The collaboration between the Detroit Wing Company and the Rising Stars Academy Foundation started with a Detroit Tigers baseball game, where Beyond Juicery + Eatery founder Mijo Alanis ordered his food from the concession stand and was served by a student of the foundation.

Alanis, a good friend of Detroit Wing Company owner Gus Malliaras, was immediately intrigued and made a swift move to introduce Malliaras to Rising Stars Academy founders Mark and Deb Prentiss.

Originating in 2013, this nonprofit 501(c)(3) charter school is the result of Mark’s lifelong dream to have a restaurant fully run by those with disabilities. Previously, Mark served as an executive chef, while his wife Deb continues to work as an educator.

Michigan is the only state in the U.S. that allows students with disabilities to pursue a post-secondary education until age 26 if they don’t receive a high school diploma, and Mark envisioned this academy as a way for them to gain invaluable work skills and actively participate in their community.

Initially a culinary arts school, Rising Stars Academy focuses on students’ abilities versus their disabilities, breaking into additional industries including medical, automotive, and restaurants like the Detroit Wing Company.

At first, the partnership started soft, with students from Rising Stars Academy doing prep work behind the scenes to be shipped to stores through the Detroit Wing Company’s wholesale supplier. Malliaras felt as if there was room for their relationship to grow into something more meaningful.

“As I got to know Mark and Deb better and learned more about the foundation, I knew I wanted to do more with them,” Malliaras says. “Charity has always been very high on our priority list, and a few years ago we had this vision of opening a Detroit Wing Company location strictly for charity … I started to see ways of accomplishing this through the Rising Stars Academy.”

In late 2023, Detroit Wing Company gifted ownership of their Roseville location to Rising Stars Academy at no cost. Students are being actively integrated into the restaurant, working side-by-side with existing employees and gaining experience in both the front and back of the house.

“This location operates no differently than a normal store. The students follow the same standards and processes as everyone else,” Malliaras explains. “There are no guardrails. It’s a fully functioning kitchen, and for me to walk in and see these students and the pride they have in their work, it’s hard to not feel inspired.”

Mark and Deb challenge their students and help them find opportunities they wouldn’t find elsewhere. Holding them to high standards, the foundation seeks to demystify the stigma surrounding those with disabilities and uplift them in society. In fact, the initiative shows companies the sheer value of the students’ labor in the workforce and the contributions they offer.

“The great thing about this partnership is we’re helping all to understand the quality of the product the students are putting in,” Mark says. “We can help teach other locations and companies that there are ways [like Rising Star Academy] to help service some of their labor needs while still giving back to the community.”

The Roseville location is entirely run by Rising Stars Academy, and Mark says he enjoys showing off his students’ skills to guests and Detroit Wing Company’s corporate team. For Mark, having the students successfully operate the location shows proof of Rising Star Academy’s concept.

“We want to show others that this model can really work for everyone, and when there’s an individual buying a franchise from [Detroit Wing Company], we want them to become a partner with us,” Mark adds. “Great marketing is beside the point. We want to show others we’re real through our output, that this is a sustainable option, and we’re firing on all cylinders for those who want to invest in our mission.”

While the academy is still confined in Michigan due to legislation surrounding educational opportunities for those aged 18-26 with disabilities, Malliaras says the foundation will continue to be one of the Detroit Wing Company’s most important partners whether the brand grows in Michigan or not. Students will continue to run the Roseville location and produce food products to be distributed to out-of-state locations.

Eventually, Mark and Deb would love to extend the academy’s reach outside of Michigan, operating in locations throughout the U.S. Mark asks, “Why can’t this be possible?”

He also adds the idea of educating both students and the public on the benefits of Rising Stars Academy and partnering with the Detroit Wing Company plays a crucial role. He wants parents to know what they’re investing in when they put their children into the academy.

“We’d love to have the ability to bring [Rising Star Academy] to more people across the country,” Mark says. “We’re not doing this for marketing or for money, and neither is Malliaras. We’re doing this because we believe in these individuals, and as we get more notoriety, I hope people will start to break down those barriers and appreciate others who are less fortunate.”

The symbiotic relationship between Rising Stars Academy and the Detroit Wing Company allows the nonprofit to expand and make space for more students, create new programs such as a coffee shop and golf course, and build a network of employment opportunities. In turn, the labor helps Malliaras, fulfills a need for community outreach, and translates into a valuable impact.

“The Roseville location proves that if you have any preconceived notion, stigma, or label concerning these students, the minute you go in and interact with them, you’re going to walk out with a very different understanding and appreciation for what they do,” Malliaras says. “We wanted to do this just for the sake of doing good, and it’s been a great partnership for both of us. Everyone just loves it.”

Charitable Giving, Fast Casual, Franchising, Story, Detroit Wing Company