Ypsilanti's food entrepreneurs are individualists but also happy to lend a hand to others. That was one of the main messages from our High Growth Happy Hour panel discussion on Ypsi's food economy, hosted by Comcast, Concentrate, and New Economy Initiative May 22 at Corner Brewery.
The free event was moderated by Ypsi Township-based entrepreneur and investment advisor Angela Barbash. Three Ypsi food business owners participated as panelists: Rob Hess, the founder of Go! Ice Cream, 10 N. Washington St., which uses local ingredients in its handmade frozen treats; Melvin Parson, the founder of We the People Growers Association, a sustainable farming initiative with a focus on employing returning prisoners; and Eric Mullins, the co-owner of Hyperion Coffee Co., 306 N. River St., a coffee roastery and tasting room in Depot Town.
The event was part of Comcast's High Growth Happy Hour series, featuring input from established local entrepreneurs about the challenges and opportunities of launching and growing their businesses in Grand Rapids, the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti region, and metro Detroit.
Read on for three takeaways from Tuesday's event.
Ypsilanti food entrepreneurs and their customers are self-motivated individualists.
Ypsi's food entrepreneurs are quirky individuals, and so are the customers who support them. Hess said Ypsi has a "sense of individualism" inspired by "freethinking, self-motivated" local operations like Zingerman's.
"That has seeped into the DNA of what we do here," he said. "It's okay to answer questions in our own way in this area."
Mullins noted that this extends to his customers as well.
"My partners and I have found in Ypsi so much individual and community support, and people who want more education about what is going on with their food, where their food is coming from," he said. "On a grassroots level, they want to know: 'Who is growing my food, and what's in my ice cream?'"
Because coffee is grown in places far from Ypsi, Mullins said he and his partners attempt to "bridge the gap" by traveling to Costa Rica or Uganda to visit the farmers they purchase beans from so they can, in turn, educate their customers.
"We know where our money is being spent, because that's something as a community we were asked for and that nobody else is providing," Mullins said. "We feel very supported in that effort."
Collaboration and mentoring are widespread in Ypsi's food entrepreneur ecosystem.
Although local food entrepreneurs are individualistic, they all benefit from community collaboration and surrounding themselves with advisors and mentors who can help with knowledge and resources. Mullins said he works with, and receives mentorship from, numerous Ypsi food businesses like Sidetrack, the Corner Brewery, and MAIZ.
"If I'm having trouble at any point, I can instantly pick up the phone and get help at any time," he said. "It's really awesome to have that help literally right down the street."
Mullins said he was nervous about working with the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the city's historic district commission while trying to incorporate an ADA-compliant restroom. But when he reached out, he found them extremely helpful.
"The DDA basically said, 'We would love to help you,' and covered half the cost," Mullins said. Additionally, the DDA gave Hyperion a grant to install an exterior sign.
Hess said he has "a ton of mentors."
"One thing that helped in this particular endeavor was being surrounded by people who are super smart and engaged," Hess said.
Parson said he gets inspiration "from everybody I come in contact with" and noted that he gets coffee – and mentorship – from Zingerman's co-founder Ari Weinzweig every weekend.
"It raises my hope bubble," he said. "I try to take that hope that has been given to me, and pass it on to others."
Entrepreneurs must embrace not knowing and failure.
Parson shared his initial struggle to accept the nickname "Farmer Parson," feeling that he didn't know what he was doing when he first set out to grow crops and market them last year.
"I ordered $1,200 of transplants, and when the folks dropped them off, I wondered: 'What am I supposed to do with these?'" Parson said.
Similarly, at harvest time, he didn't want to admit that he wasn't sure how exactly he should harvest kale and chard. However, he said, he surrounds himself with "people who are smarter than me" on his advisory board, and they were able to help him with planting and then again at harvest time.
Hess also embraces not knowing and even outright mistakes.
"If you're doing it right, it can be a great tool for personal growth," Hess said. "I'm walking around thinking I'm the least knowledgeable person every single day, but it's a great way to be. My staff get mad at me sometimes, like when they spill 20 gallons of ice cream base on the floor and I say, 'That's super awesome. You know what a lid is for now.' I taught my staff to really love failure, so much that it's a core value to embrace failure and get it super wrong."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Patrick Dunn.