Detroit Pizza Bar is more than just a restaurant to co-owners Marcus Jones and Akunna Olumba.
Situated in Detroit’s Livernois-Six Mile neighborhood, also known as Live6, the restaurant is the community’s first Black-owned pizza spot, and the first sit-down establishment the area has seen for over 30 years.
But that isn’t the only thing that makes their restaurant unique. Opening its doors in April 2022, the concept for the Pizza Bar was developed entirely with sustainability in mind.
“I knew I wanted to make that building as green and sustainable as possible,” Jones, who studied environmental science, urban planning and real estate development as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, told Planet Detroit. “Traditional lenders here in the city look at sustainability as extra, as a luxury item. My approach is, if we build with sustainability in mind, it’s not a luxury but a necessity for the future.”
After responding to a request for proposals to develop the long-vacant commercial space at 7316 W. McNichols, the first thing Jones and Olumba, who is a professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy and expert in business law and taxation, needed to do was secure funding to develop the 4,500-square-foot space in a way that would fit their sustainability goals.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic made their quest much more complex, with the restaurant industry facing significant labor challenges, forced closures, and supply chain issues.
“Lending was nearly impossible to restaurants at that time,” Patrick O’Boyle, director of business development at Michigan Saves, told Planet Detroit. The organization helped facilitate funding for the sustainability improvements Jones and Olumba envisioned for Detroit Pizza Bar. “Basically, just really believing in them was how we got them approved,” said O’Boyle
Started in 2009 by the Michigan Public Service Commission, Michigan Saves aims to expand access to funds for those interested in pursuing clean energy and climate-resilient solutions in the state. By using a credit enhancement approach known as a loan loss reserve fund, the organization can recruit commercial lenders – or credit unions on the residential side – to fund energy efficiency and sustainability projects like Jones’ and Otumba’s that wouldn’t otherwise be funded.
“We can serve a wider range of credit scores at hopefully a lower interest rate by using the loan loss reserve to leverage those funds,” O’Boyle said.
With Michigan Saves on board as a lending partner, and additional support via a $1.3 million loan from the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Jones could sit down with his architect to design Detroit Pizza Bar as sustainably as possible.
The green improvements included 11 solar panels on the roof, which help offset energy to power the various coolers and refrigerators in the kitchen and bar areas; tankless water heaters; LED lighting, high-efficiency kitchen appliances; and a water detention system built into the rooftop patio, where rainwater is captured to prevent street flooding.
“We water our plants with it as well,” Jones said. “As a small business, your operating costs and your overhead are huge, and so if you can help save long term, it helps the business stay more sustainable in the community.”
The building, now around 6,000 square feet, also utilizes passive solar thermal to regulate temperature on the second floor using south-facing windows.
“We’ve been able to heat the second floor without even having to turn on the furnace, even when it’s minus 10 degrees outside because the space can heat from the natural sunlight,” Jones said. “All these things to me are low-hanging fruit, but to a traditional lender, they sound like these high-dollar things that are astronomical, when they still fit within the budget.”
Jones estimates the restaurant has prevented about 7,500 pounds of carbon from entering the atmosphere since opening its doors in 2022. “We like to say that our pizza is one of the most sustainable pizzas being served in Detroit, and we pride ourselves on that,” he said.
Michigan Saves has funded $500 million in commercial and residential lending for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects across the state since the organization was founded., A typical commercial loan falls around $250,000, up to $1 million.
Michigan Saves also helped connect Jones and Olumba with other beneficial companies, like Team Financial Group, a Michigan-based commercial equipment financing company.
“It’s a great relationship that we formed,” said Jones of his partnership with Michigan Saves. “I’m one of their biggest advocates.”
More than anything, Jones hopes that projects like theirs will serve as an example of what urban redevelopment projects can and should look like.
“Projects like the one we did, really is something that shouldn’t be treated as something out of the norm,” Jones said. “Especially when we talk about climate change and resilience and preparing Detroit for the future, we can’t build for now, we have to build for the future.”