Incubating a new food industry in metro Detroit

Better Made. McClure’s. Zingerman’s. Garden Fresh. Clearly, launching a viable food business in Metro Detroit is possible. But that doesn’t make it easy. From packaging regulations to the hefty overhead costs of a commercial kitchen, being a food startup is a challenging flavor of entrepreneurship. 

After navigating the complicated process on their own, Ferndale’s Garden Fresh owners Jack and Annette Aronson decided to help other foodpreneurs do the same with the benefit of their experience. They began offering assistance to food startups a couple of years ago, and are now formalizing the process with the creation of The Seed, a place “where culinary ideas grow,” in Ferndale. 

The Seed is responding to the growing trend of people aspiring to turn their recipe or concept into a food product that hits it big with foodies across the nation.

“That does happen, but it happens to a few, and those few are savvy in how they go about this production process,” says George Vutetakis, director of research and development for Garden Fresh. “Since there are not many people who are actually sharing this information, specifically of how to bring a product into the market, we felt there was a need for it.”

They aren’t alone. Kitchen incubators and co-working spaces are all the rage in the entrepreneurship and economic development circles. The Lansing area has Incu-Bake, Grand Rapids has the Incubator Kitchen at the Downtown Market, and, in addition to The Seed, Metro Detroit has The Culinary Studio in Southfield. 

Leaning more toward co-working kitchen space than an incubator, The Culinary Studio sprang from owners’ Jo Coleman and Cassandra Morrison need to grow their own food businesses. 

“The original goal was that they’d do those things they wanted to do and then rent it out to others,” says Delbert Greer, an associate and unofficial taster for The Culinary Studio. Five years later, they’re able to offer expertise and resources along with that space. “It’s just the spirit of entrepreneurship. Having more Michigan made products is a benefit to everybody.”

The Range of Services

In addition to the ability to schedule time 24 hours a day in The Culinary Studio’s fully-stocked kitchens space, tenants have access to food storage space, refrigeration and supplies such as aprons, hairnets and gloves — not to mention the benefit of Coleman and Morrison’s knowledge and networks.

“We help them get licensed,” Greer says. “We have a relationship with the Department of Agriculture. We give them all the information they need to get that license and then on to the next step.” 

While these services can be of help to any aspiring foodie, from future restaurateurs to prospective bakers, The Seed has a more narrow focus on foodpreneurs with their eye on packaged food products.

“It’s not an incubator per se, it’s not a rental kitchen,” says Vutetakis. “We assist throughout the whole process from beginning to end of getting the products into market.”

They work with Detroit Kitchen Connect to pair up with food product candidates who will benefit from what The Seed has to offer. The Garden Fresh-earned knowledge educates their clients on food safety laws and regulations, and the 5,000 square foot facility offers them room to package their food product and move it out to market. 

“We’re setting up a program where people can actually learn at minimal cost,” Vutetakis says.

Succulent Success Stories

After five years in business, The Culinary Studio has helped numerous food entrepreneurs get off the ground, including food truck owners, restaurateurs and take-out businesses. One early success story is Rani’s Granola, which utilized the kitchen during its startup days.  . 

“They used to be here all day and night. Rani contracted with Kroger and she outgrew the kitchen. And that’s the goal,” Greer says. “They’re like our children. They grow up and leave us.”

Though The Seed is technically serving its first few official clients, the Garden Fresh initiative that led to it has been doing so for years. The raw juice company Drought Juice, for example, worked with Garden Fresh to learn about certification, set up their plant operations and connect with the right people in the marketplace. 

“They’re really great people on a mission to get fresh juice out there into the world, and just as they were enamored with us, we were enamored with them,” says Vutetakis. “We’ve been ushering them along.”

A Bountiful Future

Both Vutetakis and Greer believe the demand for kitchen incubators, shared kitchen and other organized assistance programs for food-based entrepreneurs is strong. The question is, with the exception of the shared kitchen space model similar to The Culinary Kitchen, is how to make them viable. 

“We’re not making money off of this. In fact, we’re barely covering expenses. But it’s an investment in the community,” Vetetakis says. “The real reason behind the thing is Jack and Annette are really generous people who see this as their role in the community.”

Perhaps this is why other kitchen incubation projects under development tend to be in the public and non-profit sectors. Macomb County is currently developing such a project, and Oak Park-based non-profit Forgotten Harvest is offering entrepreneurs space for small-scale food processing and co-packing services. 

As for operations like The Culinary Studio, Greer sees a for-profit future in the field — something he sees his own company taking advantage of. 

“It would be great to be able to have a Culinary Studio in different cities,” he says. “We all have to eat. The more food Michigan-made food we have, the better. And it’s going to benefit all of us Michiganders by building employment for a lot of people.”

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

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All Photos by David Lewinski Photography