BY ART BUKOWSKI and BILL O'BRIEN
TRAVERSE CITY -- Nancy Muha and Sue Denio sat at a snug corner table in The Cooks' House ready to dine on a lunch composed of fresh northern Michigan products.
It was the Traverse City sisters' first visit to the downtown restaurant known for its selection of local, sustainable cuisine. But they've been to several other restaurants in the area, and they believe the region can hold its own with the nation's finest culinary destinations.
"We find that Traverse City is as good as any place we go," Muha said. "If anything, it's better."
A new state-wide initiative is underway to increase the amount of Michigan-made products offered at restaurants through the state. The Michigan Culinary Tourism Alliance will bring the state's restaurant, food production and tourism interests together to promote the sale of locally produced goods ranging from wines and hand-crafted beers to specialty fruits and vegetables.
"If we can highlight our culinary offerings ... it's a good contributor to economic activity," said Linda Jones of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, an organization in the state Department of Agriculture that will spearhead the effort.
Eric Patterson, co-owner of The Cooks' House, said the Grand Traverse region is a "gold mine" of local food and drink and it makes sense to promote it as such.
"The things that are being offered up here are as good as anything you're going to find anywhere else in the world, I'm convinced of that," he said. "If you look at what's being grown, and the quality of what's being grown, it's world class."
Ted Cizma, executive chef at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, said a surge in national media attention to all things culinary helped spur interest in culinary tourism. The region already has a strong reputation for good local food, he said.
"There's a huge segment of the population who are interested in food and cooking and chefs; it's a very popular demographic now ... this region, for as small as it is, has become sort of a foody destination," he said.
Despite that reputation, Cizma believes the region could do a better job promoting local food and drink. He'd like to see the Culinary Tourism Alliance form a focus group with restaurant owners, hotel operators and others who have a stake in culinary tourism before it decides how and where to spend its money.
"We want to make sure we're making ourselves available to all our potential customers and travelers and tourists," he said.
Jones said organizers expect to conduct up to half-dozen meetings around the state over the next 14 months to gather input, and hold a one-day conference next year to formally kick-off the project. She anticipates formation of a Michigan chapter of the International Culinary Tourism Association, and expects the group will tap ideas being used around the U.S. and the world to promote food-related tourism.
"We have so many things that are happening right now," she said. "We don't have to re-invent this."
Cizma said it often costs more money for restaurants to buy local food because traditional food suppliers generally have much larger stocks and well-developed supply lines. That might make it worthwhile to offer restaurants incentives to buy local, he said.
Jones said one of the goals of the project will be to help food producers increase their efficiency and improve distribution methods so they can better compete with national suppliers. The culinary tourism initiative is one of more than two dozen programs being developed at the state level to bolster the use and development of specialty crops in Michigan. More than $1.2 million from the federal Farm Bill is paying for those efforts.
Nancy Schwalm, 60, has lived in Traverse City for nearly 40 years. She's watched local farmers' markets grow exponentially, and witnessed more area restaurants offer locally generated food and drink.
"We're producing a lot more local food than we have in the past," she said, adding that increased marketing could have a "big impact" on the region.
"I think it's hugely important," she said.
Anything that could further develop Traverse City's reputation as a culinary destination would be "wonderful," Denio said.
"With the tourists in the summer, the restaurants are always filled, and that's really exciting to see, especially downtown," she said. "There are a lot of good choices."