Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Michigan's food entrepreneurs mix natural and business resources


On an August day in Western Michigan, new business owner Brian Ellis chopped his colorful Michigan produce, mixed his special blends of savory Indian spices and bottled his favorite chutneys. Two days later, his first orders came in, and he had a growing operation.

Although many share Ellis’ dream of becoming his own boss, the speed of his start-up was made possible not just by hard work, but also by the help he found through a nearby incubator kitchen and the expertise at Michigan State University’s Product Center.

Changes in our economy have spurred many in Michigan to look elsewhere for income, and just about anyone in the state would agree that help diversifying our economy couldn’t come quickly enough. With so many out of work across all kinds of industries, many wouldbe entrepreneurs are looking to what they know and what they have to start their own businesses. Some, like Ellis, are using Michigans natural resources of agricultural diversity and their own resources, like family recipes, for food production. Starting a food enterprise can be daunting because of the rules and regulations in place to protect public safety. We have seemingly every kind of food expertise right here, either at the state of Michigan or at Michigan State University, yet uncovering these resources can be a big undertaking for people up to their elbows in pasta dough.

From concept to launch

MSUs Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources was formed in 2003 to help new Michigan ventures get the assistance they need. The center helps entrepreneurs develop and commercialize their products and businesses in the fields of agriculture, natural resources and the bioeconomy. It also serves as a “front door” to the myriad of services and expertise housed at MSU. “We try to map MSU so you can get to the resources you need,” says Chris Peterson, the center’s director.

From concept to launch, the center aims to guide new and growing Michigan businesses in all phases, from writing a business plan, to discovering available grants to market analysis, nutritional analyses and so on, and provides referrals to others who can be of assistance. Nine innovation counselors on campus work with those wishing to get started or grow what they have, with 30 other part-time counselors throughout the state. More than 600 clients have been served since the center began.

“Once you get connected to a network and learn how to build one, here in Michigan that part grows quickly,” says Ellis, who has used this help from outside experts.

Gluten-free cookies, organic pickled beets, salsas, gourmet organic poultry products and culinary tours are all Michigan products or services that have been assisted by the centers food and agriculture resources.

Holt resident Laurie Snyman and her partner Connie Vail, of Whitmore Lake, already had a business selling vegetarian spices and other foods when they discovered the center. Snyman says the Product Center helped them realize they needed to create a business plan to grow. An MSU class took Snyman and Vail on as a case study and gave them valuable marketing insights. The center also helped the women create nutritional labels that keep consumers safe by naming potential allergens, while not giving away recipe secrets by listing every single ingredient. "The Product Center helped get us centered," says Snyman, citing the helpful expertise of supply chain specialist Matt Birbeck in particular.

Peterson says the center has helped almost 100 ventures get started since 2004, most of them food related. Last year was slower than most, with only nine new ventures started with the center’s help, down from 30 in 2007. “Although small business launches in the state appear to be up, food launches may be lagging,” Peterson says. “When food prices go up, it is a challenging time to launch such a business, and as the economy has dropped off, venture capital has too.”

Even so, according to the center, 524 jobs have been created in the last five years from these new and expanding businesses, generating $183 million in annual sales, so it is easy to see why business people in our state are taking notice of budding entrepreneurs, particularly in areas supported by the product center. With unemployment expected to rise to 11 percent this year, it seems we are bound to see more entrepreneurship born of necessity.

Get cooking

Key on the minds of food entrepreneurs are the legalities, liabilities and issues of licensing, health department inspections and food safety. Think you can do this at home? Think again. The Constitution protects your home from unreasonable search and seizure, but the Agriculture and the Health departments want ready access to ensure food safety. That conflict makes it difficult to have a commercial kitchen where you live, and means if you do, it must be separate from your personal kitchen, with its own entry, explains Byron Beerbower, compliance manager of the Agriculture Department. This usually creates a zoning problem, which leads many people with good ideas to believe they can’t pursue them. Commercial kitchens are pricey and have strict requirements, but can sometimes be rented from churches or schools. Incubator kitchens are commercial kitchens for rent, and many are run as nonprofits, with rents in our state as low as $10/hour, fully equipped.

One such incubator kitchen, The Starting Block, is a nonprofit regional economic development organization on the west side of the state in Hart, committed to assisting small businesses with getting started or growing. It serves an eight-county region from Manistee to Holland, an area known for fruit and vegetable production. Staff members certified in food handling and equipment operation are on site for those who need assistance and training. Help with labeling and packaging is also available. Office rental, warehouse and storage space, advice and camaraderie are all on hand. “The Starting Block is affiliated with the Product Center but is independent and is an example of how we try to provide a network that puts our clients in touch with the resources they need,” Peterson explains.

Ellis, owner of Brian’s Bistro in Spring Lake, says access to the kitchen and staff at The Starting Block made a huge difference in the time it took getting his operation off the ground. “With the use of the kitchen, I have 24/7 access and can do all the processes there myself, with just some part-time help,” he said.

When Ellis came to the kitchen, he brought with him a recipe book and business book, but the Starting Block helped bring him up to speed on food safety and preparation. “I was in their kitchen cooking on Aug. 21, 2007, and started taking orders two days later,” he said.

Ellis, who is now the maker of several chutneys, jellies and grilling rubs, says Michigan is a great place for business, because it has the fresh ingredients he needs, including apples, blueberries, pears and peaches, and it’s relatively easy to build networks here. “I can meet other people and ask about labels and jars, and everyone is so helpful,” he says. “To get bigger, I have to change some things on my label. I’ll just ask Ron (Steiner, director of The Starting Block and a counselor at the Product Center) and he will find out for me.”

To market, to market

While getting licensed as a new food producer may seem daunting, Ellis said it’s really not that difficult if you have people who know the process working with you. Once that’s out of the way, the challenge is getting your products on the shelf. “The most difficult part is setting up the di stri buti on channel,” Ellis says. “But my business really grew in the first year, so it is going well.”

To a new entrepreneur, this sounds like a dream come true, but with success comes change to accommodate growth. That might mean getting help with some of the operations. Timothy Young, founder of Food For Thought Inc., in Honor, has built a business that helps with the challenges of moving from table to market, walking clients through topics, such as the considerations involved in using a private label packer/processor. He runs a growing processing business that has been organic since 1996.

Evan Smith, vice president of Food for Thought Inc., expresses dismay that autos get all the attention when it comes to Michigan’s economy. “I don’t get it. Michigan keeps saying we have to maintain our manufacturing base in the auto industry. But maybe we don’t,” he says. “There are so many other things that can be done here. There are some incredible people involved with this.”

Mary Safie, of Safie Specialty Foods, agrees. “There aren’t any obstacles for me in being in Michigan,” she says, rattling off the names of those who have helped her in recent years.

Safie’s grandfather immigrated to Michigan just before the Great Depression and began farming in McComb County. He made a name for himself by growing exceptionally large raspberries. Although his operation was successful, he worried that people were losing their jobs, so selling his produce might become difficult, and that motivated him to begin canning as a way to preserve his livelihood. Eventually, Safie says the farm expanded to cover 500 acres and the canning business, seven acres.

Two generations later, Safie founded a food company in the same house where she grew up. Safie Specialty Foods offers nine products, including jarred pickles, peppers, okra and beets, which Safie says are made with all-natural spices and sugars and as many organic and local products as possible. “We still use old-fashioned jars, and everything is packed by hand,” she says.

Since 1995, Safie has created 20 jobs and works closely with the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative. She refers to her employees as “jewels.” “We are really a team, and we still have one employee who worked for my father, so she has been here a really long time and is invaluable,” she says.

Over the years, Safie, whose products are carried at Costco, Korger and Meijer stores, has also sought help from the MSU Product Center, particularly when it came to packaging and nutrient labeling and marketing. She also credits the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Agriculture Department for her success.

At the Making it in Michigan conference last November at the Lansing Center, food entrepreneurs and hopefuls gathered for an agenda of speakers and experts, as well as a tasty “strolling lunch” of Michigan foods, such as Safie’s and the chutneys Ellis produces. Other new food ventures showcased at the event included Yotta Bars — which deliver a full serving of fruits or vegetables in each bar — Veggie Bites, pasta makers, caterers, popcorn packagers and a Mediterranean restaurant owner from Toledo who hoped to sell his award-winning hummus in Michigan soon.

It was the second year for the MSU Product Center-sponsored event and first for the specialty food marketplace, which Peterson says he would like to see grow. “We hope to be a much bigger venue for specialty foods from around the state,” he says.

As more people begin to question where their food comes from, asking questions like, “Why do we import edamame from China while surrounded by soybean fields? Why do we can most of our asparagus and offer ‘fresh’ asparagus from Peru?” and “How do we get great local produce into our schools?” it seems Michigan’s food economy is poised to grow. Local author and chef Eric Villegas has long championed the idea of "think global, buy local," and with so many now left to rely on new ways to earn a living, perhaps more food ventures will pop up around our state with better food being the long-awaited result. “We are truly in a great state,” Safie says. “We are just going through a hard time right now.”

As we make it through the gray winter, theres plenty of comfort food available, and these days, it’s local and organic.

-Kathy Ackerman