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Incubators help Michigan produce something it needs: Homegrown food businesses

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Michigan is what you call an "agricultural diversity state." It means we produce a lot of different fruits, grains, and vegetables. You name it, we grow it, second only to California, a state almost half again as big as the Wolverine State.

An increasingly important dividend of that diversity is our shelf-stable food products. From Eastern Market to the shelves at Meijer, local foods are increasingly offering Michiganders the opportunity to keep their food dollars in-state. But the state isn't just churning out food products: Increasingly, the state is producing local food businesses.

One of the places to see those businesses going from concept to concern is at the state's food business incubators. According to the website Culinary Incubator, there are almost two dozen businesses dedicated to helping Michiganders turn their dreams of running a food-related business into realities.

At the heart of a culinary incubator is a certified kitchen, an expensive bit of needed infrastructure that meets all the state requirements for the handling of food products. An incubator will allow several different food businesses to rent the use of the kitchen at low cost. One of the main reasons so many food businesses fail during their first two years is the direct costs: rent, heat, lighting, gas, insurance, and food expenses.

Based on the west side of the state in Lowell, Facility Kitchens has been in business since 2010, when former accountant Janet Tlapek saw an opportunity to help businesses get their start. She has a number of clients passing through her 2,800-square-foot kitchen: spice blenders, juicers, sauce makers, hummus producers, fruit and vegetable preppers, tea repackagers, jam makers. By being able to rent affordable commercial kitchens, food start-ups don't tap themselves out by sinking a lot of money into commercial-grade equipment.

One of the more established culinary incubators in Michigan is the Starting Block, based on the west side of the state in Hart. The nonprofit got off the ground a little more than 10 years ago, and was licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture in 2006. They'll typically give a client three years to "graduate" from the incubator, and they've had a few high-profile success stories come out of their operation, including Good Life Granola, jam and jelly maker Wee Bee Jammin', and Uncle Gene's Backwoods Pretzels.

The company's director, Ron Steiner, says, "What we learned is that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in almost everybody. An incubator is a magnet for people to come out of the woodwork and discuss their 'idiotic' dream. People always say, 'You're crazy for wanting to start your own business,' because everybody assumes you have to make an elaborate business plan and get a loan. Well, in any incubator, whether it's kitchen or high-tech or whatever, it fills those holes. You can actually start your business with no capital investment and just pay as you go on kitchen rental time, along with business counseling as you go."

Steiner's philosophy is that formal business practices shouldn't get in the way of pursuing your dreams, but should help you once you're on your way with them.

"Our focus is a little heretical compared to the academic approach to starting a business," he says. "We say if you already know how to make grandma's heritage chili, let's get you started making it. Take it one step at a time. Our first focus is to get people producing their product. Then we help them find their own market, and once they start generating cash, we pay attention to accounting side and business counseling."

To that end, incubators provide a bundle of complementary services, which is a fancy way of saying the group can do some pretty helpful hand-holding when it comes to helping entrepreneurs file for an LLC, work with the state offices overseeing cottage food industries, or advice on packaging, marketing, and more.

In the end, it's not just about producing marketable food, it's about producing a good entrepreneur.

"I talk about the holy trinity; the product or service, the marketing, and the financial management," Steiner says. "They are all equally important. We try to introduce all the aspects as people go along."

Again, an incubator allows somebody to get a toe in the water and, in many cases, find out if it's to their liking, whereas conventional wisdom would have them sink significant resources into an idea first.

"The fallacy of writing a whole business plan, is it dictates that you just need the right equipment or investment — and if you make any mistakes you're stuck," Steiner says. "And I think the incubators can fill this gap."

Or as Facility Kitchens' Tlapek says, incubators provide a place for people to try out their ideas without sinking much money into them. "I've had two customers who tried it and realized that they didn't like it," she says, "so they didn't have to buy a $100,000 facility before figuring that out."

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