Incubating food business in Lansing

At this point we can all agree -- eating local food is the way to go. We get fresher, tastier produce, reduce energy costs and fossil fuel consumption, and create stronger networks in our communities. But building a sustainable food economy requires more than just locavore living. And that's where the local food incubators come in.

A Moveable Feast

Have you ever sat down to a delectable bowl of Crunch Granola or indulged your taste buds with a Glory Bee cupcake? Yes? Then you've had the pleasure of sampling some of the fare locally produced at Incu-Bake, a fully licensed commercial   incubator kitchen in Holt. Over 50 Michigan-based micro-businesses create their delicious wares at Incu-Bake, and the number increases with every passing year. "We're still growing!" says owner, Marcy Kates. "We're not at capacity yet."

The variety of goods produced at Incu-Bake ranges from artisan jams and award winning salsas, to gluten-free breads and traditional Polish golumpkies. While these businesses are based all over the state, they all come to the capital area to produce their products and pursue their dreams. "That's what I love about this business," says Kates, "food nourishes our bodies, but creating food together nourishes our souls!"

Incubator kitchens are pretty much exactly what they sounds like -- a place where small food businesses can hatch and grow. They offer the opportunity to expand within a nurturing environment, without the large startup costs that would otherwise severely limit entrepreneurs. By providing access to high-end kitchen equipment and production space, along with advice and information on meeting the challenges at each stage of growth, they become hubs of economic development in a community.

Kates calls her clients her "food family", and like a family, they celebrate each other's successes. Mason-based Swallowtail Farm's Rhubarb Syrup, created at Incu-Bake, just won a 2014 Good Food Award. "For a new producer that's incredible, I'm so proud of her!" says Kates. "People need to realise how much good food comes out of Lansing!"

Eat, Drink And Be Merry

While not an incubator kitchen, the Lansing City Market is the very essence of a business incubator for local artisan food entrepreneurs. A stroll among the vendor's displays will turn up a cornucopia of locally produced wares, including many items created at Incu-Bake. But the LCM has made contributions all it's own to the food community in Lansing.For example, Cravings Gourmet Popcorn, who opened for business as a vendor in the Market in 2007. Business flourished, and they were able to set down roots in their current location in Old Town Lansing as an independent brick-and-mortar  business.

The Lansing City Market has a lot to offer, both to the start up foodie entrepreneurs, and to the existing micro-business that hopes to expand. "In addition to an affordable start up rate, folks can also take advantage of a full support team of micro businesses just like themselves." says Heather Hymes, manager at the City Market. "Our Merchants have really been through it all, and their knowledge on topics like licensing, marketing and customer service is extensive."

Scattered amongst the mounds of fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses and whole grain breads, you'll find delicious local treats like jars of Beau Bien jam and Mitten Munch trail bars. Like many others, they're both Michigan based products that started their creative journeys at Incu-Bake and are currently available from Lansing City Market vendors like Sweet Seasons Orchard and Hickory Corners. Sounds good? Well, there's more to come. "We have some exciting new businesses moving in here soon, and we’re looking forward to helping them on their new adventures as a business owners." says Hymes.

Cookin' Up A Storm!

For a decade now, the Allen Neighborhood Center Farmer's Market has been a fixture of Lansing's Eastside, but things are changing, and they are changing for the better. The Allen Market Place is now open for business! Among it's many fantastic community-based features are the year-round farmer's market and the Exchange, a food hub which links local farmers with local buyers. But perhaps most exciting is their brand new, fully licensed commercial incubator kitchen.

"Right now we're in talks with at least half a dozen local food entrepreneurs who are hoping to get their micro-businesses off the ground." says Joan Nelson, the ANC Director. "We'll not only be offering the space to create, but providing training in business and financial management as well as branding and marketing. Also, we're 'bundling' services to maximize success. So, a food entrepreneur could conceivably rent the kitchen to create a product and then sell it through the Exchange or the Market."

Because the focus at Allen Market Place is on community as well as food, the plans for the kitchen include cooking demonstrations, a culinary skills training program and a variety of demonstration classes in food preparation and preservation. Nelson is very excited about the future of the Allen Market Place kitchen. "We want our kitchen to be the site for all manner of fun, food-focused events that inspire and catalyze food entrepreneurism of all kinds!"

So next time you get a hankering for something scrumptious, look no further than the middle of the Mitten -- home to the next generation of business minded gourmets and artisan food producers. Whatever your tastes, the Capital has lots to offer those hoping to pursue their dreams. Whet your appetite, Lansing, delicious things are on their way!

Sarah Hillman is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Natalie Burg is project editor for Issue Media Group's placemaking series, underwritten by the Michigan State Housing and Development Agency.
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