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Detroit Street Filling Station is More Than a Restaurant

The Detroit Filling Station was opened in 2015 by owner Phillis Engelbert. Years later, it has become a safe and welcoming place for everyone in Ann Arbor to come and enjoy completely vegan and plant-based foods.
Anjali Kakarla
Light shines down on Detroit Street Filling Station’s tables and chairs. The restaurant is filled with colorful chairs and vibrant plants along its windowsill. “I like to create spaces that produce joy,” owner Phyllis Engelbert said. “I think of the colors and textures of joy and try to put that into physical things.”

Starting a restaurant from the ground up never crossed Phillis Engelbert’s mind. But when the opportunity arose, Engelbert was there to take it.

Engelbert’s restaurant journey began in 2010 when she and her neighbor started cooking and selling vegan food at a series of small pop-ups in Detroit. A year later the duo opened a food cart, but soon realized they wanted to take their business to the next level. In 2017, Engelbert opened the Detroit Street Filling Station, a fully vegan restaurant in Ann Arbor.

Making the Detroit Street Filling Station completely vegan stems from both Engelbert’s personal values and environmental reasons. Engelbert — a vegan herself — reflects her nonviolent principles by not eating any animal products and choosing a completely plant-based diet. Beyond personal reasons, Engelbert strives to offer people in the community a way to eat that doesn’t involve the animal cruelty that exists in the meat and dairy industries.

The Detroit Street Filling Station is decorated in a way that reflects Engelbert’s own personality. The many artworks, posters and plants contribute to a colorful and cozy environment filled with supportive employees and delicious food.

“I like to create spaces that produce joy in some way or another,” Engelbert said.

In order to achieve this, Engelbert added various elements, colors and textures that she thought represented joy in its many forms.

A crucial part of Engelbert’s goal for the Detroit Street Filling Station is making it as welcoming and open-minded as possible. One way she does this is through her hiring practices. Engelbert was unaware of recovery culture until a stranger came into her restaurant one day and asked for a job. This conversation opened the door for many in the same boat to come work at the Detroit Street Filling Station.

“Half of our staff are people in recovery from substance use disorders

and a lot of people have done time behind bars as well,” Engelbert said. “So this is a place of healing and a deliberately safe place for everyone to come regardless of who they are.”

Her employment process is simple: applicants must be over 18 and have a desire to work hard. The candidates sit through an hour long interview for Engelbert to learn more about them. Engelbert always asks candidates if there’s any task beneath them.

“If anybody says they won’t scrub the toilets or take out the trash, they aren’t coming on board,” Engelbert said. “I’m looking for humility, gratitude and respect.”

Some cooks come in with zero experience, starting as dishwashers, but with training, they eventually transition into cooks. Engelbert would rather focus on values, inclusivity and respect for each other rather than skill level or accomplishments.

Engelbert grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s. At the time, it was a predominantly white area with very few people of color. She saw a lot of racism around her and it bothered her that people were being treated differently. Her own parents wouldn’t let anyone who wasn’t white into their home.

“I got into a lot of fights with my parents over it,” Engelbert said. “I felt very alienated as a kid.”

When she moved to Ann Arbor at 16, she was introduced to a life beyond the suburbs filled with those who cared enough to fight for substantial change. She discovered a rich diversity and soaked up this new life like a sponge.

“A very basic elementary understanding of how people should treat each other can form the basis of how societies function,” Engelbert said.

As a child, Engelbert was surrounded by homophobic ideologies. “I don’t know what it was in me that felt like it was wrong when so many people around me didn’t feel that way,” Engelbert said. “I didn’t want to see anybody suffer or be mistreated. It made me feel bad on a human level.”

Today, Engelbert sees those from many different communities such as the LGBTQ+ community; come into the Detroit Filling Station every day to eat, enjoy and make memories. She also proudly flies the “Black Lives Matter’’ flag right outside of her restaurant.

Engelbert looks back at her childhood as a learning experience. She believes that the power of a bad example shouldn’t be questioned because it can teach you so much and make you grow as a being.

“You can learn a lot from what you don’t want to be,” Engelbert said.

Before owning and operating the Detroit Street Filling Station, Engelbert was a present member in her community but never imagined she would someday run her own restaurant that would become a community staple.

“My plan has always been to be open to opportunities that present themselves,” Engelbert said. “If you have too much of a plan, you close yourself off to possibilities. If you go through life with your eyes wide open, are curious, take chances and say yes as much as possible, then things happen. And for me, I just kept saying yes.”

Engelbert formed her core values at a young age and these values have stuck with her ever since. These values include wanting to help people – especially those who have been dealt a bad hand in the game of life — and giving people opportunities to help themselves.

“I want to give a chance to people who maybe never really had a chance in life,” Engelbert said. “I always take the side of those who are struggling in some way or another.”

With these values and ideas, Engelbert enjoys helping people in any way possible. She believes her restaurant accomplishes this and encourages others to support people in their community as well.

“There’s a lot of good people,” Engelbert said. “I can look around at all the wonderful people who work for me and who eat here and are a part of our larger community and feel a little better about the world knowing that there’s hope.”

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About the Contributors
Vedha Kakarla
Vedha Kakarla, Feature Editor
Vedha Kakarla is a sophomore entering her second year on The Communicator staff and her first year as feature editor. Outside of school, you can find her playing golf or basketball. She also enjoys going on long drives, hanging out with her friends, and listening to music. She loves writing stories and interviewing people and she is very excited for another year on staff!
Janaki Nallamothu
Janaki Nallamothu, Journalist
Janaki Nallamothu is a sophomore at CHS. This is her first semester on staff and she's super excited. Outside of school, Janaki loves playing tennis, taking her dog on walks, baking, and playing the violin. Janaki can't wait to start her journalism journey at the Communicator.

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