Special Issues » The People Issue

The Soda Jerk: Derek John

Owner, StoreFront Gallery; co-owner Mary Ann’s Soda; general jack-of-all-trades

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It’s hard to categorize Derek John. He runs a small gallery in Ferndale, co-owns a soda company, and runs a lawn-cutting business. He’s also something of a local musician. He’s busy..

"I feel like Jimmy McGill from Better Call Saul, a real Johnny Hustle," he says. "Between the gallery, Mary Ann's Soda, and landscaping, it's usually about a 70-hour workweek for me."

He's not complaining. He probably couldn't sit still if he tried. And actually, amid all the current hub-bub, he has a few new business ventures on the back burner of his brain. One's a music streaming service where pre-releases can be heard ahead of time by dialing into a phone number. Another is a bicycle delivery service that brings care packages to the desperately hungover.

Schemes like these just come naturally to John. Not all of them pan out, of course, but some do. The StoreFront Gallery is one of his more successful ventures. The space on West Marshall Street in Ferndale might be small, but it's packed with character like original hardwood floors and tin ceilings from the '20s. Inside, John hosts local artists, pop-up dinners, flea markets, boutiques, parties, and comedy shows.

"Detroit has so many impressive artists and a lot of up-and-comers. Some have never even shown their work," he says. "My gallery is open to everyone, and there aren't many other venues that work so close with the local community."

In the evenings, along with three other company co-founders, John mixes up recipes for Mary Ann's Soda. The nearly one-year-old company makes and sells locally crafted concentrated soda syrups that mix with sparkling water for fizzy drinks and delicious mixers.

"I'm blown away by the response we are getting," John says. "Everybody seems to really love the flavors. Right now we have cranberry, ginger beer, coffee, and hibiscus, and for summer we're introducing blood orange and fresh strawberry."

The syrups come packaged in squat, apothecary-style bottles with brightly colored, retro-designed labels. They're available at the StoreFront Gallery and Parker Street Market. They'll also be in July's Mitten Crate, a monthly curated box of Michigan products.

John's also known for another project — that brings the total to four, if you're keeping count. He worked with 40 local musicians to create Detroit the Album.

“It was the most intricate project I’ve put together, and it involved some of the best musicians and people I know,” he says. “I assigned 40 musicians into 10 groups with three months to write and record their own original song. Trying to motivate a bunch of rockers into a studio to do work was no small task.”

So where does this guy get all the energy, motivation, and drive to run three companies and occasional side projects?

“I have an 11-year-old named Sophia,” he says. “I’ve always had a sense of integrity in everything I do — my mom says I get it from my grandfather, Jack Frost, I always want to do the best I can, but mostly I want Sophia to be proud of me.”

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