Nikita Sanches is transforming Ferndale’s Hilton Road Cafe into a bodega-style store

In December, chef Nikita Sanches of the popular former Rock City Eatery teased in an Instagram post that he was taking over Ferndale’s shuttered Hilton Road Cafe. Located at 3150 Hilton Rd., the restaurant closed in October after 15 years in business.

“We’re taking it back to where it all began,” he wrote in the caption of a photo showing him holding a key. “See you soon, Ferndale! Stay tuned for details.”

Sanches is now ready to say more. He tells Metro Times that he plans to soon open the doors of the business, but that he’s pivoting to something else.

“I’m pretty sure everyone is thinking that I’m just going to open up another restaurant, but the actual concept is going to be something different,” he says. “And I’m actually thinking it is probably the future of the restaurant or food industry, because I think having social good attached or associated with your business is the future.”

The new venture is called the Patchwork Culinary Project. His plans for the space include a bodega-style deli and store with a nonprofit organization aimed at helping immigrants enter metro Detroit’s restaurant industry. Sanches is also an immigrant, having moved to the U.S. from Russia when he was 12.

“I just sort of fell into the culinary field at 14, 15,” he says. “And that’s been my life’s work.”

He adds, “When you do something for 20-plus years, you kind of know all the ins and outs, and just kind of want to help [other people] avoid some of those landmines that I myself fell into.”

He anticipates launching the program in phases. “Because this is somewhat of a different approach, I want to start off very small,” he says. “And then hopefully, there’ll be a positive response to this.”

The first phase would pay for prospective restaurant staffers to get ServSafe certification, a program administered by the U.S. National Restaurant Association that teaches the safe preparation and handling of food. Sanches says ServSafe certification will help immigrants earn more money working in the industry.

“Those things are pretty pricey,” Sanches says of the certification. “So taking that expense on someone’s plate is a pretty good way to start this thing.”

The next phase would help connect prospective restaurateurs with food trucks and trailers and financing so they can start their own business. And the ultimate goal is to open up something akin to Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market, but with a focus on food.

“The big goal is to open something up like the Rust Belt, but where you have stalls where people can sell their products from their homeland, or carryout food and whatnot,” he says. “Some kind of food hall, but focused on providing space for immigrants to showcase their things and stay there as long as they need to move on and open up a restaurant.”

He adds, “I would love for people who are interested in selling salsa or hummus or dip or things from wherever they’re from, and they’re looking for space where they can sell it or have folks taste it, I want us to be a location for them to be able to do that.”

At the former Hilton Road Cafe, Sanches envisions a New York-style deli or bodega with sandwiches, baked goods, and a small store. He says he’s inspired by something like Al-Haramain International Food in Hamtramck or Taco Tienda Mexicana in Madison Heights, “where there’s the food stall where you can buy food, but then there’s also a tiny grocery store as well in there,” he says.

He also plans to host fundraising dinners, which would also offer an opportunity for prospective restaurateurs to share their work.

Sanches says he’s doing the construction himself with the help of his father and hopes to open in May or June.

Sanches made a name for himself first by selling his Rock City Pies in the Rust Belt Market (that’s what he meant by “We’re taking it back to where it all began” on Instagram, he says) followed by his former restaurant Rock City Eatery, which he launched in Hamtramck in 2013 and relocated to Detroit’s Midtown in 2016. It closed for good in 2021.

“Unfortunately, that chapter has closed,” he says of the restaurant, which served up playful items like mac and cheese served in a bowl made out of baked Parmesan.

He says Rock City Eatery fans are in luck, however: he plans on bringing back some items to the Hilton Road Cafe.

“We will have some items rotated in and out from the old menu and restaurant,” he says. “People had some favorites. And there’s a good chance that there will pop-up here and there at the new spot. Not permanently but like, as a special treat.”

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