Battle Creek

Food innovation in Battle Creek set to accelerate through collaboration

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

When executive-level Kellogg employees part ways with their employer, over the years enough of them have decided to stay in Battle Creek that the city has secured its place as a national and global food innovation leader, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited.

There is no orchestrated campaign by Battle Creek Unlimited leadership to get them to stay in the city. Instead, they are making that choice on their own. Jeff Grogg is one of those who decided to stay local and in 2009 founded JPG Resources, a food and beverage consulting business. Grogg had worked for the Kellogg Co. primarily in the product development area and oversaw the implementation of Kashi products. 
 
“These former Kellogg employees have established roots here. It’s been happening for a long time,” Sobieralski says.
 
Glenn Pappalardo, a Managing Director with JPG Resources, and David Pelyhes, a partner with the business, could have gone anywhere after leaving Kellogg’s.
 
Pappalardo, who worked for eight years at Kellogg's in various corporate development and strategy roles, says quality of life issues and the opportunity to work with Grogg are among the reasons he stayed.
 
David Pelyhes, left, and Glenn Pappalardo are both former Kellogg Company employees who now work for JPG Resources.“At the time when I was still with Kellogg, I had the opportunity to move to La Jolla, Calif., to work on the Kashi brand,” he says. “I stayed because this area has a nice balance of all of the things you want and it’s not hard to travel to other places. The landscape of the business world looks much different now. It has shifted.”
 
Pelyhes, who left Kellogg’s in 2019 as Vice President of Shared Services for the W.K. Kellogg Institute (WKKI) after almost 25 years with the company, says, “I really hadn’t been thinking about leaving. I got caught up in downsizing and after leaving, the thought process was to stay in the area. My wife and I really like Michigan. There are all of these great parks and vacation destinations available and good school systems.”
 
On the professional side, he says, for individuals working on the technical side of the food business, the work is portable.

“While I am based in southwest Michigan and I could be sitting in our office in Battle Creek looking out at the (W.K. Kellogg Foundation), my work is portable,” Pelyhes says. “We are based here but we traveI. I have been in a lot of facilities in the Midwest in the last three years. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Chicagoland. A lot of people default to Chicago being this hub, but because we have such a high level of expertise here, we are making stronger connections in bigger cities like New York and we can flex depending on what the client or customer need is.”
 
Pappalardo says people in the food industry are aware of Battle Creek because of Kellogg’s. He says they no longer have the same level of surprise when they find out that this is where JPG Resources is located. Battle Creek, he says, “is a little bit harder to get to than Chicago, but it’s a lot less expensive to stay here and do some work and you have easy access to all types of amenities, more so than if you were in Chicago or New York or other urban centers. We’re close to where a lot of people are doing things. The ecosystem for our work exists in Battle Creek and the southwest Michigan area.”
 
Pelyhes says he and his colleagues at JPG Resources recognize how many former Kellogg’s and Post employees have stayed in the area and do consulting or contracting work in the food business.
 
Pappalardo and Pelyhes are among more than 25 employees based in Michigan and another 12 to 15 who work remotely.
 
David Pelyhes, left, and Glenn Pappalardo are both former Kellogg Company employees who now work for JPG Resources.Now they and their team are positioning themselves to further cement the city’s place as an industry leader in food innovation. JPG Resources along with BCU, Michigan State University, Kellogg Community College, Kellogg Corporation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and local stakeholders have entered into a collaboration designed to facilitate development, acceleration, and technology transfer within the region’s food innovation ecosystem. 

This work is being paid for through a pool of funds that includes $375,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration along with a local match worth $416,571.
 
“WKKF has been involved with this initiative since it started around September of 2019,” says Jamie Schriner, Program Officer with WKKF’s Battle Creek Team. “We brought the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to Battle Creek to take a tour and then started to work on the Battle Creek Food Reimagined initiative. WKKF has supported the effort the entire time by convening participants, as well as providing resources to support an outside consultant to facilitate the EDA grant application process. Our funding, moving forward, will help to hire the staff for the accelerator and fund.”
 
The collaboration formed in the same organic way that choices were made by former Kellogg Co. employees to remain in Battle Creek, Sobieralski says.
 
“These individuals got together and said, ‘We have something here and need to formalize it.’ We were at the table with these folks talking about it and we said, ‘Yes, it makes sense. Let’s do it.’”
 
These conversations resulted in the development of a food start-up program called the Future Food Accelerator and a venture capital fund called the Food and Beverage Investors Network, both of which are being financed by the EDA funds and matching funds. 

David Pelyhes, left, and Glenn Pappalardo are both former Kellogg Company employees who now work for JPG Resources.The Future Food Accelerator – formerly Battle Creek Food Reimagined – is designed as a virtual accelerator that links leading-edge research and development facilities, university technology innovation programs, entrepreneurship support programs, industry/market experts, and domain experts to support high-growth, high-potential food and beverage companies located in or relocating to Southcentral Michigan.
 
“We know that Battle Creek is a food town and all of these individuals working on this know that,” Sobieralski says. “JPG is a validation of that. They have all of this institutional food knowledge and expertise and they know how to take that to the next level. These two EDA awards will help take it to the next level. With this funding, we will have dedicated staffing and resources to grow this entrepreneurial food system in Battle Creek. It’s in its infancy and we’ll learn along the way. It’s the start of something larger.”
 
BCU is the fiduciary for the funds and is serving as a convener by virtue of its role as an economic development organization.
 
“This initiative is targeted to helping small to medium food-based businesses grow by utilizing the assistance of the many assets we have in the space in Battle Creek,” Schriner says. “While we hope the businesses that already exist in Battle Creek businesses are utilizing these assets, we’re also hoping to attract additional businesses to the city. More businesses mean more jobs, more folks living in the community, paying taxes, and supporting our existing businesses. We see this as a win for everyone.”
 
A major focus of the initiative will include a recruitment campaign focused on the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and underserved communities, Sobieralski says.
 
“These will be startups surrounded around the food industry,” he says. “These are folks who are already doing stuff who need to be accelerated to the next level. The idea is that we want to capture as much as we can and grow it here to contribute to the economy here. We will recruit members of the BIPOC and underserved communities first.”
 
Pappalardo says, “If you think about what it means to hit a wall or barrier, part of that is access to people and to know-how. People of color have historically not been able to access that expertise.
 
Local talent, Local expertise
 
The food innovation that began in 1876 in Battle Creek with the invention of cornflakes has contributed to a legacy that has continued to grow and include former Kellogg employees like Pappalardo and Pelyhes.
 
“There’s obviously a legacy of food in southwest Michigan and a legacy of talent created at Kellogg and Post is still here,” Pappalardo says. “Western Michigan has an incredible abundance of farming and food creation. On top of that we’ve got a number of universities within an hour or so away and they have a lot of talent to pull from if we want to grow the food and beverage businesses in southwest Michigan. We have farms and orchards and a number of great bakeries, breweries, and wineries. There’s a wide swath of people crafting food and beverages of different types.”
 
He, Pelyhes, and their colleagues will use their expertise to assist clients of the Future Food Accelerator who are ready to take their businesses to the next level.
 
Pappalardo says the EDA grants are “really making it real and getting it into detailed planning and set up. In a nutshell, it’s the genesis of an idea within American packaged food and beverage companies that are trying to do unique and novel things and have success at that and then kind of hit a wall. At some point, they have to have the ability to seek additional supply, or packaging and technology. There’s only so much of ingredient or production technology available to them. Can we create a program that brings in those companies and move them from $5 or $10 million and beyond and make whatever they’re doing more accessible around the country and maybe beyond?”
 
Pelyhes says this is the type of work JPG Resources is already doing. He says they are creating space to make connections between those who have been displaced from their jobs and “these major CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies and emerging brands. $10 million to $100 million companies are approaching us and asking, ‘Can you provide me a quality lead to support my business?’ The companies we work with need about one-half person or fractional support.”
 
The requests have come in for food products including Junkless granola bars created by Erni Pang, who lives in Portage, and K-pods that contain a mixture of coffee and distilled spirits created by Cask & Kettle whose founders are one-time Kellogg employees or have affiliations with JPG Resources.

Pappalardo describes the Future Food Accelerator initiative as a “bit of an academy and accelerator and support.” The near-term support piece will include various resources and people available to him and his team through connections forged with JPG Resources.
 
“At the end, they will have a pathway to move forward and keep working with us to execute a plan or go out on their own and continue on without the extra support we’re providing,” he says. “They’ve got to have the desire and ability to fund themselves.”
 
Sobieralski says there also is a focus on keeping these companies in the Battle Creek area. “Ideally, we want them to grow here and stay here and contribute to our overall economy and create more gravity for food entrepreneurs to come here.” 
 
These centers of gravity that include packaged food and beverage infrastructure were built-up and originated in Battle Creek, Pappalardo says.
 
“This program can help people who are trying to grow novel ingredients or even people trying to create more product capacity with novel items,” he says. “On the agrarian side of things we have tons of farmland and farm knowledge and we have great packaging expertise through MSU. We have the ability to help anybody.”
 
Within the next three months, Sobieralski says the collaborators will be focusing on hiring someone to be the point person for the Future Food Accelerator program. He says the initiative will kick into high gear after that and further establish Battle Creek’s place in the food innovation sector on a national and global scale.
 
“I think this will shed a light on the fact that some of this is already going on here,” Sobieralski says, “and it’s really going to amplify the food innovation that has already taken place here and that could grow here.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

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.