Benzie Grows Entrepreneurs

A new venture that could help farmers and budding entrepreneurs turn ideas and recipes into marketable products – and possibly businesses – is coming onto the northern Michigan food scene.

Grow Benzie, the community nonprofit farmstead in Benzie County's Benzonia, is launching a state-licensed incubator kitchen for people to develop and market foodstuffs like jams, jellies, salsas, pickles and dry rubs, utilizing ingredients grown in the area.

It's been a vision for the organization since its 2008 inception, and the kitchen builds on Grow Benzie's mission of fostering self-reliance through education in agriculture, nutrition, job training and life skills.

Located in Grow Benzie's main building, the approximately 1,600-square-foot kitchen is aimed at providing both training and opportunity, with early users including one individual who will make refrigerated guacamole and another who will make brine to smoke fish.

The kitchen expects to begin full-scale work with clients this summer, said Deb Query, Grow Benzie director.

And Grow Benzie itself will be an initial client, with production of a salsa based on a family recipe of board member Peter French.

French, a former auto industry executive who lives in Grand Rapids and summers in Beulah, has embarked on the slew of steps needed to go from recipe to shelf-stable, wholesale-ready product.

That includes: Taking a college class providing Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development-required certification to produce acidified, shelf-stable products; developing a label that also must be reviewed by the agriculture department; sourcing jars and local tomatoes and peppers; producing a test batch that will be analyzed at an outside laboratory; and submitting a detailed written process to the state, covering all elements from jar sterilization to cooking time and temperature.

French's goal: To produce 1,200 jars of Grow Benzie Garden Salsa sometime in September. He hopes to sell the salsa in local stores.

"I've never done small batch food processing in my life, so it's a pretty aggressive scenario," he said.

Beyond the elements of food production are the backbone business and educational processes essential to operating an incubator kitchen. Assisting Grow Benzie with many aspects is The Starting Block, a nonprofit regional commercial incubator kitchen in west Michigan's Hart.

Grow Benzie representatives visited the kitchen when researching options, and The Starting Block Director Ron Steiner has been hired as a consultant "in helping us get our kitchen up and running correctly," said board member Cheryl Roth in an email.

Steiner said The Starting Block's assistance will be broad and could range from consulting on staff hiring and development of standard operating procedures for the kitchen, to facilitating focus groups to familiarize the Benzie community with the concept of an incubator kitchen.

And it serves as an educational structure for clients to learn what they might face.

"We don't just focus on the kitchen and getting the client producing their product," said Steiner. "You've got to pay attention to the marketing, and pricing and business side of things."

He does not doubt the demand for the Grow Benzie incubator kitchen.

"What's driving it…is the local food movement. The market is there, and it's expanding," Steiner said. "And those that have some specialty product…all an incubator does is connect these folks."

Roth said an initial Grow Benzie survey received more than 60 positive responses, mostly from area farmers interested in using a kitchen to expand their businesses.

"We envision all kinds of entrepreneurial products being created there by individuals, not necessarily farmers, once people are aware of the facility," he said.

The kitchen also sees itself as a link in another developing food-related asset to farmers and businesses: The regional food hub planned at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

As a piece of the area's growing local food-oriented landscape, the Grand Traverse Regional Market is planned for Building 58 and will support the production, retailing, storage and distribution of locally grown and produced foods.

Elements under discussion include a farmer's market, cold storage, a commercial kitchen available for lease, education classes, and various food processing operations and businesses.

Early components – like vegetable processing operations to supply the Traverse City Area Public Schools with fresh produce from local farms, and small businesses seeking space for meat processing and other food-related ventures – are in development but need space in which to operate, said Rob Sirrine, a community food systems educator with Michigan State University Extension.

"A three-to-four million dollar renovation of Building 58 is needed before we can start locating businesses in there," said Sirrine, who is also project manager for the food hub.

Sirrine said he sees synergies with Grow Benzie, like marketing opportunities for products developed at the Grow Benzie kitchen. He said the food hub also hopes to provide access to counselors from the MSU Product Center, which helps entrepreneurs in agriculture, food and bioeconomy sectors develop and commercialize products and grow businesses.

Business guidance is important, Query said, and Grow Benzie plans to work with SCORE, the nonprofit association of volunteer businesspeople who mentor and counsel entrepreneurs. SCORE members will assist Grow Benzie clients in starting a business as well as management and marketing.

"It is an entrepreneurial center, as well as an incubator kitchen," she said.

Roth said the kitchen will support various users and uses, including those who want to create and market products; chefs and caterers; and nutritional and cooking class offerings. Clients will reserve time on an hourly basis and pay varying fees.

The kitchen's estimated $150,000 development is being supported through a $70,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; $30,000 from Grow Benzie; $30,000 from Rotary Charities of Traverse City; $5,500 from Oryana Natural Foods Market cooperative; and $2,000 from the Herbert H. and Barbara C. Dow Foundation.

Additional fundraising is planned to cover remaining costs.

Roth said the kitchen initially was envisioned as serving a 30-mile radius of Grow Benzie but is not limited to that geographical area.

Kitchen inquiries can be directed to Query at (231) 882-9801 or at growbenzie@gmail.com.

Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain's Detroit Business, where she covered energy and utilities, state government and business for nearly 25 years.

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