My first encounter with Devita Davison was seeing her hand in hand with Oprah Winfrey as they strolled across a stage in front of thousands of screaming admirers earlier this month at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. Devita won the Standing O-Vation award given by Oprah and Toyota during Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend.
Oprah’s eight-city tour, which kicked off in early September, encourages attendees to reach for their dreams and features motivational speakers such as TV host Iyanla Vanzant and author Deepak Chopra. The Standing O-Vation award honors local trailblazers who are making a positive impact in their communities. A recipient is selected in each tour city and each recipient receives a $25,000 grant.
“People keep asking me, ‘Did you pitch Oprah?’ And I say NO,” insists Devita, as she explained that she’s unsure who submitted her name for the prestigious award. “I tell them, you don’t go find Oprah, Oprah finds you! It’s nothing but the grace of God that allowed me to win this honor.”
Devita received the award for her work in helping to establish the Detroit Kitchen Connect program, which allows aspiring culinary enthusiasts to utilize a network of kitchens and equipment to produce their goods, launch their businesses and effectively make their dreams come true.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to have your work in the city that you know and love be acknowledged on a national platform,” she gushed. “I can’t even tell you how great it feels.”
Thanks to Detroit Kitchen Connect, which currently operates out of a kitchen in Southwest Detroit and another on the city’s east side, culinary entrepreneurs get the chance to be in business without paying the high start-up costs associated with food businesses. All they have to do is pay $18 an hour to access the kitchens and meet their licensing requirements.
“So far, we’ve been able to launch 13 different businesses that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise been able to had it not been for this community effort,” Devita said proudly. “And currently 14 businesses utilize our kitchen space.”
One of those businesses, Good Cakes and Bakes, is owned by April and Michelle Anderson. April was one of the first entrepreneurs to participate in the Detroit Kitchen Connect program. She utilizes the kitchen from 3:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. five days a week, and then she delivers her fresh, organic treats to her storefront business located at 19363 Livernois Avenue.
“I first met Devita back in February of 2013. She told me that she had gotten ahold of my brownies and said, ‘Your brownies literally changed my life,’” laughed April as she remembered the story. “Devita is so passionate about food entrepreneurs and the city of Detroit! She just commands presence because you feel all of her emotion when she talks about food.”
Good Cakes and Bakes was one of 45 finalists in conjunction with the Eastern Market Corp. to share a $200,000 grant from the McGregor Fund that Devita was instrumental in securing. This funding was a key factor in making the pilot program a reality.
“[Prior to the program], there were no public kitchens to use despite the many under-utilized kitchens in churches around town,” said April. “And now, we’ve just celebrated a year for the program in September. It feels really good!”
Devita, who is co-director and chief cultivator of FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit organization that oversees Detroit Kitchen Connect, said her goal was to create a place where food entrepreneurs could come and work outside of their homes to make their jams, organic baked goods, sausages, vegan delicacies and more.
“This was a grassroots effort. I love that Detroiters are taking back their own city,” she said. “If Detroit is ever going to renew itself, it will be because of hardworking, creative entrepreneurs like these. The impact food entrepreneurs are making in the city is huge!”
Devita is a Detroit native who moved back to the city after living in New York for nearly 17 years. “I moved back to Detroit after Hurricane Sandy destroyed my home and my business. It hit the east coast the day before Halloween in 2012.”
After launching her business in Long Island, N.Y., she had read about and later connected with Peggy Brennan, who helps run The Green Garage, a business incubator in Midtown. Peggy played a key role in connecting Devita to the executive director of FoodLab Detroit – and the rest is history.
“Our program brings together a very diverse group of people into the same space,” Devita said enthusiastically. “The most satisfying part is that we get to see people make their dreams come true just by giving them the tools they need!”
When asked how she plans to use her $25,000 award, she quickly references the leaky roof that needs repairing at one of the kitchens and also is considering setting aside funds for culinary scholarships.
“My parents instilled a true spirit of service in me,” Devita begins. “And I thank God every day for giving me this chance to come back to Detroit and do good.”
To learn more about Devita and Detroit Kitchen Connect, check out DetroitKitchenConnect.com.