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There’s nothing unusual about a man in overalls at a farmers’ market, but Michael Fair looks like he never turned a clod of dirt in his life.
The leather-accented denim duds Fair rocked last Wednesday at the Allen Street Farmers’ Market looked like they were purchased the night before, at Abercrombie & Fitch. His beard was trimmed for bartending, not plowing.
Tucked into the greens, tomatoes and fruit at the weekly East Side market is a bizarre bazaar of edible products that spring from personal obsessions, a passion for cooking and entrepreneurial zeal.
The products are prepared at the Allen Market Place’s Incubator Kitchen, a startup facility for people like Fair, who whip up hand-made edibles that range from granola to bitters.
Ten varieties of Fair’s Black Ink Bitters, were arrayed around a squid on a table tricked out in Gothic black.
That was the last thing market visitor Rachel Burns expected to see at a farmers’ market was.
She inhaled a hit of the mint hibiscus variety.
“All I have is Angostura,” Burns said with mock chagrin. “Guess I’m not in the game.”
She walked away with two bottles of home made, locally sourced bitters, packed in a tiny paper bag with a string handle and the BIB logo stamped in gold wax.
Over 30 products have been refined and launched here. Several of the 21 entry-level food entrepreneurs who rent the kitchen get free space to hawk their wares each Wednesday at the farmers market.
A couple of feet away from Fair’s boutique-y booth, ordinary plastic trays cradled the multi-hued pasta made by Nick Fila, whose Lansing Pasta Co. has been making pasta and sauces at the kitchen for just over a year.
People stopped to ogle Fila’s beet rotini, with its reddish hue and chiffon texture, displayed next to his spinach and tomato penne, spiral trottole (spinning tops) and a hearty looking fettuccini.
The kitchen had everything Fila needed to scale up his long-held dream of being a pasta maker, except a pasta extruder—a five-foot-long contraption that oozes out 30 pounds of pasta an hour. He snagged that from a friend’s Italian father.
“The kitchen gives all of us the chance to test out the business idea without investing thousands and thousands of dollars,” Fila said.
Access to cooking facilities and storage space comes with a bonus: entry into Allen Market Place’s growing web of local suppliers, producers, caterers and vendors. Fila’s grains come from Ferris Organic Farms in Eaton Rapids and the goat cheese for his hand-rolled stuffed gnocchi comes from Hickory Knolls, a longtime farmers’ market vendor.
Workshops at the kitchen walk people through the licensing process and acquaint them with basics of making a business plan, branding, marketing, food safety and other daunting aspects of launching an enterprise.
But not all the entrepreneurs have storefront ambitions.
Pasta maker Fila is content to sell his wares at farmers’ markets.
“I like the interaction with people the best,” he said. He also goes to the Meridian Township Farmers Market on Saturdays and supplies pasta to the English Inn, where he works.
In all, five of the 33 entrepreneurs who launched their products at the Incubator Kitchens have gone on to brick and mortar operations.
Fair, the bitters guy, is clearly itching in his new overalls to bust out of the corn and cucumber circuit and take over the world. He plans to stretch his tentacles to grocery and liquor stores across the state and already has a web site more sophisticated and stylish than many global retailers.
“We are the first and only bitters company in Michigan,” he said, turning to a curious customer gaping at the squid.
“Next week we’ll have two new flavors,” he said “Noir — smoked chocolate cherry— and blanc—coconut raspberry.”