Creating a safe space in Southwest Detroit where queer, Latinx and other PoC communities can gather around music, the arts, and food that sets out to decolonize unhealthful diets has been at the forefront of Rocky Coronado’s life’s work for the past three or so years in Detroit as the owner of Rocky’s Road Brew truck.
Situated on West Vernor Highway and Morell street, the food and drink truck has become a staple for vegan tacos al pastor, Beyond Meat burgers, tacos stuffed with fried avocado or chickpea tikka masala, and cold brew coffees, iced chai lattes, and turmeric ginger lemonade. It’s all part of a bigger picture for Coronado, who when they started to learn about the many chronic health conditions that disproportionately plague marginalized communities —heart disease, hypertension, substance abuse— began to think about what they could do to combat the effects of colonized diets (fast food, industrialized meat, booze) that so many communities of color have to contend with.
For the past several months, Coronado was ready to transition from working out of their old-school coffee truck to focus on renovating a former bar on West Vernor Highway into a brick and mortar coffee shop. They’re hoping that guests will not only be able to grab a bite to eat and listen to a live performance from local artists. They’re also hoping that once it’s opened, the as-of-yet-named establishment will become the first official “sober space” in the city. Being in recovery themselves, they want to build a place where people can enjoy a night out with the temptation of alcohol use removed from the start.
The pandemic, of course, forced Coronado, like so many others in the food industry to reconsider what their next steps would be. Shortly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered that all restaurants confine sales to delivery or pickup, they opened up the truck again, unsure of how long it would take before they would realistically be able to open a physical space.
Tostada Magazine caught up with Coronado to find out how they’re using this time of uncertainty to maintain focus on what’s important to their community.
Being in sobriety, an active member of AA, sitting with my feelings, with my thoughts is a must. Every day I try to be very mindful of everything inside me and one thing I can say about this pandemic is we’re all isolated but we’re in solidarity as well. So if we’re all in this together, it’s like, OK, how much change can we create together?
I think we have a cool chance of putting self-care at the forefront of this movement, which is what Rocky’s Road Brew has been about from the start.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our queer community has been impacted by an epidemic before and about during this time of wearing masks and social distancing, what can we do to get through this. A few weeks ago I saw a tweet about the annual Gay Pride celebrations, which usually come up this time of year, but of course, are canceled this year. So I’ve been thinking, how can we still be out and proud, while setting a good example? At the same time, the Pride fest is so corporate now and that it’s kind of outdated because it’s really targeted toward gays, not queers. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have an annual alternative to Pride and make it more inclusive? So right now, I’m planning a queer bike ride. We’ll be able to maintain social distancing, while still being out and about and united.
I’ve got a small group of people who are stepping up to help out and some interest from some small businesses. But this isn’t going to be some big, corporate-sponsored event like Pride. It’s not going to be business as usual when we get out of this so why do the same thing that’s always been done? This is a really cool chance of putting self-care at the forefront of this movement.
I think of my business and everything I do as kind of a lifestyle. If it’s gonna be my livelihood then I just want to do things that I believe in. I look at my beliefs as honestly as I can to make sure that I am doing the right thing.
It goes back to when I found out I had a heart problem. I think it’s a hereditary thing. I started learning more about it, and what I learned is that heart disease is the number one killer of Latinas, so, I was like whoa, why would I want to sell meat? I thought, why don’t I just sell vegan? It’s healthier. And then it kind of took off. It’s just nice to have that option. Most of the business I found on Instagram. Each day I post what I’m serving. When I first started, I did a couple of hashtags, like #Detroit, #Detroitvegan, and people started coming through and just being out in the neighborhood every day, talking to each other, and then people started calling and placing orders.
What I’ve been noticing during the pandemic is there’s been a meat shortage all over the neighborhood. A few weeks back, a lot of the taco trucks were closed and people came to my truck and were like, ‘okay, fine, I’ll try it. I’ll try one taco.’ And then they came back and had a few more, and said, ‘I couldn’t even tell that it wasn’t meat.’
I think it’s good that more people are checking out my vegan tacos, it’s good for the planet and I think it’s a great trend. I think people need to stop eating so much meat. You hear about what’s going on in the meatpacking industry, of workers in the plants getting COVID-19. And butchers saying they have to cut out the cancer from their product. Here in the truck, it’s beautiful, like even the scraps are beautiful. I can save them and I do like a veggie broth.
Before the virus hit, I’d been working on the brick and mortar for the past year.
I used to manage a Vietnamese restaurant back in Austin, and the owner, just kind of got up and left for Vietnam. It was a couple of weeks at first, then for three months. We were doing some advertising, and then we started throwing shows to make money. So I had the idea for some punk shows, and the cafe made a name for itself. And the shows started really taking off, and people were like, oh, it’s a restaurant too, so people started coming. I went back home about a year ago, and the place is still a restaurant, and it kind of has this history of being a place with the best punk shows in the town.
That’s what I want for my brick and mortar.
When I got the building here in SW, the roof had a hole in it. It had a hole in the first-floor apartment, and a hole in the bar area all the way to the basement. The back of the building was missing a staircase that had to be built before I could get a certificate of occupancy.
There was also a vacant lot next door. It wasn’t in the original budget, but somebody else wanted to buy it and have a scrap-yard there. And so, I decided to buy that too and set my truck up there. I thought maybe someday it will be a nice drive-thru coffee truck spot for people on the go. I wanted to fix up the bar area nice enough so that I could throw some shows there and kind of get the spot known and make some money so I could finish the building.
I had been working with one guy who was doing the flooring, the drywall. At one point the guy tells me that he didn’t want to come out anymore. He was coming from the suburbs or somewhere. So that kind of just shut the project down. That really set us back.
So I’ve been bootstrapping to finish the bottom, the bar area, the restaurant area. I’ve been working on catering at special events and doing pop-ups, which brought in a lot of money. I was going to start buying kitchen supplies, and close down the truck and sell it to keep putting more money into the building.
So then all of a sudden, the coronavirus hits. There were still a couple of breweries and places where I was doing pop-ups with curbside pick-up, but I got kind of paranoid, so I quit doing pop-ups.
I decided that I’d just go back to being in the neighborhood. For now, the truck is the business. I need to make money, but also want to stay safe. So I thought the truck would be an isolated space. It’s just me touching things in there, and I know exactly how clean it is, and I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s germs, whereas the pop-ups, I’d go into someone else’s space and I’d have to touch other things, and I didn’t really want to do that.
With the truck, it’s easier, I can tell people, ‘can you just stand back a little bit?’ I can decide whether to accept cash or credit cards. If people have cash, that’s cool, but right now, I’m telling everybody I prefer cash apps or Venmo. Luckily, I had bought a box of masks because I was going to sand the floor in the building. I’ve always had food service gloves, so that’s been really lucky. When I first started back up, I bought a bunch of alcohol rubbing alcohol.
But even though I’m lucky to work alone, there are still adjustments.
I always start my day by cleaning everything, wiping everything down. I got new guys working on the building and so I have to take time to talk to them from a distance. Whenever they leave, I disinfect the door handles and the bathroom and make sure I’m not cross-contaminating.
When I go to the grocery store I always carry a couple of Rubbermaid tote boxes. I put everything into them and make sure it’s sanitized before they go into the truck. Yeah, grocery shopping is kind of a bitch. Right now, I don’t have 10 tacos on the menu. I’ve been setting it down to four tacos a day because grocery shopping is kinda weird. It’s hard to deal with the long line, and once we get inside, there might not be things on the shelves that I needed. So that’s cut into the way I grocery shop.
Right now, I have an immunity shot that’s selling pretty good. It’s a small drink. I know immunity shots aren’t a cure or anything for combating COVID-19, but it seems like people appreciate having a little health boost during these times. When I opened up the brick and mortar, I planned to learn to make fresh juices, fresh immunity shots, and that sort of thing. So it’s good to see as it’s selling and people like it. I’m getting a lot of support from regulars. They’re glad to see that the truck has opened back up because I wasn’t going to open it. Rocky’s Road Brew was going to be close for good. I was going to sell the truck and then start a restaurant with a new name. So, yeah, all of this has extended the life of a Rocky’s Road Brew.
I have time to be a lot more organized. People have been sending me grant information. Paperwork hasn’t always been my schtick, but this has given me time to actually do spreadsheets, you know, sit around and do paperwork, and work on the business side.
I’ve also been helping to feed hospital workers. I’m always saying, even before all this happened, how much respect I have for nurses. Nurses and librarians are like the backbone of this country. When this happened I wanted to be of service somehow. And, so a customer and I started talking about it and went in on it together. She’s a head nurse at one of the hospitals by Wayne State. So on my day off, I cooked for her crew and then, shortly after that Elisa Gurule hit me up and was like, ‘yo, you want to cook today? And so I said, sure. And so for the last month on my day off, I cooked for Henry Ford Medical Center and yeah, it’s going pretty well.
During the month of April, I was cooking 50 meals every Monday. The first couple of meals were out of pocket and then, Elisa started raising money. I reposted her posts and all my customers donated and then other people started donating. So the last meals have been completely paid for.
Every week, when I’d drop the food off the staff would get more and more excited. And they’re like, ‘hell yeah.’ A couple of the nurses from the hospital have even come through to the truck and they’re like, ‘I love your food’
I really can’t think about what’s next after this. I’m in the 12-step program, so it’s one day at a time. I’m trying to find peace in where I’m at right now. What I want to do is dream that I’m going to be able to do catering again and have the workers feel safe enough to finish the work that they started. So this is making me rethink everything. Am I going to feel safe? Is it going to be safe every flu season? Is this going to keep happening? So that makes me feel weird. When I start up, I want to be able to pay people a living wage and maybe even be able to offer insurance. But if people are too afraid to come out, and I’m going to be spending all of this money on a business, it’s going to be hard. So I don’t know. I don’t know, man, but I got a couple of ideas.
Martina Guzmán is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker from Detroit. She is currently the Damon J. Keith Race and Justice Journalism Fellow at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University. Twitter: @MGuzman_Detroit.
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This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.