We Take Durham's Mayor Out to Lunch for a Conversation About Shared Prosperity in the City's Food Scene | Food Feature | Indy Week
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We Take Durham's Mayor Out to Lunch for a Conversation About Shared Prosperity in the City's Food Scene 

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel tries M Kokko's ramen.

Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel tries M Kokko's ramen.

When the bowl of ramen arrives at M Kokko, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel hustles to grab his cell phone from his pocket before the steam—and the dramatic visual effect—evaporates.

"I like to take pictures of food to send to my kids," he says. "That's like our main way of communicating. My boys, they're busy. But if I send them pictures, they'll be like, oh wow! I'll send it to them now. Maybe they'll respond by the time we're done."

As a candidate, Schewel published an op-ed in the Herald-Sun just weeks before last year's election detailing his plans for dealing with hunger in Durham. Fifty thousand people in the city are food insecure, and 20 percent of its citizens live in poverty.

Last week, in his first State of the City address, Schewel brought it up again, issuing a call for a food security summit within the next year. He hopes the city will soon hire its first food coordinator.

"A way we can begin to share prosperity in Durham is to attack the issue of food insecurity," he says.

Over a lunch at M Kokko (his first visit) we discussed his shared prosperity model as it relates Durham's most enticing trend: its food scene.

Schewel helps inaugurate our Lunch Break series, where we take a Triangle public figure out to lunch of their choice, for a conversation about anything related to food. For the record, Schewel did not let us pay for his meal. We split the wings.

INDY: What excites you about the way our food scene is celebrated?

STEVE SCHEWEL: I'm just stunned some times at the recognition we get for it. It's deserved. I could eat out every night and be super happy.

What do you see as both good and challenging about it?

The good thing is all the places I like to eat. It's incredible. Like, being here today, the cultural expression that these restaurants represent is phenomenal. And just the attention to quality. This is a niche full of serious chefs [and] this amazing appreciation for food in our city. It's not just great restaurants. People are crazy for it and proud of it.

One thing that is the most problematic: wages. I admire people like Grub or Cocoa Cinnamon, Monuts, places that are paying the living wage and have committed to it. But I know that's very difficult for a lot of places. Sometimes people are making a choice between wages and the ingredients they want.

Is there any way the city can help alleviate that dilemma for business owners?

If it was just the restaurant business, maybe we could. But we're in a big global economy. Our ability to affect wages is not very high. So, we're prohibited by the legislature to require a minimum wage higher than seven dollars and twenty-five cents. The other downside is related, and it's the problem that not everyone can share it. We have this incredible food culture, and twenty percent of people in our city could never dream of coming to a restaurant like this.

There are many people of color and immigrants who want to start a food business, but they feel it's impossible because of the lack of financial backing. When laying out your plans for the food summit, is business ownership a part of the equation? Because efforts to support economic development may not be reaching folks who have the culinary skills, experience, and talent but don't have a certification.

Exactly. I think that's not just true in food but in many areas of our economy. I think about it in terms of contracting, but you're making me realize it's also true in terms of food. We're doing a new city economic development plan. One of the things I talked about is shared prosperity. How do you bring in minority- and women-owned businesses into the prosperity we're all sharing? How do we create businesses out of the skills we have, with access to capital and expertise in financing and marketing? That's got to be a big part of our plan. In terms of restaurants and food businesses, it's the same.

I'm encouraged by a mayor thinking about food as an issue. It's so intersectional, and we can start solving a lot of problems if we think through it.

I agree. It's so basic, so fundamental. We can make a difference. I'm not an expert on this. If you ask me about affordable housing, I know a ton. I've been working on it every day for the last six years. My knowledge about food insecurity and other related food problems is something that I'm trying to get educated about from my friends who do work on this every day. But I also know that for housing to work, to make our schools better, to make sure everybody's got a great park and a trail near them—those things are going to contribute to food security. And being able to have a good job and a good wage. All those things matter.

How do we create a vision that goes beyond what already exists? I'm thinking about business development and giving people who are in need a chance to participate—and a sense of ownership, if they want it. Because that's what's bringing folks here. This creative force of restaurant work is the economic vitality of the city in many ways.

It is. That's the key for people who want to be in business and can't. It's usually access to capital, and we need to think about that. And it's not just for restaurants, I want to stress that. It's for minority- and woman-owned businesses in general.

How does that happen? Is it through a grant structure or private funders?

It's got to be private capital. Once we have our economic development plan—our staff is working on that now; it's based on the shared prosperity model. We're creating a housing trust fund, for example, that will involve private capital loaned out at low interest rates and risk capital that's put up by the city. That gives the private lenders confidence. The city will provide the top loss funds, [which] mitigates the risk to private lenders so they're more willing to come into something like affordable housing. They want to be helpful, but they don't want to lose their money. By the city accepting the top loss, it makes it easier for people to do that. And I think we'll be able to raise fifteen or twenty million dollars to do that for affordable housing.

We need to be thinking about similar kinds of models for minority business development—not particularly restaurants, but it could be restaurants.

Do you think that model is malleable enough to be shaped into restaurant development?

I think it's harder, because when you're building affordable housing and you're taking a risk on it, the housing is collateral. And if things go bad, you've got the housing. If things go bad in a restaurant, you've got the forks, you know what I mean? It's a really good way to think about it. If we can get private financial institutions to make a commitment, the city could provide top loss. This is not a program that our staff has proposed to us yet, but I'm anxious to hear their ideas about how we're going to help provide capital. And that's just one idea.

Where else do you like to eat?

I'll tell you some of my favorites. Where I love to go at nine o'clock and just sit at the bar with my wife: Gocciolina. It's very friendly, the food is great. I get the carbonara and it's nine dollars. It's just fabulous. We drink the house carafe, which is cheap.

You can't go wrong with an Italian house carafe.

It's delicious. I love Gocciolina, I love the mood, I love how sort of relaxed it is. I love Scratch, so I'm really bummed out now that it's closing [downtown]. I walk right across from City Hall once a week, at least. So this month, I'm going practically every day. I love Toast. I feel like my hometown place is Watts Grocery. It's in my neighborhood, I can walk there, it's very comfortable, the food is delish. There are so many, I'm just scratching the surface. Oh, and Johnson's Barbecue on [N.C. Highway 98]. Ribs are Thursday night. I tell you what I really like: I love Suman's Indian Cuisine on Monday nights at Fullsteam. I took cooking lessons from Suman. I can cook a few of her dishes.

Really? What do you like to cook?

You know, chicken tikka masala. Chana masala. Saag paneer. I cook a lot. I've been cooking less since I've been mayor.

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