have come and saved Detroit!’ NO! I have to honor the past and be inclusive. Not all businesses do that. It’s tricky.”

Pie-it-forward slips at Sister PieAt Sister Pie, where the employees come from the neighborhood and all around Detroit, there are seasonal blue-barb pies, sour cherry pies, and salted maple pies. But only one pie is always in season: free pie. Ludwinski created the “Sister Pie-It Forward” program through which customers can “get a slice and give a slice.” When checking out, guests can add an extra slice of pie to their order, and, in return, they get a “fork slip” to clip onto a clothesline on the wall. After that, anyone who’s having a hard time or a bad day, or can’t afford a slice is welcome to unclip a fork slip and redeem it for delicious pie. It’s an honor system that’s made all the more human with the pie-giver’s signature on the slip.  

Ludwinski doesn’t keep official numbers, but in 18 months, about 300 slices have been pied forward. “The idea is to promote selfless generosity, whether it’s for someone in need, someone who hasn’t tried Sister Pie before, or someone who left their wallet at home,” she says. “We want to maintain a commitment to standards and to a code of ethics. I know that sometimes I won’t make the best pastry ever, but the quality of the experience for the customer and employee is ultra good. We want to grow while maintaining a presence here.” Welcome to the pie-borhood.   

The Facts:

Business: Sister Pie
City: Detroit
Neighborhood: West Village   
Industry Leader: Lisa Ludwinski 
Initiative: Sister Pie-It Forward 
Pie Paid Forward: 300 slices from 40 pies in 18 months 
Dollar equivalent: $4.24 per slice x 300 = $1,200
Goodwill created: infinite  
Replicability: 100%
Ease of implementation: On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the easiest), 11
Necessary Equipment: Paper, clothesline, a product 
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Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our 5-part series.

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