What do small food businesses in Detroit need?
By Brittany Moore
Detroit is home to many small businesses that specialize in preparing food products that are healthy, locally sourced and distinctive in other ways. People who start these businesses are a special breed of especially committed and patient individuals who persist in the face of all odds. What keeps them going? What would make their lives — and business operations — easier? These were some of the questions I explored in a class project at Wayne State University.
I interviewed six such small-scale food processors who generously shared their experiences. The six individuals included the owner of a community apiary; the owner of a specialty sweet potato bakery; a granola and hummus producer; the owner of a fermented pickle company; a chocolatier who specialized in hand-rolled truffles; and the owner of a readymade ginger tea company.
Many of the processors had a desire to be self-employed and stumbled across the business as a result of making samples for friends and family, which eventually led to a customer network that demanded the product.
Obtaining adequate capital was by far the greatest challenge faced by the micro-entrepreneurs. Among the study’s participants, capital was needed to pay staff, purchase supplies in adequate amounts and secure commercial kitchen space, rentals for which are charged by the hour.
Participants made suggestions about other things that would ease their business operations.
First, they wanted mentorship opportunities in which experienced businesspeople could guide them through the process of starting their enterprise.
Second, affordable, shared community kitchen space through which production costs could be lowered.
Third, they wanted more affordable nutritional analysis for their products to help their customers make more informed choices.
Fourth, distribution networks and collective marketing that would connect their businesses with local retail outlets to help them save effort from reaching out individually to such outlets. Such distribution networks would also educate buyers for stores about the advantages of stocking locally produced foods and encourages them to supply more of such products.
Fifth, they also wanted more and ongoing guidance about the health code and steps they could take to ensure they were in compliance with health codes. Perhaps health inspection agencies could convene a focus group to discuss challenges that small food producers face in complying with the relevant codes and ways to overcome these challenges.
Finally, they wished to see a one-stop shop that could give them all the information they needed for their particular kind of food processing business. Most people I talked to spent dozens of hours surfing the web to get detailed information related to their particular type of operation, the kind of permitting they needed, and a local company that would help them package their product. One respondent expressed frustration with the difficulty of locating a local bottling company. It is not uncommon for small-scale enterprises to be routed to packaging companies outside of Michigan because the companies within Michigan either do not exist or are difficult to locate. This information could be easily provided by the resource center.
Such a resource center therefore would also have databases about equipment sellers, places supplying packaging — especially options that are more sustainable — wholesale supply stores, licensing and permitting offices and other specific listings in addition to general information about their particular type of food processing and related food safety and health code issues. It would also package all the things that different types of businesses would need to do in ways tailored to the type of production, scale and other details of the business. Finally, the resource center could also package funding of different types such as small grants and loans that are available to support these businesses.
The conversations gave me this overall takeaway message: local government is somewhat out of touch with the needs of small and micro business owners and the barriers they face in making and selling their products. Participants felt these recommendations should be taken to City Council members and bankers, as well as state and federal elected officials and agency administrators who want to create more sustainable and just, local food systems.
More outreach to ordinary community members is also needed on the importance of supporting local and especially small-scale food industries. If more people understand how support for local food producers benefits their own neighborhoods and the larger Detroit community, they would willingly buy more local products.
Brittany Moore is a graduate student of urban planning at Wayne State University. This article is based on a project she completed in the Cities and Food class at WSU, taught by Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.