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Detroit food businesses fuel growth

By Olga Stella

Perhaps the world knows Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler, but here in Detroit we are just as familiar with brand names such as Vernor’s, Faygo and Better Made. That’s because Detroit has great skills in making food, not just enjoying it. As the automotive industry is finding new strength in Detroit, so is our food industry. In fact, a major focus of the recent Detroit Food Policy Council Second Annual Summit was the role of the food system in the local economy. The time is right to build on all the strengths we have in this sector to create jobs for Detroiters and put more and better food choices into Detroit households.

While the notion of growing crops in an inner city has captured the national imagination, the closer opportunities are for growing jobs in food processing and distribution. The idea of “manufacturing food” may not sound appealing, but producing large batches of any food product — whether it’s a snack pickle or a loaf of organic, multi-grain bread — takes many of the same skills as manufacturing durable goods. And it can be done in a way that respects the local food system. As a result, many Detroiters are taking their love of good food and craftsmanship and applying it to producing new food products that are gaining traction in the local marketplace.

The opportunities are huge. Across the country, people are trying new foods, especially those that have a homemade, natural or healthy appeal. Garden Fresh Gourmet is a great success story from the Detroit area that followed a path from salsa batches made in the back of a restaurant in five-gallon buckets, financed with credit cards, to a whole line of natural-ingredient products that sells in eight countries.

Recognizing that potential, many organizations are providing services and resources to food entrepreneurs to make their dreams reality. Grassroots efforts such as FoodLab are organizing emerging entrepreneurs and connecting them to opportunities to get started, while TechTown has recently launched NewVentureTM for Food Entrepreneurs to help entrepreneurs hone the skills needed to launch a successful food business. Michigan Economic Development Corporation is supporting a commercial kitchen pilot program that will help entrepreneurs with their business model, federal regulations, labeling, packaging and business-to-business opportunities. Michigan State University’s Product Center has provided support services to Detroit’s small and large food businesses for a long time, assisting businesses in solving challenges related to scaling up production, recipe formulation, logistics, packaging and other issues.

Even our youth see the opportunities. The Detroit Youth Food Brigade is empowering youth to learn new skills to lead their generation into a healthier and brighter future. Visit their Colors Farm Stand every Friday this summer from noon to 4 p.m. at Colors Restaurant, 311 E. Grand River Blvd., Detroit.

These organizations offer help because they see how food successes benefit more than the entrepreneur with a great recipe and a lot of determination. When food businesses succeed and expand in Detroit, they create jobs for other Detroiters as well. We are watching it happen now with a number of small- to mid-size food manufacturing companies that are growing in sales and generating new jobs. Avalon International, Better Made Snack Foods, GrandPaPa’s Snack Foods and Edibles Rex are all examples of growing companies that primarily employ Detroit residents.

The growing trend to buy and eat locally produced food products supports what is happening here. There could be many more Detroit businesses joining that list — especially smaller ones such as Good People Popcorn, McClure’s Pickles or Simply Suzanne’s Granola. Both Whole Foods Market and Meijer have increased their efforts to source locally, specifically from Detroit companies.

Since last fall, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Eastern Market Corporation and others have worked with existing Detroit food business to organize the Detroit Food and Ag Business Network. This network is a way for the city’s food businesses to navigate funding and workforce opportunities, capacity building, safety certification, regulations and access to new markets. Recently the network has been growing, attracting businesses of all sizes and types and facilitating productive connections. Hopefully, the results of these connections will speak for themselves.

The next time you stroll through bustling Eastern Market, sample the treats produced by many local food producers in kitchens big and small and reacquaint yourself with the established businesses that are exporting their products far outside the city limits. Remember that not only is what you are eating good for you, it’s good for Detroit’s economy.

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