Q&A: Jon Holden wants to turn Port Huron into the “Snack Startup Capital of the World”

On Saturday, Sept. 17, a new event will make its debut on the shores of the St. Clair River, one that organizers hope will become an annual celebration of Michigan’s entrepreneurial spirit and the innovative products that fuel it. And, well, snacks.

Who doesn’t love snacks?

When it comes to food and drink festivals, snack foods are sorely underrepresented. We’ve got chili and BBQ festivals, sure, and craft beer and whiskey events aplenty. But a festival that turns the spotlight on snack foods and the entrepreneurs that continue to innovate in the field? Not so much. The first-ever MI New Favorite Snack contest changes that. The inaugural competition and destination event will draw crowds of locals and visitors alike to Vantage Point in Port Huron, where the purchase of a wristband allows guests to sample from 20 of Michigan’s top emerging snack-makers in a festival setting.

As for the snack companies themselves, they’ll be vying for a shot at the grand prize: A $30,000 cash prize and a distribution package from All Star Services, a vending machine and food and beverage services company headquartered in Port Huron. Runners-up will receive cash prizes of $15,000 and $5,000 for second and third place, respectively. In addition to All Star’s involvement, the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce is organizing the logistics of the event, and the $50,000 in cash prizes is being provided by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County and the James C. Acheson donor advised fund.

[See sidebar or visit “New contest for small and emerging Michigan snack makers offers $50K in cash prizes and more” on The Keel for details about the contest and rules for submission.]

Jon Holden is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for All Star Services and will serve as MC of the event. He and All Star Services president and COO Duncan Smith are tasked with vetting, interviewing, and whittling down contest applicants to a group of 20 finalists, who will then compete at the big event itself.

“We’re looking for innovative products that are homegrown in Michigan and ready to go to market,” says Holden. “And we’re completely open to all kinds of snacks. We’re excited to see what these companies have available and all the different types of entries.”

We spoke with Jon about the story behind MI New Favorite Snack, why Michigan-made snacks are so exciting right now, and what the event means to Jon, the Blue Water Area, and Michigan as a whole.

Jon Holden, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for All Star Services.The Keel: The first-ever MI New Favorite Snack contest. There’s a lot at stake here.

Jon Holden: $30,000 is a life-changing amount of money for a small business. And with the distribution, it’s a quick way to get exposure. All Star has well over 100 Bistro To Go! Markets and more than 1,500 machines throughout the state.

But I should say that we have no expectation that the winning company will be able to fill all of those orders. We’ll start small and work with them to get them to the point of being ready. We don’t want them to be overwhelmed. This is all about promoting Michigan companies and growing with them at their speed.

The Keel: How did this all come together?

Jon: So the pandemic hits and my job slows down. I started thinking, how can I and how can All Star make a positive impact. We were looking around locally and through that process, we got a hold of some really cool local companies. And then later the Community Foundation was having a fundraiser and All Star brought a made-in-Michigan box of snacks — just to share with the group there. And Randy Maiers (from the Community Foundation) was like, “Whoa! All of these snacks are made in Michigan?” And that’s when the wheels started turning for everyone involved. What resulted is a great way to highlight the Blue Water Area and the incredible Michigan entrepreneurs putting everything on the line to build their own snack companies.

The Keel: What is the Michigan-made snack scene like right now?

Jon: I think this is the best it’s ever been and I hope it continues to grow. Whether it’s companies making healthy products or what’s more traditionally seen as “comfort foods,” there’s some incredible innovation happening here. Seeing the risks these entrepreneurs are taking with new products, it’s an exciting time. We also see that it’s tough out there right now with supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages so with this contest, we can reward these companies and maybe help stabilize them.

The Keel: Why is this contest, and this community, so important to All Star?

Jon: We’re always looking for ways to get involved in the community. And we hope the big event will draw massive crowds to Port Huron and this wonderful place we call home.

We’re hoping that this first event is one of many; there’s already talk of doubling the prize money next year. We want to turn Port Huron into the “Snack Startup Capital of the World,” where emerging companies say, “That’s where I want to be.” And where we draw buyers from the grocery and convenience stores from all over and right here to Port Huron.

The Keel: And why Port Huron?

Jon: Port Huron is a great place for innovation. We have a lower cost of living and operating a business than other places. We have great opportunities within our industrial parks here and places like the Community Foundation’s new Thumb Coast Kitchens. There’s lots of opportunities here. With this contest and the final event, we want to show all these companies that are spread all over the state, building their businesses and cooking out of church basement kitchens, that Port Huron offers lots of opportunities to establish their headquarters and to distribute from here.