the spirit of russell street.
Eastern Market has been a cornerstone of Detroit commerce for more than a century. From its humble beginnings as a hay and wood marketplace, it has evolved into a bustling hub of local food and culture, with over 45,000 shoppers converging on the grounds every Saturday.
Just beyond the Market’s massive sheds sits Russell Street Deli: A savory haven for hungry shoppers for the last 30 of those 100 years. Though founded by a previous owner in 1989, its current Co-Owner, Jason Murphy, has been steering the restaurant’s success for more than two decades.
“I grew up predominantly on the West Side of Detroit. My father was a Detroit Police Officer, and my mother was a minimum-wage cashier at Burger King, so I was always very aware of the week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.”
Though he initially dropped out of Cass Tech High School in Detroit, his mother refused to let him go on without graduating.
“My mom basically said, ‘Go back to school, or you can’t live here.’ So, when I started at the deli, I was still working on my GED. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and I'm 41 now, so I’ve been working at Russell Street for twenty-four years.”
Soon after starting the job, he met a fateful friend, Ben Hall.
“I met Ben a year later. He started as a prep cook — which is basically a dishwasher who, at some point in his life, has used a knife. We became friends and lived together for a long time. Then in 2007, the former owner sold the restaurant to us. Our plan was simply to fix it up, sell it and go on with our lives. But after a year passed and we hadn’t burned the place down, we realized we weren’t half bad at it.”
That realization made them reevaluate the plan for the restaurant — and for themselves.
“We arrived at a crossroads about what to do with the Deli... Ben and I both come from blue-collar backgrounds. His father was a meat man who grew up in Eastern Market and worked on the killing floor, and his mother was a waitress at some of the small bars and lounges around town. So, because we both grew up in those paycheck-to-paycheck households — and had each worked for $4.75 an hour under the former owner — we wanted to change the restaurant pay structure model by offering employees a universal living wage. Today, our average employee makes close to $16 an hour, and we offer health insurance and an IRA program... What we're trying to do is give our employees the opportunity to live well by working at our restaurant.”
Beyond their own experiences, they were inspired by another local business owner who had a similar philosophy.
“Ben and I actually worked at Avalon for a short time. Ben was a baker, and I was a porter, delivery driver and savory chef. The transparency of Jackie’s triple bottom line business model really spoke to us. I once worked at a Taco Bell, and everyone was under-trained and overworked. They were just trying to make a profit, so they used you up; then if you quit, they would just replace you with someone else and do the same thing to them. We never wanted to become that.”
Though it hasn’t always been easy, Jason and Ben have remained unwavering in their commitment to treating employees exceptionally well — but that’s just one way they’ve transformed the culture at Russell Street.
“When we took over the restaurant, there were 27 employees, and 26 of them were white. In a city that’s 85% percent African-American, that alienated a lot of potential employees and customers; so one of the first things we did was diversify the staff. We wanted it to be a true reflection of the city’s population so that everyone — whether they were working or dining here — would feel comfortable. We did it simply because we felt it was right, but it’s also been great for business."
“The market is at an interesting place right now. It still exists as a multi-use space: You can still go to a produce house or the Gratiot Central Meat Market… There are still a couple of Halal lamb places… There are still lofts… So, to some degree, it still functions as it did a hundred years ago. So in that way, it's exciting.”
But seeing the way other developments are shaping up around the city, he can’t help but wonder if Eastern Market might change more drastically in the coming years.
“Think about it in terms of the Meat Packing District in New York City. That’s where all the city’s meat was packed, now it’s just all clubs and places where you can buy pillows — which is cool, everybody needs pillows, but it's a little weird. In Detroit, I’ve had conversations with people who say things like, ‘They really need to do something about the homeless shelter down the way.’ Or, ‘They need to do something about the smell of the slaughterhouse.’ I'm like, ‘Well we could just turn it into yoga studios and juice bars, but don't we already have those?’”
That’s why he’s glad that the powers that be are preserving the heritage he and many other Detroiters hold dear… For now.
“I think it's cool that the Market still maintains some of that diversity, and it seems like, to a certain degree, the Eastern Market Corporation wants to keep that intact. They seem to understand that having a diverse group of businesses operating in this space has its benefits. They’ve also done a lot of work to clean up and renovate the sheds, which is great.”
Still, he has also seen the culture of the Market change as it becomes more modernized.
“It’s become more and more a playground for people from the suburbs, which I get — you have to get people down here to spend money because that's how you grow the business. But the byproduct is that a lot of the families who used to come down here and fill a wagon with their groceries for the week aren't necessarily coming anymore because it's gotten so busy. And if you talk to a lot of the farmers, they’ll say there are more people here on a Saturday then there’s ever been, but they don’t sell as many vegetables as they used to. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with what’s happening, but it’s easy to forget that not long ago the Market was just wagon after wagon and family after family saying, ‘I just spent $60 on vegetables and I don't even know how to get them in the car.’ And I think there still needs to be room for those folks too.”
But Murphy isn’t jaded by the changes. In fact, the culture he and Ben have built at Russell Street is a prime example of what’s possible when business owners are intentional about creating a truly inclusive environment — one where Metro Detroiters of every ilk can sit side-by-side to enjoy a great meal, and maybe even strike up a conversation.
“Before, our regulars were all people living in the city who we knew on a first name basis. Now, those people tend to stay away on the busier days because they don't want to deal with the crowd, so we're looking around a packed room like, ‘Who are all these people?’ But it’s made us savvier, and we work that much harder to make sure that every person who comes in for the first time comes back. We do New York-style communal dining, and a lot of people are like, ‘I'm here from Garden City, and it’s my first time at the market. I’m used to eating at Applebee’s, so sitting next to someone I’ve never met makes me really uncomfortable.’ But we generally find when you sit them down, and you’re like, ‘Guys, this is Jim, he’s a regular.’ By the end, they're all for it. We always say, ‘It’s different, but don't worry about it — we got you.”