The Lunch Room: Investing in food, people and community

The story and success behind Kerrytown's beloved vegan joint

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Co-owners Joel Panozzo and Phillis Engelbert (Photo: Matt Giles)

ANN ARBOR - Like many Ann Arbor businesses, The Lunch Room began as a hobby between friends; a grassroots passion for creating delicious vegan food.

Co-owners Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo met in 2005, when Joel began working for a peace and social justice organization Phillis founded. They discovered that they made a great team, and quit their jobs.

"We both started experimenting with vegan food and cooking at about the same time, so we were playing around with recipes and said, ‘Let’s pretend to have a café at night,’" Panozzo explained. "So we did these pop-up meals for about six months where we cooked the whole meal in Phillis’s place and brought it to different places, like a flower shop, a tattoo parlor, a friend's house.” 

It began as a fun activity with their friends, but soon, total strangers began showing up to taste the unique fare. Once courtyard food truck business Mark's Carts came onto the scene, Joel and Phillis applied and were accepted to feature a vegan food truck.

"We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to build a food cart, which we built with our friends, all volunteers. And then we had two successful seasons as a food cart, and then moved into a brick-and-mortar space,” Engelbert said.

The courtyard entrance to The Lunch Room in Kerrytown Shops (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

That brick-and-mortar space is their current location in Kerrytown, which they opened in August 2013. There, if you look closely, you can find framed photos that hold memories from their Mark's Carts days, and even pieces of the cart are on display.

Engelbert said they happened to be at the right place at the right time. "We just wanted to put out good food that happened to be vegan," Engelbert said. "We’re lucky in that we kind of dovetailed with some health fads where more people wanted to have more plant-based food in their lives."

The Lunch Room was such a success that they opened a second restaurant this summer, The Detroit Street Filling Station. Engelbert said they sought a new space to meet consumer demand.

“Often, we’re bursting at the seams here. It gets so crowded!" Engelbert said. "Our friends tell us they don’t want to come eat here because they don’t want to fight the crowds. We were just out of space. That’s why, when another place came open close by, we jumped at it.”

The new location is just down the road from The Lunch Room. They have a chef who operates a seasonal menu, a departure from the classic staples served at their original restaurant.

(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Their customer base is diverse, and so is their staff. Just recently, they began offering health and dental care to their employees, a rare move for restaurant owners. Before adding health benefits, they offered a basic retirement plan, paid sick leave, funds towards gym memberships and free bus passes.

Quentin Bryan, a Lunch Room employee, described how the new health benefits impacted his life.

"I love having the dental insurance. I was without insurance for so long and I wasn’t on my parent's plan," Bryan said. "Working in the food industry, you usually do not get that. At The Lunch Room, you’re getting more than minimum wage, you’re getting tips no matter what position you’re working in, you have the option for the 401k benefits - and they match that - and insurance.”

Bryan has been working at The Lunch Room for a little over a year, and in that time, he was able to move up in ranks from being a dishwasher to a management role. He compared it to chain restaurants he worked in the past, saying, "You’re not dealing with this faceless entity that has all these rules and procedures and will just axe you because they know you can be replaced. You get an emotional relationship. I’ve hung out with Phillis outside of work – we’ve done yoga together.”

The owners allow customers to design seating cards (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Night-time manager Kimberlee Szymanski echoed Bryan's comments. She also started as a dishwasher and was promoted to manager after 7 months.

"A lot of places, even to get any benefits at all, you have to be up for a year or two, you have to be full-time," Szymanksi said. "There’s all these stipulations. And here it’s like, 'Oh, you work for us. We’re going to give you the best healthcare we can.' It was instant. I’ve always either not had coverage or had state coverage, and it barely gets you anywhere at all and you get penalized for not having insurance. It’s nice to be somewhere where it’s just easy.”

But it doesn't come cheap.

"We’re paying $15,000 this month for our employees," Engelbert explained. "I think we have 35 people on health care right now, and it’s a platinum plan, so our employees are actually receiving better coverage than a lot of university faculty receive. So it’s a top-notch plan with the lowest deductible. It covers everything because we want people to be healthy. We want people to be able to take care of themselves, get their teeth cleaned, to seek mental health services if they need that." 

Palozzo said that employee retention is key to the business's success, saying, "That’s what the benefits package does for the business. There’s something about being able to keep people long-term, keep people invested and keep them involved in the business."

Grilled tofu banh mi sandwich (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Another major aspect of the business is supporting local farmers. On any given Wednesday, Joel and Phillis will purchase produce next door at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and already have working relationships with many of its farmers. They also have their own farm, which accounts for 20% of their produce. But one farmer in particular is especially thankful for their business.

Melvin Parson is the owner and founder of We the People Growers Association. He began growing vegetables in 2014 after inheriting a 3x9 vegetable bed that he said literally landed in his lap. "I grew some things and it made me become more interested in where my food came from," Parson said. "So I came down to the Farmers Market here in Kerrytown and I spent an hour trying to figure out what a zucchini was, and I’ve seen nobody that looked like me. And I looked around at the people who were selling me my food and they don’t look like me, either. I’m a firm believer that either you’ve got a seat at the table, or you’re on the menu. It felt like the universe said to me in that moment, ‘Melvin, this is where I want you to sit.’”

Joel Panozzo, Melvin Parson, and Phillis Engelbert (Photo: Matt Giles)

He told us that he spent several years in prison and he hopes to help others rehabilitate through farming.

"I know what that’s like and I know the challenges of coming home," Parson said. "I wanted to provide some jobs for both men and women returning home from incarceration because jobs are important, and to help them have a fair shot at not returning back from whence they came.”

Parson largely sells parsley, thyme, Swiss chard and kale to The Lunch Room, and grows produce on land in Ypsilanti Township. With the help of a local church, he hired a part-time (formerly incarcerated) employee this year. He hopes to grow his business into a world-class urban farm.

At the end of the interview, Parson asked to add one more thought: "The thing I learned most about farming this year is that it’s all about the soil; the soil is everything. You can be the most amazing farmer on the planet, but if your soil is not good, your plants aren’t going to flourish. And so I think about that, about people. It’s all about the soil they put in ... It’s about helping to change the soil of people’s lives. Because I think if you change the soil of a person, they have a better chance to change.”

His words, in many ways, reflect the mission of The Lunch Room. Joel and Phillis, through nourishing and investing in the people they employ, have managed to build something that continues to flourish. 

To learn more about The Lunch Room and The Detroit Street Filling station, visit their website.

To learn more about Melvin's farm, We the People Growers Association, click here.


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