Folk Cafe & Market Brings Wholesome, Ethically-Sourced Food To Detroit’s Corktown Neighborhood
Folk owner Rohani Foulkes' mission is to provide quality food and gift boxes that are sourced well, taste good, and made with care to the Great Lakes region, and beyond.
This year, the Merchant Maverick Opportunity Grant Program gave a total of $100K to Americans of Asian and Pacific Island descent, via 10 separate grants of $10K each. One of these grants was awarded to Folk, a gourmet Market and Cafe housed in the historic neighborhood of Corktown, Detroit. Thanks to its focus on from-scratch meals with ethically and locally sourced ingredients, Folk has developed a wide and loyal fan base and is now expanding into curated gift boxes and catering services.
Recently, we sat down with owner Rohani Foulkes, to discuss how Folk is weathering recent economic storms and to see how the grant money has helped.
MM: In general how have things been going since the grant?
Rohani: Great! Summer has finally come to the Great Lakes which means loads of patio foot traffic, catering, and fun outdoor events.
MM: When did you first decide you wanted to own a business and how did you get started with this one?
Rohani: I first visited Detroit in 2010. I fell in love with its architecture, its grit, its history, its people, its places. My husband was born and raised in Detroit but I was not. We spent the first couple of years of our relationship (ultra) long distance and finally decided to make a commitment to living and working and raising our family in one place, together. The choices were Sydney, New York, or Detroit. We decided on Detroit. In doing so, I vowed to myself — and also asked my husband to help me and keep me accountable — to one day, very quickly, opening my own place. The rest is history!
MM: What did you do before starting Folk?
Rohani: I left school very young and started a chef’s apprenticeship. I then became a professional chef and worked in a kitchen along the east coast of Australia. Decades later I left the industry, upon becoming a mother, and went back to school to get a Bachelors’s and Masters’s degree in Education. I was a High School teacher of Culinary Arts, Design, and Technology for many years. When I moved to Detroit I worked for Gleaners Community Food Bank in their community programs department, coordinating and teaching Cooking Matters classes. In 2015, just a year after my second child was born and a few years into living in Detroit, I started seriously considering what my own small business would look like and how it would function in a city like Detroit. I wanted to open a neighborhood market and cafe, and so I did.
MM: What were some of the challenges you faced when you were first really starting to get the business up and running?
Rohani: Finances, motherhood, boundaries.
MM: How did you go about getting capital?
Rohani: I spent a lot of my own life savings as well as some family support. Applied for grants and local funding.
MM: Can you describe the typical customer that comes to Folk?
Rohani: Folks come from near and far to visit us. I’d say a similarity is most everyone is looking for wholesome, good food. Knowing it doesn’t need to be “fancy” but always knowing it’s sourced well, products are grown and made with care, and taste good. Also, that their dollars are going towards paying our team well!
MM: Do you have a favorite memory of customer interaction?
Rohani: There are so many, but I think my favorite is when a family expands. What I mean by that is a baby is born and the parents bring that baby to meet the team at Folk. Or, a child is back from college for the summer and mom and dad bring them in for lunch. Or a mother is visiting, and our regular brings them along for a cup of coffee and to say hi. That is real joy.
MM: What are you most proud of with the business?
Rohani: I’m most proud of the fact that I, along with a handful of dedicated and passionate team members, have stuck with Folk through the years and all of its bumps and changes. That we’ve been able to live through and learn from those bumps and changes and today we’re seeing it thrive not, just survive.
MM: What do you think your biggest fear for the business is going forward?
Rohani: Being priced out of our own building. Being lost in the enormous infrastructural change and growth that some multi-billion dollar organizations and corporations are bringing to the neighborhood.
MM: In what ways would you say you’ve had to adapt because of the pandemic?
Rohani: In every way. Truly. I’ve had to rethink and rework what we sell, how we sell it, how we communicate it and when we sell it. We’ve significantly expanded our online and virtual/social media presence, added a walk-up window, all-day, every-day online ordering capability, delivery, grab and go, takeout, take and bake, and more. Instead of pulling in, we decided to rework and expand outward.
MM: A lot of restaurant owners, but AAPI restaurant owners, in particular, it seems, rely on family and family connections for staffing restaurants or as financial support. How has your family played a role in starting and running Folk, if at all?
Rohani: They haven’t to the extent I understand and have experienced in my work-life back in Australia. I have no immediate family in Detroit outside of my husband and children. My son worked at Folk for a short period and was hugely impactful in his willingness to assist during the very early days of our state lockdown mandate. He helped move, clean, and store everything and anything, he took care of his little sister when I was swamped trying to rework the restaurant, and washed dishes for a period. My husband is always willing to help with whatever he can. Mostly that extends to heavy lifting and technology support but he also has a full-time job of his own and is hugely hands-on with our school-aged daughter. Extended family outside of that is also supportive with their purchases from and promotion of Folk. Outside of that, it’s been a little bit of a lonely experience family-wise.
MM: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Rohani: I am deeply grateful for the generosity of various establishments and organizations such as MM for their support of a variety of small businesses in what is still an incredibly difficult time for businesses, their owner-operators, and team members. Providing financial support allows us the ability to support our own growth goals without the strain and stress of traditional lending. In some ways, it pushed me harder to ensure the success of such projects even more. It feels or should I say, it is, backed by the community!
Interested in learning more about Folk or supporting the restaurant’s mission? Browse the cafe menu, order a curated gift box, or schedule catering on the Folk website. Follow Folk on Facebook or Instagram for more information about the cafe and to get a peek into the gift boxes.