Northern Lights: Entrepreneurs making it happen in Emmet, Antrim and Charlevoix counties

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Antrim, Emmet, and Charlevoix counties. Five outstanding business innovators from these counties represent a dynamic cross-section: a farmer; a drone pilot; a sock manufacturer; a makeup artist and a hairstylist. We’ve captured their stories here, along with how their businesses are changing the game for northern Michigan in ways big and small.

The Entrepreneur: Brian Bates

The Business: Bear Creek Organic Farm, Petoskey’s first-ever USDA-certified organic farm.

In its seventh growing season, Bear Creek has grown exponentially from its beginnings in 2014 to become one of Emmet County’s most reliable sources of fresh produce. In year one, owner Brian Bates says Bear Creek tracked a revenue of $25,000. Last year, that number was up to $525,000, with 85% of those sales occurring within 12 miles of the farm and 95% made to local and independent customers or businesses.

The Story: When Bates and his wife, Anne, started their farm, the primary goal was to accomplish something “tangible and actionable” in the fight against climate change. Initially, he says the plan was to keep things small: no employees beyond the husband-and-wife team and just a modest impact on the local area as well as the world (and environment) at large.

“Really quickly, we realized just how much untapped demand there was in the market for organic produce grown locally,” he said. “There were no certified organic farms in Petoskey, and there were no farms in Petoskey really focusing on selling to grocery stores, which is where most people buy their food. So, we just started doing a little bit, and then a little bit more, and it really has grown quite dramatically.”

Bear Creek has eight total employees, five of whom work year-round. The farm grows 52 weeks out of the year, commits to purchasing at least 50% of its total expenditures from local independent suppliers, and continues to grow everything as organically as possible.

Recently, Bear Creek took things one step further and became the first B-Corporation Certified grower in the state of business.

B-Corporation certification is run through the global non-profit B Lab, which according to their website “serves a global movement of people using business as a force for good.”

“(A B-Corp business) can’t just benefit shareholders or the owners. It needs to serve everyone along the supply chain, from the suppliers to the customers and everybody in between,” said Bates.

Other B-Corp certified companies include clothing retailer Patagonia and Burton snowboards.

“It’s the most rigorous business certification out there, and it’s the best way we know how to prove, through an independent third-party certification, that we’re not just saying, ‘We’re doing good business,'” he said. “We’re truly walking the walk.”

B-Corp inspectors look at everything from what businesses pay their workers to the steps they take to protect the environment. Bates estimates that there are less than two-dozen B-Corp businesses in the entire state of Michigan, across all industries.

Pursuing the B-Corp and USDA organic certifications, he says, was crucial to live up to the initial vision of Bear Creek.

“When we started, many growers were talking about how they were growing things better than the big farms, or how they were doing it more cleanly or without harsh chemicals or what have you,” Bates explained. “But there’s a long distance between saying you’re doing something and inviting inspectors to your farm and committing to a third-party certification to prove that you’re doing something.”

The Next Step: Farms have been hit hard during COVID-19, with sales to restaurants in particular suffering. Bear Creek hasn’t been immune to those effects, and Bates says that the farm’s sales to food service establishments have been virtually nonexistent for the past three months.

Still, he thinks the farm’s unique model has insulated it somewhat from the blast radius of the pandemic. Core customers have continued to rely on Bear Creek for their organic produce and have called on the farm for plants and advice to start growing their own food. Demand from the core customer base has been so high, in fact, that Bear Creek is pausing its presence at northern Michigan farmers markets to focus on the 12-mile radius that acts as the farm’s bread and butter.

That decision will take the form of a new on-premise farm market, which will sell Bear Creek produce directly to customers.

“We’ve just heard loud and clear from our customers that they want to see more access to our products, more times a week,” Bates said. “In the past, we’ve done farmers markets two days a week and four hours each. Now, we’ll be open for 30 hours a week. We’re hoping that this strategy will help make our products more accessible to folks right here on the farm.”

The Entrepreneur: Kurtis Damerow

The Business: Emmet Drones, a multifaceted drone company that got its start in Petoskey in 2018.

Emmet Drones is a natural extension of another business Kurtis Damerow owns called Northern BNB, which helps Petoskey residents rent, manage, and maintain Airbnb listings responsibly.

Damerow bought his first drone to help his Northern BNB clients market their properties with high-quality aerial photography – a value-added service that ultimately led to Emmet Drones.

He steered the business to a pair of victories at local pitch night events in 2018, netting a total of $12,750 that he turned around and invested in a drone with advanced thermal capabilities. Services at Emmet Drones now include photography, marketing and advertising, mapping and surveying, 3D modeling, thermal roofing inspections and more. The company guarantees all work it does, offering to redo projects or refund payments if clients aren’t happy with the results.

The Story: “I’ve always been super interested in anything that flies,” said Damerow, who grew up with a model plane hobbyist grandfather. “He would glue together the pieces and then paint them to look like actual planes. And every Christmas and Thanksgiving, we’d go over to his house and I’d take the planes down from his shelf and play with them.”

Those fun-filled holidays inspired Damerow to purchase a remote-control airplane on eBay. He spent his summers mowing grass for his parents and saving up money so that he could buy the plane. It was his first “drone.”

In college, Damerow fell in love with photography, eventually pairing that hobby with his fondness for aircraft. While Emmet Drones started as an aerial photography business, it’s quickly evolved beyond. For the past year and a half, Damerow has actually been operating Emmet Drones in California, using his drones to inspect electrical utility lines. By flying drones along the lines, Damerow can spot damage, make sure everything is installed correctly, and more.

“The information that these companies get (from this service) is just so much more thorough and detailed than anything else that they’ve had in the past,” Damerow explained.

The Next Step: For now, Emmet Drones is still very much a startup. Two years in, the business remains a one-man operation – though Damerow regularly contracts work out to experienced drone pilots in northern Michigan. Those contractors have been maintaining the company’s presence in and around Petoskey since Damerow went to California, handling any photography projects, mapping jobs, or other client inquiries.

Holding on to that northern Michigan brand awareness is important to Damerow, not only because it keeps the company more diverse and more profitable but also because his ultimate goal is to get back to Michigan full-time.

“We’ve actually been trying to expand into becoming a vendor for electric utilities in Michigan,” Damerow said, naming DTE, Consumers Energy, and Great Lakes Energy as his three dream accounts. “California has really taken an initiative to make (drone inspections) a part of its ongoing inspection process (for utilities). I really want to be able to bring that knowledge back to Michigan.”

So far, Damerow hasn’t had any formal meetings or demos with northern Michigan utilities. If he can land a utility contract in the region, he says he’d move back to Michigan permanently, grow the Emmet Drones brand here, and create full-time jobs for northern Michigan technology professionals.

The Entrepreneur: Baris Atmaca

The Business: Socks Kick, an East Jordan brand that manufactures socks tailor-made for frigid northern Michigan winters.

Socks Kick are manufactured on vintage Bentley-made knitting machines at a factory in Istanbul, Turkey. The Bentley machines, which date back to the 1930s and ’40s, are the secret to the uniquely comfortable Socks Kick design. The socks incorporate more elasticity than is normal in most socks, providing a roomier fit and less compression around the lower leg, the heel and the toes. Natural yarns – including merino wool, Turkish cotton, and bamboo – ensure a soft, cozy fit with no itchiness or irritation.

The Story: While Socks Kick was established in 2017, the story of the business actually dates back more than a decade, to 2005. That year, Atmaca left his home in Istanbul to be a Rotary exchange student in East Jordan. More than 5,000 miles from his home and his family, Atmaca could have easily felt homesick and lonely. Instead, he says he looks back on that year – his sixteenth – as the best year of his life.

“I loved my time (in northern Michigan) when I was a student,” Atmaca said. “The people were so welcoming and so warm. I remember making the comment: ‘It’s a cold place in the winter, but the people make it feel really warm.’”

When Atmaca went back to Turkey, he left a piece of his heart behind in Charlevoix County. He stayed connected to the area by keeping in touch with his host parents, who made the trek to Turkey for his wedding. Five years ago, Atmaca returned to East Jordan to revisit his old stomping grounds, which inspired him to wonder if a business could be started there.

When Atmaca married his wife, Cigdem, he married into one of Europe’s biggest sock empires. His in-laws own the factory in Istanbul where Sock Kick socks are made, and have been manufacturing socks since 1995. Most of those socks are crafted as part of private-label agreements with household name brands like Hanes, Birkenstock and even Jeep.

However, Atmaca says the family has always wanted to find a way to produce socks under its own brand name, too. The idea of starting a business in Michigan dovetailed with that dream perfectly, and Socks Kick was born.

“Our socks are quite suitable for heavy winter conditions, so we finally decided, why not just start our own brand in Michigan?” Atmaca said.

The Next Step: Today, Socks Kick sells its products online and at several brick-and-mortar retail locations, most of them throughout northern Michigan. (In Traverse City, you can find Sock Kick socks downtown at Robert Frost Fine Footwear.) While Socks Kick is technically a Michigan company, the entire manufacturing process still happens at the family factory in Istanbul.

Atmaca’s next goal for the business is to establish a stateside manufacturing operation so that it can make and sell “Made in the USA” products.

“Our ultimate goal is to move some machinery to East Jordan,” Atmaca said. “We have a 7,000-square-foot warehouse space that could easily accommodate 5-10 machines,” he said.

A shift to the northern Michigan market would also allow Socks Kick to start using materials from local manufacturers – such as yarns from Stonehedge Fiber Mill in East Jordan.

Establishing a manufacturing presence in Michigan is on hold for the moment due to COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Atmaca hasn’t been able to make his usual trips from his home in Istanbul to East Jordan – something he says he would ideally do every two to three months as part of running the business. As COVID-19 becomes less of an urgent concern in many parts of the world, Atmaca says he is hopeful that the next chapter of the Socks Kick story can begin.

The Entrepreneurs: Audrey Hartzell and Marissa Griffore

The Business: A&M Beauty, a collaboration between a pair of Mancelona natives (and best friends) that provides mobile hair and makeup services for weddings and other events throughout northern Michigan.

Audrey Hartzell and Marissa Griffore won both the grand prize and the audience award at last fall’s Antrim County Pitch Night, netting $10,500. Twelve days later at the Northern Lakes Economic Alliances Grand Event – which pitted the top three competitors from the Antrim and Cheboygan counties’ pitch nights against one another – the pair won the grand prize and audience prize once more, snagging an additional $10,500. They put the $21,000 toward an RV, which they’re in the process of renovating into a fully equipped mobile salon.

The Story: Hartzell is a licensed hairstylist; Griffore is a distributor for a makeup company. Several years ago, they forged a friendship over the complementary nature of their professions. At first, they swapped makeup and hair services. Soon, they were offering those services jointly to their friends. Before long, they had the business model for A&M Beauty, which officially launched in 2018.

“A lot of the feedback that we’ve received – and the whole reason that we were even inspired to do this in the first place – is that it’s tough to find a combo hair and makeup service (in northern Michigan),” Griffore said. “And then to find a service that’s mobile and that is willing to come to you, that’s even rarer.”

So far, the mobile salon RV has not been a part of the equation for A&M Beauty. Instead, Hartzell and Griffore have traveled to meet brides and their wedding parties where they are, providing hair and makeup services in homes, bridal suites, hotel rooms, or tucked away rooms at churches or wedding venues.

Even without the RV, Griffore says A&M Beauty has had no problem gaining a foothold, largely due to the convenience that a mobile all-in-one service brings to the table.

“Say a bride is  getting married on Old Mission Peninsula or Leelanau Peninsula,” Griffore said. “They might be 30-plus minutes away from the nearest salon. That coordination for a bride (of getting everyone to the salon) can be stressful. Who’s fitting in what car? Who’s carpooling?”

Elimination of stress played into their decision to go mobile.

“Plus, northern Michigan is such a destination location for brides and there’s only so many salons to choose from, and only so many Saturdays in the summer,” said Griffore. “The demand is so high that brides are constantly looking for makeup and hair services and booking out a year or two in advance to get who they want.”

The Next Step: Armed with the $21,000 in pitch night winnings from last November, Hartzell and Griffore recently purchased the RV that will make their business a true mobile hair and makeup salon. Based on their research, it’s the second business of its kind in the entire state – and the very first in northern Michigan.

In the coming months, they’ll renovate the RV to turn it into a true salon, with plenty of space for entire bridal parties to gather at once.

Those renovations will be occurring during one of the most uncertain wedding seasons in northern Michigan’s history. So far, COVID-19 has cost Hartzell and Griffore all the weddings they had booked for April, May, and June, as well as a few for July.

For a moment, it was looking as if this summer might be a complete wash for A&M Beauty. But the business – and the entire up north wedding industry – got a bit of a reprieve on June 1, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer loosened restrictions on outdoor events. For now, crowds of up to 100 are allowed to gather outside, which opens the doors for wedding and other outdoor celebrations. In the first week following the updated executive order, A&M Beauty booked eight new weddings.

“Brides who maybe thought they were going to have to postpone (their weddings) until next year are now saying, ‘Wait a minute, I can get it in during the late summer or fall,’” Griffore said. “So our schedule has filled right back up, and we think that we’ll have a pretty decent recovery from what we’ve missed this spring.”