Kirby immediately turned a profit, a modest one, slightly expanded the market, and quit the restaurant job after realizing he could support his wife and month-old baby by selling food rather than serving it. Duggan, a Democrat, has visited Parker Street Market several times, once with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“I kept my word,” Duggan said.
It was the mayor who first told me about Kirby. I bumped into Duggan recently at the second annual “Detroit Homecoming,” a joint effort by the political and business communities to enlist “expats” like me into the city’s post-bankruptcy recovery. I asked him how the city can keep grinding upward. How does Detroit write a comeback narrative that’s real and durable, and not be just another buzzy-hyped brand that goes to hell?
Duggan said the key is to attract and retain young adults: millennials, a uniquely equipped generation of social entrepreneurs who don’t trust government. You do that by getting out of their way, he said. Let each young transplant build a life in Detroit while building a better Detroit. “Look,” he said, “I’ve obviously got to make sure they don’t spray graffiti on the walls and there’s no squatting in homes,” Duggan chuckled. “But other than that, have at it. Let them innovate. Let them create. Let them do good things and make a profit.”
That’s when Duggan told me about Kirby. “The kid walks up to me and says he’s going to own the largest chain of local-foods stores in the state of Michigan!” For Duggan, the ex-waiter is a model for a new Detroit, a city slowly rising from the ashes with an infusion of young, civic-minded strivers. Innovators. Disrupters. Dreamers. Risk-takers. Consensus-builders. Millennials like Kirby (who moved to Detroit in 2013 from hipsteresque Brooklyn) have no patience for institutions that still play by 20th-century rules.
The day after talking to Duggan, I drove 20 minutes from downtown to Kirby’s market. The shelves were stuffed with organic foods—local and national brands. The counter was built from a wooden crate, which slid across the worn wood floorboards when I leaned against it.
“Don’t worry about that,” Kirby said. “Nothing fancy here.” He welcomed customers by name as they walked in, and they came in a constant stream. Basic groceries, snacks, fresh juices, beer, and wine in a space the size of a traditional Detroit “party store,” though Kirby’s prices are higher and the products far better than anything sold via that old business model.
Two years ago, Kirby was taking a walk with his wife when he noticed a “for rent” sign in an abandoned storefront on Parker and Kercheval streets. “The rent was exactly what I had in my savings account: $500,” he told me.
The landlord agreed not to collect rent until the store opened.
Kirby found a wholesaler willing to give him inventory that he would pay for out of his first sales.