Behind The Counter Episode 9: Russell Street Deli

In this episode of “Behind The Counter,” your host Andy Didorosi talks soup, Walmart, and philosophy with Russell Street Deli Co-owner Ben Hall.

Years ago, Ben and his business partner Jason Murphy started out washing dishes at the deli. Ben says, back in those days, he “couldn’t afford to eat there, and they were pretty bad at what they did at the time,” referring to the deli’s quality under previous ownership.

“Our predecessor was really bad, cutting a lot of corners, and we thought, what if we don’t do that? What if we do the opposite of that and try to get it right everytime?”

Since taking over as co-owners at Russell Street Deli, Ben says accessibility has been an important part of he and Jason’s mission. Accessibility, which includes affordable, high quality food and employees that actually earn a livable wage. “[Jason and I] worked there, it’s really hard to live off $8 an hour,” he says.

Ben says it’s not always easy trying to deliver on both fronts of affordability and quality, but having the technical skill and production in the kitchen makes a big difference. Comparing it to a factory, Ben says consistency is important, especially because the deli produces such large quantities. He also says that Russell Street is the “number one buyer of produce grown in Detroit.”

In addition to selling their soup at dozens of metro Detroit grocers, including Whole Foods Market and Busch’s, Ben says Russell Street has also been talking to mega retailer Walmart about selling the deli’s soup. “I had a friend who was horrified,” he says of some of the reactions that the potential Walmart partnership has garnered. But, Ben counters with a simple question: “Who sells more food to poor people? Whole Foods or Walmart?” He says at the end of the day, he just wants people to have access to good food.

“If you care for the food, you start making good decisions,” explains Ben, who personally looks after leeks and other produce the restaurant grows on a parcel of land in Detroit. Aside from continuing to expand Russell Street’s soup empire, Ben and Jason are also working on a new venture: revamping the former Steak Hut Restaurant at 10th Street and West Lafayette Boulevard and turning it into Lafayette Kitchen and Diner.

Additional topics addressed in this conversation include Russell Crowe’s band, onions, making art, cinderblock, Reuben sandwiches, Jack Russell Terriers and nutrition. Edited by Annamarie Sysling. Music by Broke for Free.

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