How a Detroit restaurateur went from prisoner to proprietor
In March of 2019, Daqwan Fistrunk opened up The Green Mile Grille in Detroit. Prior to starting the restaurant, Fistrunk spent seven years in prison, mostly at Lakeland Correctional in Coldwater, Michigan. That's where he met Jimmy Lee Hill, the executive chef at Lakeland who eventually became his mentor.
Hill runs a culinary arts program designed to give inmates the knowledge and skills to pursue a job in the food service industry. Often using ingredients grown in Lakeland’s garden, the participants learn to prepare high quality meals, such as prime rib, oysters, and scallops.
"It was always my plan to teach them more than just fast food. Because, I mean, you need to be more polished to secure a job that you can actually, you know, take care of your family [with],” Hill said.
In addition to high-end dining, Hill gives inmates a well-rounded rundown of the restaurant industry, from the kind of conduct employers look for to securing a building for your own establishment. Fistrunk already had some experience in food service—he ran a takeout business inside of a liquor store prior to his arrest—but he said learning from Hill changed everything about cooking for him. The program set the tone for the kind of restaurant he wanted The Green Mile Grille to be.
"What I really wanted to do was sort of like what Chef Hill did for me. He taught me how to cook five-star dishes and appreciate it,” Fistrunk said. “So what I wanted to do was bring those type of dishes into my inner-city neighborhood, where people don't have to, you know, pay out of pocket for going downtown.”
Though COVID-19 has put a damper on Michigan’s restaurant scene, Fistrunk said as a carryout business, Green Mile Grille has not had trouble staying afloat amid restrictions on sit-in dining. The road to where Fistrunk is today, however, wasn’t an easy one. He had plenty of credentials, but the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” kept him from landing a job he applied for once he was out of prison.
"What I really started doing was selling dinners out my mom's house,” Fistrunk said. “...In the process I was trying to, you know, stack up a few coins. Then finally a few people, you know, they invested a few dollars, plus, you know once the buzz caught kinda fast, it's been that ever since."
There’s a picture of Fistrunk on the wall of Hill’s classroom, alongside pictures of other chefs. Once a year, Lakeview has a food service symposium where different restaurant workers come in to share insights on the industry. Hill said he tries to bring in guests with backgrounds similar to his students to show them that even though they may have to work harder, they can find meaningful work after doing time. Fistrunk agreed.
"You get out what you put in,” Fistrunk said. “If you're serious about the cooking game, or, you know, being involved in restaurant [or] hospitality, then that program is the best thing in the world for your situation because you can transition from it."
The menu at Green Mile Grille features classic dishes like lasagne, but some of the cornerstone items have a Southern flare, from seafood boils to chicken and waffles. If the pictures in this post wet your appetite, you can check out the details for ordering here.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lia Baldori.