Battle Creek

Food Prize goes from simmer to fast boil in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series. 

A pitch competition in Battle Creek centered around food was left to simmer on the back burner for several years until it began to give off the aroma of success.
That first-ever competition known as Food Prize will serve as the official launch of the city’s 2023 Restaurant Week which happens October 7-14, says Jeremy Andrews, Chief Excitement Officer and Founder of Sprout BC and founder of Penetrator Events, partners in the event.
During an initial meeting hosted by the now-defunct BC Vision in 2014 to talk about ways to build community through increased culture and vitality, the idea of a food competition was mulled over by participants including Andrews, and left on the table.
“It came to mind again for me while I was working on grants and proposals for Sprout and our team talked about the Art Prize concept and wouldn’t it be cool to build on our food economy using that concept and we came up with Food Prize,” Andrews says.
The competition is open to food and beverage businesses in a 12-county region looking for support to start or scale their operations. The 12 counties are Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Eaton, Hillsdale, Jackson, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Van Buren.
“We really opened this up to the broader spectrum of entrepreneurs regionally to try to attract them to establishing themselves in Battle Creek,” says John Hart, Director of the city’s Small Business Development, a partner in Food Prize BC. “This is a way to highlight what we’re doing in the SBD. All of the partners are trying to help create resources and lower barriers of entry for entrepreneurs.”
Thickum's Sweets, a small food business in Springfield.Andrews says event organizers “want to build something bigger here and want to bring people in from all over. Food Prize will be bringing in resources through the awards as well as different businesses and audiences to check out their competitors. We want this to be another effort in making Battle Creek a regional player and partner in the region.”
The application process opened on July 24 and closes on Friday (September 1). Andrews says there is no goal for the number of applicants or a limit on the number of applications that will be accepted.
“We don’t know how many people will apply,” Andrews says. “My hunch is that a lot of people want to get their applications just right and will be applying at the last possible minute.”
Successful applicants will be selected to compete in two tracks: Food & Beverage Business/Food Service, and Food Manufacturing/Production (Packaged Foods and Food Technology included). Six awards will be presented, three in each category, according to the Food Prize website.
Selected finalists, who will be announced on September 15, will be invited to a pitch competition from noon to 5 p.m. on October 7 at the Kellogg Arena, Food Prize venue partner. Finalists will receive 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place awards worth $10,000, $7,000 and $3,000 respectively. Prizes will be cash and may also include technical services such as strategic planning; marketing and branding; and production/processing space.
Hart says that the event will give event participants opportunities to interact with representatives from other organizations like Battle Creek Unlimited, Michigan State University, and Food Reimagined. Food Reimagined, which was initially called Battle Creek Food Reimagined, is a new community-led initiative to foster emerging food & beverage companies in Battle Creek operating under the BCU umbrella.
Eli's Doces Churros, a small food business in Battle Creek.BCU also is a Food Prize regional partner along with Pure Michigan Business Connect, the Binda Foundation, the Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
“The judges for the pitch competition are involved in the food industry,” Hart says. “Finalists will get to meet with their peers and members of the general public” who will have opportunities to sample some of the food items prepared by participants.
The bulk of the $40,000 in prize money is provided through a grant from the Binda Foundation, with the remainder coming from Food Prize organizing partners including the city’s SBD Center and Breaking Bred. BCCF is contributing $5,000 to cover the cost of cultural performances that will take place throughout the pitch competition.
The Food Prize website contains a Request for Proposals for culturally relevant performances.
“We want to weave in the culture of our own community where we’ll have some performances from members of the Burmese, Black, Hispanic, Korean, Japanese, or Nottawasepi Huron Band of the Potawatomi communities. It’s a merger of food and culture and we’ll be showcasing both during the pitch competition,” Andrews says.
The ingredients were already there
After receiving initial seed money from the Binda Foundation to take Food Prize from an idea to an actual event, Andrews says he began looking to organizations and businesses Penetrator Events and Sprout BC were already partnering with on other signature annual events including Que the Creek, Restaurant Week, and The Big Cheese.
“I knew I wasn’t going to do this alone,” Andrews says. “It felt like it was better to do this together. My favorite part about this is the collaboration among all of the event partners. It’s not like a forced marriage. We like working together and we’ve built relationships around putting on successful events around the community.”
Jerk Your Beef, a small food business in Battle Creek.Those events include the annual BBQ festival, Que the Creek, which will happen on February 3, 2024, for the fourth time; the second Big Cheese competition on April 20,  2024; Restaurant Week now in its third year; and the first Glizzy Fest Hot Dog Competition, on February 24, 2024.
Hart says, like these signature events, Food Prize is “a good way to build community around small businesses. People want to support local and small businesses and they get to be a part of that. We’re cultivating that environment and ecosystem of entrepreneurism and opportunities for the community to celebrate that.”
While the idea for these events typically began with a business or individuals like brothers Jackson and Tristan Bredehoft, owners of Café Rica and Breaking Bred Hospitality Group, who floated the idea of Restaurant Week, Andrews says the actual events are not solo endeavors.
That the majority of these events have a food-based focus is no accident given that Battle Creek has a rich history in the food industry that began in 1895 when C.W. Post, founded the Postum Cereal Co., now Post Consumer Brands, and launched the company’s first product – Grape Nuts cereal – in 1897. Three years later W.K. Kellogg and his brother, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg founded the Kellogg Co., originally called the Sanitas Food Company.
“The turn of the century saw a Cereal Boom in Battle Creek. At one time, there were more than 100 companies registered in the city,” says an article on the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau website. “Not all of them were legitimate. Some were shell corporations and others would buy cereal from off the shelf, repackage it, and then sell it again.”
Regardless of their origins, the various cereal producers helped Battle Creek cement its place on the national and worldwide stage as the Cereal City. Andrews says there’s no denying the significant impact that these companies had and the entrepreneurial spirit that was fostered as a result.
“In our city, so many new businesses were and continue to be created because of that spirit,” he says, adding that the generations of entrepreneurs who emerged after Post and the Kellogg brothers share some commonalities.
“When I think of Battle Creek, we’re not made up of a bunch of rich people with a bunch of resources. We’re made up of a bunch of scrappy, determined, small-town grit. We have a ton of entrepreneurs who are adding to this system of a decentralization of the food system and the creation of food sovereignty," Andrews says. “They are keeping the city afloat with vibrancy and vitality and are proof that we can be more than the Cereal City.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.