ReGrow Midland keeps restaurants busy while assisting families in need

Every week, staff at the Menu Manager prepares 150 meals for distribution in the community as part of the ReGrow Midland program. 

The food will reach families throughout the Midland area. For county residents, the program provides a healthy meal each week. For restaurants, the guaranteed weekly income from ReGrow ensures they can retain staff and stay in business.

ReGrow meals ready for distribution.ReGrow has helped the Menu Manager get back on its feet after COVID-related shutdowns and restrictions while addressing staffing shortages. Income from the program allowed the dinner design studio and catering service to bring operations back to Midland through the purchase of a commercial kitchen building. In 2020, the business had to relocate due to COVID restrictions on gatherings, merging operations with an existing commercial kitchen in Shields.

“There's probably no part of ReGrow that hasn't benefited our company,” says Menu Manager owner Kelly Osborn. “We have been able to secure a couple of full-time and several part-time positions. Because the ReGrow program is a guarantee. No matter if COVID locks us back down again or whatever may happen, we have a guarantee of that order — at least ‘til next June, at least for a year. And that should allow us the space we need to grow in other areas, which we're already planning for.”

ReGrow Midland is a joint initiative of the Midland Area Community Foundation and the Midland Business Alliance, run in partnership with the Michigan Baseball Foundation, private investors, and members of the community. Program goals include battling food insecurity in the local area while providing steady income and mentorship to restaurants. 

This week, teriyaki chicken with stir-fried vegetables and rice is on the menu. Shier’s recently expanded its ReGrow menu offerings after hearing feedback from program recipients.Currently, ReGrow consists of nine participating restaurants including Shier's Deli, the Menu Manager, Great Hall Banquet & Convention Center, Whine, Bucks Run Golf Club, Taco Universe, Egyptian Koshery, Red Oak, and Molasses.

The restaurants prepare 1,000 meals each week for distribution at centers throughout Midland County, receiving income for each meal. Distribution points include the Bridge, West Midland Family Center, Greater Midland Coleman Family Center, and North Midland Family Center. ReGrow has served 40,000 meals to date.

Menu offerings prioritize flavor and nutrition while maximizing production efficiency

Meals prepared by partner restaurants feature flavorful and healthy family favorites designed to provide nutritional variety. On a typical week, diners may receive chicken teriyaki with stir-fried vegetables, lasagna, or meatloaf with polenta cakes and roasted carrots. 

Jason Story is the culinary director at the Midland Country Club.According to Jason Story, culinary director at the Midland Country Club, participating restaurants use recipes optimized for production in a scaled-up setting while retaining quality. Story has served as the ReGrow’s program culinary and business mentor, working closely with partner businesses.

“We created this with a model that already exists to ensure that the meals that are being offered are nutritionally balanced, healthy, tasty, but at the same time, the cost to prepare the meals is very low with the raw ingredients,” says Story. “The meals were also designed in order to be relatively low in labor.”

Addressing staffing shortages in the restaurant industry

The ongoing labor shortage is continuing to impact restaurants as workers look for higher-paying roles with greater flexibility, Story explains. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates in the food services and drinking places sector reached 8.7% in August 2021, higher than the total U.S. rate of 5.2%. The ReGrow program aims to tackle these issues by teaching hiring and retention strategies to restaurant owners.

The ongoing labor shortage is continuing to impact restaurants as workers look for higher-paying roles with greater flexibility.“The industry is not adapting as fast as it needs to, and ReGrow is looking to help not just through this individual initiative but by determining ways to help mentor and coach and provide educational and training support,” says Story. “One of my jobs to do with restaurant partners is if they have obstacles, or if they're trying to contend with moving forward, they have that resource in me. We are exploring other ways to provide that type of training, education, and also being able to curate more talent so that it's not quite as hard to find people to take positions.”

Shier’s Deli used the guaranteed funds from the ReGrow program to purchase long tables optimized for meal production as well as two panini presses for deli sandwiches.For Menu Manager owner Kelly Osborn, this type of mentorship has helped navigate the planning and troubleshooting needed for business reopening. ReGrow has also provided a support structure for ensuring that meals get to distributor sites each week and that the production process runs smoothly.

“ReGrow is not just a program to get food businesses back on their feet after COVID,” says Osborn. “We attended a meeting last week about what training needs there are and several different areas of running a company. And Chef Jason [Story] gets it; he understands. He knows trying to find a place is hard, especially when you don't have the margin. So he's looking at it from a holistic approach. And he's always available, always ready to meet. During our move, he even took our meals and delivered them for us.”

ReGrow Midland organizers hope the initiative helps partnering businesses with long-term development goals, building on a framework of improved efficiency and organization.

Strategic improvements at Shier’s Deli included a refreshed menu board.Shier’s Deli on Saginaw Road in Midland has used the guaranteed funds from the ReGrow program to purchase long tables optimized for meal production as well as two panini presses for deli sandwiches. Shier’s owners George and Kristen Shier then strategized other improvements, including a refreshed menu board and revamped seating.

“It’s one of the few things we can actually count on,” says George Shier. “It’s always a guessing game as to how many people are going to come through the front door, but this way we know that every Tuesday we have 150 meals to do.”

Shier’s Deli also revamped seating.“The program is designed to be something that the restaurant gets to do to supplement the other functions of their business versus that taking over so that you're able to add real dollars to your bottom line,” explains Jason Story. “What we've seen a lot of our partners do is use this money for capital expenses or to bring employees back or increase their workforce. Being able to invest in new equipment and tools makes doing the job that they do in their traditional business easier, more efficient, and more productive. Being able to build their team helps keep the managers and owners in a position where they're able to be focused on leading the business forward.”

Individuals interested in receiving food through the ReGrow Midland program can contact any of the distribution centers to confirm days and times when food is served. There is a $2 suggested donation per meal received.

Read more articles by Marta Manning.

A native of Poland, Marta Manning shifted her career path to freelance journalism after working as a research chemist. Her articles have appeared in WebMD.com, the Chemical City Paper, Our Catholic Faith Midland, the NAMI.org national blog, and the Midland Daily News. Marta enjoys drawing and painting, hiking, and supporting local arts and indie music.