Oakland County Market Promotes Food Businesses with Grants for Business Education

The Oakland County Market has been operating since 1966, predating the Oakland County Parks system that now manages it. In that time, cultural attitudes towards “recreation” have changed significantly – instead of “recreation” referring to packing the kids up in the station wagon and heading Up North for a long weekend once a year, recreation is something that people consider a necessary part of everyday life, and a real quality of life indicator. It is part of an active lifestyle that people want to easily be able to access on a weekly (if not daily) basis in their own neighborhoods, including everything from trails for hiking and biking to lifelong learning opportunities and farmers markets where people can support local businesses and socialize. “It’s not just about physical activity; it’s about social activity,” says Jon Noyes, Supervisor of Planning for Oakland County Parks. “We now have different expectations [for recreation].”
 
300,000 people visit the Oakland County Market in Waterford every year, making it a great opportunity to create different kinds of recreation experiences, from music and dancing and other cultural programming to promoting the local artisan food businesses as part of the increasingly popular “buy local” movement happening all over the country. In an effort to stay relevant and keep up with cultural trends, the Oakland County Market hired Michigan State University to conduct a study on the market and make recommendations on how to better promote the market and ensure its long-term success.
 
“MSU had a laundry list of recommendations, so we took all of them and proposed them to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation for a $50,000 grant,” says Noyes. The market was awarded the grant, which not only included funds allocated for marketing but also entrepreneurial education scholarships for food vendors matching them up to opportunities that already exist in the county.
 
Opportunities such as the Oakland County Small Business Center, which has a variety of resources available to entrepreneurs including everything from business counseling to classes on developing a business plan and social media strategy. Noyes approached Greg Doyle, Supervisor of the Oakland County One Stop Shop Business Center and certified Michigan Small Business Counselor, about offering a session of the One Stop Shop’s 10-week Venture Plan program specifically for food business entrepreneurs at a deeply discounted rate supported by the market’s grant.
 
The Venture Plan program takes entrepreneurs through the entire process of starting a business, from the development of a business plan to creating a marketing strategy, with a professional facilitator and a different guest speaker each week. The program typically costs $750 per student, but with the educational component of the MEDC grant they were able to bring the cost down to $100 per student. This is the first time the Business Center has run the Venture Plan program focused on one industry. “Venture Plan was modified so we have guest speakers at every one of our 10 sessions and those 10 speakers have some specialty in the food industry,” says Doyle. “Whether they’re an owner of a restaurant or an attorney that specializes in the food industry, they’re basically all people from the food industry who can speak on particular topics like finance and marketing.”
 
There are now 19 participants in this season’s Venture Plan program, and all of them are in the food industry and were recruited through the Oakland County Market. They are about halfway through the program now. Participating businesses include Red Wood Grill in Commerce Township, Pasquale’s Pasta in Waterford, Sweet Occasions in Oxford, and Break O’ Day Farm in Webberville. Most of the businesses are from Oakland County but there are also a few from Wayne and Ingham County that are vendors at the market. Most of them had no idea that these small business resources were even available to them through Oakland County. Noyes has also found that some might be intimidated to sign up for the typical program if they are just a mom and pop salsa market in a room with high-tech startups and manufacturers, and wanted to use this opportunity to make them feel comfortable participating in the program being surrounded by other people interested in the new food economy.
 
“It’s really timely in that the whole grow Michigan/buy Michigan [movement] has been a growing phenomenon,” Doyle says. “We’re seeing more folks come into our Business Center with the idea of starting or who are already running a food business. Whether it’s salsas, sauces, cookies, or some specialty product that they can or package, that is a pretty fast-growing industry in Michigan.” He says a lot of companies hit a wall when they try to transition their hobby into a full-fledged business. For example, many of them face their first major obstacle when going from making their products in their home kitchens under the cottage food law to needing access to a commercial kitchen. “The first thing we look at is how we can help in that manner.”
 
Noyes says this food business-specific Venture Plan program was a trial but also a way of implementing recommendations from the original MSU study. “For us these will be vendors we can count on to continue growing the quality of the Oakland County Market and advocate the value of taking [these] business classes to other vendors,” he says. While there are no plans currently to run offer another food-focused program at a discounted rate, Noyes hopes to be able to work with the private sector to receive more funding for scholarships, and Doyle is absolutely willing to offer the targeted program again.
 
“One of the issues that folks have in turning their favorite recipe or their interest in food into a business is that it’s not an easy thing and there haven’t always been a lot of resources available to them,” says Doyle. “We’re hoping to be that bridge for them, and we’d love to keep it going and keep the price low for them.”