What's the state of Ypsi's food economy?

Comcast, Concentrate, and New Economy Initiative are hosting a free panel discussion featuring food economy entrepreneurs who are growing and scaling companies in the Ypsilanti area.

 

"High Growth Happy Hour: Ypsi's Food Economy" will be held May 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Corner Brewery, 720 Norris St. in Ypsi. The event, which is open to the public, will feature Ypsi Township-based entrepreneur and investment advisor Angela Barbash as moderator and three Ypsi food business owners as panelists.

 

Panelist Rob Hess is the founder of Go! Ice Cream, 10 N. Washington St., which often uses all-natural and local ingredients in its handmade frozen treats. Panelist Melvin Parson is the founder of We the People Growers Association, a sustainable farming initiative focusing on employing returning prisoners. Panelist Eric Mullins is the co-owner of Hyperion Coffee Co., 306 N. River St., a coffee roastery and tasting room in Depot Town.

 

The panel event is part of Comcast's High Growth Happy Hour series, which seeks 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.

 

To preview the upcoming discussion, we asked each of the panelists to share their thoughts about the state of Ypsi's food economy. This is what they had to say.

 

(The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)

 

Rob Hess

Founder, Go! Ice Cream

 

What makes Washtenaw County, or more specifically Ypsilanti, a great place to grow a food economy business?

 

"I’ve always said that Go! Ice Cream really wouldn’t have taken hold the way that it did in some place other than Ypsilanti. The reason I say that is folks here really want the best for the community and they’re really engaged, so everything from our civic discussions to where we decide to put our dollars to what we decide to promote via word of mouth, those things are all really thoughtful.

 

I think there’s more apathy in other places than there is in Ypsilanti. Here we fight, we have ideals, we have thoughts, we really engage, and we’re not afraid to put those things to the test and put those things out there. So people have really just rallied behind us ever since it was just me on the bike selling at the farmers market and I think it’s because of the nature of the people who are attracted to live in Ypsilanti."

 

What resources in the region offer support for entrepreneurs, especially those in the food business?

 

"I drew on several formal resources, including SPARK and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Those were really formative experiences for me. The main support that I got, honestly, was from other food folks, other business folks, other entrepreneurs in the area. Those folks all really rallied around me. Everyone was extremely supportive, whether it was Bona Sera, who loaned me kitchen space, or it was Zingerman’s Creamery, who helped me figure out how to get my (ice cream) base pasteurized in the very beginning. Those folks were absolutely formative in helping us get off the ground."

 

What kind of support or resources do you need to take your business to the next level?

 

"I’ve never been the kind of person who relies too heavily on formalized, institutional knowledge of resources, so there’s a reason I didn’t go to the SBDC as much as I probably should have. This sounds kind of weird and hippie, but the main things I think I need are more entrepreneurs, more folks around the area doing things to the beat of their own drum. I think there are a lot of ways to scale up your operation or grow your business in a more traditional way that sometimes can be less community-minded, a little bit less creative, maybe a little bit more exploitative. And I’ve really found that the same folks and organizations who have helped us grow are those folks who are thinking about those things differently and solving the same problems by being more creative in the way that they approach it.

 

I’ve got a really great group of friends that has helped ever since day one to keep my brain in line so that we do things the way that make sense to us. And sometimes that’s just other business owners who get me around the table with a beer and kick my ass a little bit. I think it’s really just a bulkhead of entrepreneurs solving business problems with a creative, community-minded approach."

 

Melvin Parson

Founder, We the People Growers Association

 

What makes Washtenaw County, or more specifically Ypsilanti, a great place to grow a food economy business?

 

"There are a couple of things that come to mind. A lot of folks who live in Washtenaw County, or Ypsilanti specifically, are more conscientious of food and where it comes from and are more supportive of the localness of it all. They’re supportive of local farmers. There are several thriving farmers markets in Ann Arbor and in Ypsilanti. And the diversity of the folks is also important. Sometimes you see at the farmers market in Ypsilanti a nice mix of people buying and supporting locally grown food and other things."

 

What resources in the region offer support for entrepreneurs, especially those in the food business?

 

"Tilian Farm Development Center offers a space to beginning farmers or offers up land to help grow and develop beginning farmers. MSU Extension is a good resource for entrepreneurs in the food industry. I think those two are the ones that come to mind in terms of resourcefulness."

 

What kind of support or resources do you need to take your business to the next level?

 

"A couple of things that jump out at me are land and money. When it comes down to it, without land access and money, it’s inevitably impossible to really grow and be a farmer. So both of those are important. To be honest, there’s other resources outside of that that need to come to the table to make things happen for my vision, whether that’s support with workforce development or support for the back-end things of growing a farming business, like bookkeeping, accounting, or administrative help. But first and foremost is long-term land access and money."

 

Eric Mullins

Cofounder, Hyperion Coffee Co.

 

What makes Washtenaw County, or more specifically Ypsilanti, a great place to grow a food economy business?

 

"For Ypsilanti specifically, we’re located in Depot Town, which already has some long-term food businesses. I think people enjoy having a coffee roaster as a part of the local economy and having that transparency in where their products come from. In Washtenaw County we’ve had a really great response to our product and what we’re doing, because I think people in the county also want that transparency. It might be a little different in Ypsilanti because there’s not a ton of money like in downtown Ann Arbor, but it’s still an evolving food culture where people are really interested in where their food comes from and why it’s sourced a certain way, which I don’t know if you find a lot of other places."

 

What resources in the region offer support for entrepreneurs, especially those in the food business?

 

"We have gotten a few different grants through the city, through the Downtown Development Authority, and a lot of help from the Historic Commission in Ypsi. Their grants helped us get an ADA entrance on our space here. They also helped us put in a bathroom and helped us put signage outside the building so we’re more visible. So they’ve been really excellent as far as that goes."

 

What kind of support or resources do you need to take your business to the next level?

 

"I think in the next couple of years here we are looking to expand and potentially open up an official cafe location somewhere else in Washtenaw County. Some people take out loans in order to be in business and they run a deficit while they have that. And that’s never been our thing. We’ve been primarily self-financed, so we’ve grown very much organically and with the consent of our community and all of the business partners that we work with. I guess what would really help us as a business would be a greater education in our products and what we’re doing, and I don’t know that anybody else could really offer that outside of ourselves. But even then, maybe if we had a little bit more money for offering those resources to our customers and wholesale accounts in greater Washtenaw County then it could be something that would benefit everybody."

To hear more from these panelists, RSVP now for our High Growth Happy Hour event on Ypsi's food economy!

 

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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