Incubator kitchens help launch new Michigan food businesses

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Starlett Simmons loved baking since childhood and was known for baking cakes and pastries from scratch for family, friends, and coworkers. The owner of Roseville-based Five Star Cake Co. Dessert Boutique & Bakery initially turned her passion into a money-making venture by baking cakes at home under Michigan’s Cottage Food Law. The law allows small businesses to make non-potentially hazardous foods for direct sale to customers without licensing and inspection, an exemption that allows them to get started in the food business without costly overhead. Simmons was ready to expand beyond her home kitchen, but not ready for her own facility.

Food startups like Simmons’ can run into a common roadblock: the cost of a commercial kitchen. A small commercial kitchen equipped with the basics such as an oven, mixer, smallwares, hood and fire suppression, refrigerator, tables, and utensils could cost $50,000, and that assumes a building is already available, says David Schroeder, Executive Learning and Conference Center general manager at the at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Not one to be deterred, Simmons turned to an incubator kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen space that allows an early-stage business to gain footing before investing in its own facilities. "I used Detroit Kitchen Connect and was one of the inaugural businesses into the program," Simmons says. "Using an incubator kitchen cuts the overhead of having a building tremendously.”

Detroit Kitchen Connect is a program of Eastern Market Corporation. It helps entrepreneurs like Simmons find licensed commercial kitchens where they can safely and legally produce their food products by reserving time slots at a local kitchen. Some of the kitchens are unused much of the week. Opening them up to entrepreneurs makes use of the otherwise underutilized space.

Simmons began baking in the very small, church basement kitchen of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Cathedral, says Aaron Egan, head chef at Eastern Market and kitchen manager for Detroit Kitchen Connect. "Even with something that small and very simple that we were able to get Starlett access to, it opens up so much." Where fulfilling a large cookie order for the Detroit Lions may have taken her all day in her home kitchen, she was able to crank it out in short order in the new space.

Bundt cake made by Five Star

Simmons was also able to test whether a larger-scale business was right for her. It was. "She was one of the first to move over to the main Eastern Market kitchen, which is a little more equipped because it was purpose-built.”

The Detroit Kitchen Connect network of incubator kitchens was piloted by Eastern Market and FoodLab Detroit. "It really was born out of this need to be a clearinghouse and have a good list of incubator kitchens available in the Detroit area," Egan says. "The demand far outstrips the supply of space and time.”

"It’s very difficult for someone to start with something small in today’s global marketplace," Egan says. "The incubator projects allow people space to grow.”

From home kitchen to dessert boutique

Simmons is proud to proclaim Five Star Cake Co. Dessert Boutique & Bakery as the home of the best carrot cake in Detroit. "My concept of a dessert boutique is to offer nostalgic desserts that you can't find anywhere else or every day. I want to provide an atmosphere like grandma’s kitchen," she says.

While Simmons first created the taste of grandma’s kitchen out of her own home, then out of Detroit Kitchen Connect incubator kitchens, she eventually outgrew all. "I have always known that I wouldn't be in an incubator kitchen long-term," she says. "It's not set up for that purpose. I worked out of the kitchen for four years.”

In February, Simmons was ready to graduate out of the incubator kitchens as she held the grand opening of her own dessert boutique location in Roseville. Customers purchase Five Star cakes from her Roseville shop, or in June at Eastern Market and Northwest Detroit Farmers’ Market.

"My business has absolutely changed my life and career path," Simmons says. She left the corporate world to bake. "Children grow so fast and when I worked for someone else I was missing very important milestones. I now get to mentor my daughter who is an aspiring pastry chef and also works at my bakery. I've always wanted to feel as though I was contributing to the world.”

"Being an entrepreneur has its ups and downs," she continues, "some days are really hard, but I get gratification from knowing I'm making people happy." If Simmons reaches her next set of goals, as she’s reached her goals so far, you’ll be seeing her carrot cakes distributed nationally, have the chance to attend baking lessons, and maybe even see her baking on national television.

An idea grown in a field

While one may not notice what a startup Detroit-area baker and a pair of third-generation rural Michigan farmers have in common, both are small business owners who relied on food incubator kitchens to launch their dreams.

Bonnie and Dan Blackledge are crop farmers in Marion, located between Cadillac and Clare. They began growing canola in 2007, and marketed their 100-acre canola crop the traditional way — having it trucked to Canada. The Blackledges wondered about adding value to their own canola by processing it themselves. But canola oil for cooking wasn’t on their minds at first. 

They began to work on a project making biodiesel from the seeds. That’s when they took a sharp turn down their entrepreneurial path. "We found that the best use for the seed, and the best profit, was in selling the seed as a food product," Bonnie Blackledge explains. It turned out cold-pressed canola oil was the answer they were seeking. That’s when B & B Farms Canola Oil was born.

The Blackledges needed a space to cold press and bottle the canola oil, so they turned to Starting Block, an incubator kitchen in Hart, near the state’s Lake Michigan coast. "We definitely believe it helped with our success," Blackledge says. "The staff at the kitchen walked us through the process to get licensed by MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) and helped us get what we needed to pass inspection. They put us in contact with a company that sold bottles, another that printed labels, and connected us with another client who made a bread-dipping spice for oil that we used in demos.”

"I’m not sure what we would have done if no incubator kitchen would have been available," Blackledge says. "I’m sure we would have figured something out eventually, but I imagine we would have had a lot of trial and error and it would have taken much longer to get the business going. As it was, we were able to get our license and start selling product in a short time span.”

"We were at the Starting Block for two years before going on our own," Blackledge says. After graduating out of the incubator in 2013, B & B Farms Canola Oil was made in a small, on-farm, licensed kitchen attached to the Blackledge home. Recently, they were able to quadruple the size of the facility by renovating an old dairy barn and turning the clean and safe former milking parlor into their cold-pressing site. Most bottles of the culinary favorite are sold at groceries and specialty stores throughout Michigan, and feature the Pure Michigan logo.

The food incubator staff at Starting Block helped the Blackledges make business connections. "They fostered our relationship with the MSU Product Center which has helped us in many ways," Blackledge says.

MSU Product Center lends a hand

Both Simmons and Blackledge sought help from the Michigan State University Product Center, which helps budding or established businesses in food, agriculture, or natural resources to develop and commercialize products and services.

Brenda Reau, Senior Associate Director of the MSU Product Center, says entrepreneurs seek help from her organization at various stages. A startup might consider whether an idea is worthy or get assistance with a business plan, while an existing business might seek help with navigating regulations, food safety, or strategic planning.

"We work with businesses at all levels, folks that are starting at their kitchen table all the way up to larger businesses, some very large.”

When businesses are new, Reau suggests they seek MSU Product Center advice early in the process. "We like to work with people who are in what we call the concept development stage because many times people have an idea, but they’re not sure is it something they can turn into a viable business or not," Reau says. "There’s a process we put them through that helps them see, is this going to be a viable business? Is this a marketable concept? Is the market already saturated?”

Reau suggests entrepreneurs visit the MSU Product Center web page and click on request for counseling. From there, information is reviewed and a business is matched with an innovation counselor.

Michigan State University Extension educator Jerry Lindquist was one professional who worked with Bonnie and Dan Blackledge. "They explored and strategized methods to add value to their products by bottling cooking canola oil to offset the high shipping cost of transporting seed to Windsor, Ontario," he recalls. "And they survived the run-up in corn and soybean prices by continuing to grow canola while others chased those higher-priced grains. They are one of the few growers left in the state of Michigan successfully raising canola today.”

Different goals, same solution

While Starlett Simmons sought to make Five Star Cake Co. Dessert Boutique & Bakery her full-time career, Bonnie and Dan Blackledge set out to supplement their existing farm income with B & B Farms Canola Oil. Both found help at Michigan food incubator kitchens. 

"We’ve seen a real foray into this area with the economic climate in Michigan," MSU Product Center’s Reau says. "Certainly the economic climate over the last six to eight years in Michigan has propelled innovation on the part of people.”

"Our canola oil business is something that Dan and I have been able to do together, and we have involved our family members along the way," Blackledge says. "We’re not going to get rich quick, but our motivation for doing this was mostly to add value to a farm product and enjoy the satisfaction of sharing our product with our customers.”

Sue Stuever Battel is a homeschooling mother of four, a commercial maple syrup maker, daughter of dairy and sugarbeet farmers, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in the Thumb of Michigan. She holds a bachelor of science in Agriculture and Natural Resources Communication from Michigan State University.
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