By Lindsay Keener
Humble beginnings are no match for a father with an inherent need to provide for his son. Just ask Drake Wilkins of Champ’s Deli, a new Black-owned delicatessen located in Eastern Market.
Wilkins, a native Detroiter and father of one, says the deli wasn’t born from a background in the restaurant industry but was sparked during a time of necessity and desperation.
“Up until last year, my child and I found ourselves on the down end of things,” said Wilkins. “Out of necessity, we moved into a studio-sized apartment where we shared the same bedroom. My son was happy because prior to that we didn’t have anything, but in my mind I knew that I wanted him to have more.”
For Wilkins, “more” meant having a vision that served a purpose – a valuable lesson that he’d learned in recent years.
“I started in business back when I was a 19-year-old college student and everything back then was built off of artistic expression, thinking that you have the coolest idea ever,” said Wilkins. “But you find out years later that it’s not about having the coolest idea, it’s about ‘what problems are you solving.’”
Intent on giving his child a better life, Wilkins passed the same lesson down to his son.
“We sat down together and said, ‘What kinds of things can we go into that are needs that the community always has?’” Wilkins recalled. “We talked about food and nutrition, grooming and automobiles. Our expertise was in food.”
Knowing that he and his son shared a love of sandwiches, Wilkins embarked on a year-long journey with his child to create sandwiches with premium products that they’d assemble at home.
“It all goes back to him and I,” said Wilkins. “I liken it to us playing house. Instead of playing with dolls or playing with cars, we were playing with sandwiches.”
Determined to make their dream a reality, Wilkins took their idea public with the help of his community. Wilkins and his son began introducing themselves to vendors at Eastern Market in hopes of getting fresh produce for their sandwiches.
“One of the gentlemen that we were talking to said, ’I have someone I think you should meet,’” said Wilkins. “And it ended up being one of the founders of the building who immediately accepted our pitch.”
Wilkins says that while his tenacious spirit helped to get him in front of the right people, forces outside of his control helped keep him there.
“The only thing that I can attest to [our journey coming together] is everything that happened spiritually. All of the stars aligned; we didn’t have any control over it,” said Wilkins.
While Wilkins attributes much of his success to a destined fate, the business owner has a strong say in the quality of his products and the results are quite favorable.
Fresh off the heels of its grand opening, Champ’s Deli is booming with business. The Black-owned sandwich shop sells a select line of fresh produce ranging from staple sandwich pairings to international food items that can’t seem to stay on the shelves.
Champ’s Deli prides itself on offering consumers Michigan-based products and places a special focus on brands from the city of Detroit.
Wilkens says health-conscious patrons, as well as those with an interest in foreign dishes, will be happy with the menu choices.
“From a product standpoint, we don’t carry anything that is per se normal. Everything we carry is higher-end, or premium, or even gourmet,” said Wilkins.
Having confidence in both his deli and its products, Wilkins opened Champ’s Deli on Nov. 3 – months into the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a very real thing where people are dying, and this is not to overshadow that, but I noticed, in meeting with a lot of friends and business associates from the area that [is] doing well with new ventures, when you’re talking about a global shaping that’s negative, there’s always room for opportunity or growth on the opposite side of that,” said Wilkins.
Wilkins found his opportunity through the phrase #CANDEMIC, a term he coined to describe the level of perseverance he’s seen from others during the pandemic.
Wilkins says he chooses to look at the glass half-full, encouraged by the opportunity to bring his community happiness in his role as a business owner.
“With everything that’s going on, I had to think, ‘What can I do that brings people happiness?’” said Wilkins. “People need to feel good right now.”
Wilkins plans to continue providing his community with the support and comfort food necessary to make it through the pandemic.
Champ’s Deli is located inside Eastern Market at 2934 Russell St, Detroit, MI 48207.