As resources grow, food entrepreneurship gains momentum in Ypsi area

Since Growing Hope launched an incubator kitchen in downtown Ypsilanti this fall, staff have been surprised to find the facility is busiest in the wee hours between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m. Growing Hope Executive Director Cynthia VanRenterghem says that's due to the "tremendously strong entrepreneurial spirit" among local owners of small food businesses.


"For many of them, this is a second job and they're working around family," she says. "They really hustle and work hard, and I love supporting that."


While much of the public perception of entrepreneurship in Washtenaw County has focused on high-tech or biomedical startups, food entrepreneurship is building momentum in Ypsi and Ypsi Township. More resources are available in the Ypsi area than ever before for "food-preneurs" who want to establish or grow a food business.


Incubator kitchens, classes, and other resources


Ypsi and Ypsi Township have gone from having zero incubator kitchens to having two of them, and a third in the planning stages, in less than two years. Incubator kitchens allow small food businesses to use a commercial kitchen to safely prepare food and then sell it at farmers markets, local grocery stories, or food trucks. They often serve as a place where small businesses can test ideas before launching a brick-and-mortar business.


Growing Hope launched its incubator kitchen inside the Robert C. Barnes Sr. Marketplace Hall, 16 S. Washington St. in Ypsi, in the summer of 2018. And Colleen Brewer opened Rosie's Community Kitchen in the former Willow Run Middle School, 235 Spencer Ln. in Ypsi Township, this spring, with her first tenants coming on board in September.


Growing Hope's incubator kitchen was a near-instant success, attracting 13 licensed business in the first year. Seven of those now use the kitchen on a regular basis, according to kitchen manager Elisa Marroquin.


"We're still getting two or three inquiries a week, sometimes more," Marroquin says. "I think our location is a big benefit. I get a lot of inquiries because we're in downtown Ypsilanti."


Brewer named her community kitchen after Rosie the Riveter, emblematic of women who worked in Ypsi-area factories during WWII, and as an homage to the fact that many small business owners in the food industry are women.


"One of the things I've noticed is that most entrepreneurs that start a food business are women coming from their home-base kitchens, not chefs coming from the chef world," Brewer says. "So to get somebody who cooks in their home kitchen into an industrial kitchen and show them how to use a mixer that is as tall as they are is so empowering."


Additionally, in 2018, Joyful Treats Catering owner Khadija Wallace announced the formation of a nonprofit called Joyful Treats Community Development Corporation and said she would add an incubator kitchen to her building at 103 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsi Township. However, the building was damaged this spring, and the money Wallace had saved to build the kitchen was used for items not covered by her commercial insurance, setting her plans back by about six months.


A number of other resources are available both to Ypsi-based small food businesses and startups in all sectors, including seminars and other support available through the Greater Washtenaw Region chapter of the Small Business Development Center, free mentoring and workshops through the Ann Arbor area chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), and a variety of resources available through The Entrepreneurial Center at Washtenaw Community College.


Some classes and workshops target food businesses specifically, including Detroit Kitchen Connect, a service of Detroit's Eastern Market; and, more locally, a series of free classes offered by Growing Hope called Building Blocks for the Food Entrepreneur.


"Some of those Building Blocks classes are focused on new farmers, some on new food entrepreneurs, and some on small business skills like how to market your business or run your accounting or pay your taxes the right way," VanRenterghem says.


Small business owners sometimes frame the health department and other governmental agencies as foes looking to penalize them for food safety errors. But Brewer encourages food-preneurs to look at the Washtenaw County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as resources and as partners who are trying to help small food businesses succeed.


The future of food entrepreneurship


As interest in food entrepreneurship in the greater Ypsi area grows, changes in policy and in the way those businesses are funded could help support further growth.


Growing Hope staff and food entrepreneurs say Ypsii and Ypsi Township government are generally friendly to new businesses, but there's more to be done. For example, Brewer notes that food trucks are a low-cost way for small food businesses to get off the ground, but township ordinances prohibit food trucks unless they're on private property.


Wallace says she'd like to see the township and city revisit zoning issues to allow more mixed use in commercial buildings, and for the township to allow community gardens. She further suggests that working in a community garden would also be a benefit to those who need to put in community service hours.


VanRenterghem says Growing Hope has seen "accelerator kitchens" thrive in other areas, providing a middle step between an "incubator kitchen" and a full-fledged independent business. But she says Growing Hope would have to identify a new grant funding source to make that happen in Ypsilanti.


One of the biggest changes that could help support local food entrepreneurship would be an attitude shift from potential investors.


VanRenterghem says people tend to associate entrepreneurs with technology, but they need to recognize that people working in other sectors "have very entrepreneurial ideas and need support as well."


Angela Barbash, CEO of values-based investment advisory firm Revalue in Ypsi, says one of the least-known resources for local food-preneurs is the website for Michigan food marketing agency Taste the Local Difference.


"There's an entire list of places to go to get capital if you're interested in the food sector," Barbash says. "It's the most comprehensive compendium of food resources anywhere in the state of Michigan."


To shine a spotlight on the need to connect investors with small food businesses, Growing Hope has partnered with Revalue to host an event called Food Funders from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Marketplace Hall. The event is free, but organizers are asking for RSVPs via Eventbrite.


Barbash notes that Revalue "is not recommending these businesses for investment and has not performed thorough due diligence on them," but rather that it's a chance for capital providers to hear pitches from local food sector founders. Those founders will include Sean Brezzell of 24th Cheesecakerie, Tema Sarick of Feral Daughters Farm, and Rachel Liu of Milk + Honey. One more small business owner will be chosen to pitch during the event.


"Our team thought, 'Why don't we test this, and partner with a local organization serving that (food) market?'" Barbash says. "Growing Hope has access to entrepreneurs, and we have access to investors, so let's see if we can co-host an event and expose one audience to the other."


Barbash says each founder will have about five minutes to pitch, followed by a Q&A. There will be samples of each company's products, and resources for both investors and entrepreneurs in the food sector will be shared from on stage. Barbash says if the event goes well, Revalue may do a similar event with a different partner in 2020.


"We want to not just expose companies to investors but to make sure everyone walks away with more knowledge of resources available to them," Barbash says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.