For the Love of Food Allen Market Place educates local food entrepreneurs and helps businesses thrive

On a Wednesday morning, vendors arrive early at the Allen Market Place commercial kitchens. By 8:30 a.m., Kathleen Hanna has finished baking the Good Eats Diva biscotti that she will sell later in the afternoon and distribute to area stores and shops.

Nearby, Paul Schmidgall is trimming 40 pounds of chicken thighs into fork-sized chunks, sealing them in vacuum packed bags. Next, he and Nick Neveau tackle the sausages, each split length wise and sliced then packed in vacuum-sealed bags. The two are preparing the main ingredients for the Fire & Rice paella that they will cook and sell at the afternoon’s farmers market.

Throughout the day – most days, in fact – an eclectic mix of local food entrepreneurs use the Allen Market Place’s fully licensed incubator kitchens and prep spaces to produce pastas, breads, brews and other edibles in what bills itself as, “Mid-Michigan’s Premier Food Hub.”

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It’s where small businesses begin and occasionally prosper, and where anyone with a love of food and the drive to make a business of it, can find the equipment and support to pursue their passion, said Allen Neighborhood Center Executive Director
Joan Nelson.

Some of the kitchen’s users are professionals. Neveau is the chef at Zoobies and The Cosmos in Old Town; Schmidgall is a culinary arts graduate of Johnson & Wales University. Students from the Center’s Youth Service Corp. use the kitchen to produce brownies, fruit granola bars, crackers and lemonades. Others are following paths framed by experience.

“They all seem to have had jobs in the food service industry, a lot of them in restaurants,” Nelson said.

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In the two-and-a-half years the Market Place has been operating, 18 entry-level food entrepreneurs have rented time and space in the cooking kitchen or nearby prep kitchen where they wash, pack and store their creations. Some stay for a few months; others for years. Nelson said the kitchens are rented for about 160 hours each month.

Costing between $24 and $20 an hour to rent kitchen time, the more time used, the lower the rate. Wash-Pack kitchen space rents at $14 to $16 an hour. Another asset the Market Place offers is cold or dry storage space rental.

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Using the kitchens this summer, said Nelson, are three or four bakers, a fermenter, several ready-to-eat vendors, a hot sauce maker, a pasta maker, a tomato and alfredo sauce maker, two sisters packaging imported Lebanese spices, two micro-brewers and a couple producing turkey dinners.

While the commercial kitchen is the hub, it is only a slice of what the Allen Market Place offers its clients.

“The thing that people don’t understand about incubator kitchens is that it’s not just about the space and the equipment. It’s really about the wraparound support services, including access to workshops about developing a business, financial management skills, branding and marketing and safe food production,” Nelson said.

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“Anybody who makes anything in our kitchen has a seat at our kitchen table or a booth at our farmers market. They can list their products on our online wholesale market called
“The Exchange.”

With its incubator kitchen and outreach initiatives, Allen Market Place seeks to strengthen the relationship between the community, area farmers and food producers.

“We are building the strength of the mid-Michigan food system,” said Nelson.

At Allen Market Place, entrepreneurs can start with a modest investment and low overhead. Neveau purchased a Fire & Rice franchise from Schmidgall in June which he will use to sell paella at farmers markets and for catering jobs. His dream is a food truck, he said, but these can cost $200,000, hence a more modest business plan.

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Many starting out in the center’s kitchens have been able to scale production as their business grows. Among them are Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale and Teff-Rific, which produces Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes. Some have graduated on to do something different. Carol Smith started at the Allen Market Place in May 2014 with a line of smoked meats and vegetables. She now operates Red’s Smokehouse in the Lansing City Market.

The Allen Market Place complements other food entrepreneurial initiatives, most notably those hosted by the Michigan State University Extension service. In partnership with the MSU Product Center, the Market Place offers incubator-kitchen entrepreneur counseling and classes to assist with product development, packaging
and marketing.

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The first phase in the Extension Service’s broader strategy is to support the state’s agricultural industries, the Market Place being a huge resource in doing so.

For more established, though still “small businesses,” Allen Market Place offers Accelerated Growth Services (AGS), a program to help grow businesses and diversify their product. It is aimed at companies that project $250,000 new annual sales, create five or more new
or retained jobs and anticipate significant capital investment.

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The support offered by the AGS team, much of it without fees, results in a business plan dealing with market analysis, supply chain and marketing issues, product development, regulatory compliance and other strategic initiatives.

According to Randy Bell, educator for Community Food Systems with the Ingham County MSU Extension, there are an estimated 700 businesses in Michigan that can scale up their production, adding that large or small, commercial kitchens are an important tool for their growth.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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