Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 25, 2013

Would-be food entrepreneurs get their chance

BY LAURIE MIHOLER-ZACHRITZ Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — BEULAH — Deb Nickerson gets lots of compliments on her homemade whole wheat bread.

She even thought she might like to try her hand at making it to sell, but the process of starting a business and getting licensed was daunting. That was, until she found out about Benzie Grow’s new incubator kitchen in Beulah, and a workshop it was offering. It seemed to be targeted exactly to people like her.

“I got phone calls the same day from two different friends who’d seen an ad for it on TV,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson, of Beulah, was one of more than 30 people who showed up for the two-day workshop recently to learn about the new kitchen and how it might transform their vague dreams into reality, said kitchen manager Lisa Richter

“What incubators do is brings folks out of the woodwork who are interested in producing a food product, but don’t have business backgrounds,” Richter said. “Folks got a solid understanding of what it takes to start up their business. It demystifies the process.”

Richter said most are aware of Michigan’s cottage food law, but a lot of their ideas involve having a shelf-stable product. For instance, one woman had a recipe for 20 years that she wanted to turn into a product but wondered how to produce it legally and sell it.

“It’s an opportunity to share this awesome food that friends and family love, and she’ll be able to bring it to market,” Richter said.

Benzie Grow’s incubator kitchen is modeled after the Starting Block incubator kitchen in Hart, whose kitchen and business manager, Ron Steiner, helped conduct the workshop. Karla Horn, food safety inspector for the region from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, also assisted. The incubator kitchen itself is a fully equipped commercial-grade kitchen with all the trimmings, including a six- burner stove, commercial refrigerator and freezer, steam kettle, two convection ovens, mixers, and place for packaging and labeling with space for storage.

“The idea is you come here, you test your product, and you might fail,” Richter said. “Starting Block has a slogan we like: ‘Fail Fast, Fail Quickly, Fail Cheap.’ It’s a place to find out about your product and your customers. Many failures are part of a bigger success. You and your family might be the only ones who love your recipe. You don’t want to batch up a thousand of it, though, just to find out it needed more salt. Maybe one teaspoon more salt and people would love it.”

The kitchen is a starting point for people, but not the end, Richter said. At Starting Block, 30 different businesses use the kitchen; some come once every month, some three days a week. She said one successful business that started there is Wee Bee Jammin, a Bear Lake company that specializes in high-fruit premium jams.

“The idea is you graduate from the incubator kitchen and then move on,” she said.

Since the workshop, Nickerson’s been using the kitchen to develop and perfect her bread for multiple batches. She said she just needs to have her paperwork looked over and meet with Horn to give the OK before she can sell. She said she learned a lot about basic business practices at the workshop but, more importantly, she learned that there is support for what she wants to do.

“What I really got out of it was that there are people out there that are really helpful and want you to succeed. It’s comforting to know that they’ll be with you every step of the way,” she said.

Iron Works Café

Al Fry, Manistee Community Kitchen’s director of training and chief operation officer, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Benzie Grow’s incubator kitchen in June. He said he sees possibilities for connection with MCK’s soon-to-be-opened Iron Works Café. One gesture of support will be to showcase some of the Beulah entrepreneurs’ products.

“I have a shelving display that I’ve offered to them to use to market their wares,” said Fry, who spoke with Richter at the open house about collaborating and sharing their ideas and resources.

The café, located in the southwest corner of the historic 1907 Iron Works Building in downtown Manistee, will be a restaurant and training center where students will learn every aspect of the restaurant business in a structured, 12-week program.

“Everybody will work in every aspect of a restaurant’s business,” Fry said, “from washing dishes, to food prep, to ordering, to waiting on tables, to bookkeeping. Students will also learn the importance of fresh, locally grown foods to good nutrition.”

A chef, former restaurant owner and 40-year veteran of the food business, Fry said students will receive two certificates upon completion of the program — one from the café, and a Serve-Safe certification he said is highly valued by restaurants looking for qualified applicants. Both the café and Michigan Works, who helped furnish applicants and office space for interviews, will help graduates find jobs afterwards.

“My hope is that it will give them some real-world experience and that they’ll have a reference when they leave,” Fry said.

Eight students will be enrolled in the first session, along with three full-time staff, including Fry, Rita McCann, a certified life counselor who will assist students in bettering their personal life skills, and Nicholas Wimple, currently a student at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City, who will do his internship and instruct at the café,

The menu at Iron Works will be fresh, local comfort food served in a healthier way, Fry said.

“One of MCK’s mission is to get people to eat healthier,” he said. “So we might have things like meatloaf, but make it with ground turkey, or we might take the traditional fried chicken and bake it, but with a nice browned crust like it was deep-fried.” The café also plans to serve a full-course family style, family size meal every day.

The café will open for business in late August and will serve dine-in and take-out lunch on Tuesdays and Fridays, dinner on Thursdays and Saturdays, and both on Wednesdays.

Fry said the support of local citizens has been tremendous, with over 250 people attending a café open house in June and contributing to an “over-the-top” successful Kick Starter fundraising campaign.

“We had a goal of $12,000 and raised $14,500,” he said. “This community has been unbelievable.”