Speaker series recap: Eating Green, from Garden to Grocery

It was a full house at Cliff Bell's for the Model D Speaker Series last Tuesday. Once again we teamed with Open City, and the event featured a panel that discussed some of the perks, quirks, and other challenges of opening and running a green food business in Detroit.

Panelists for the night included:

* Dan Carmody of the Eastern Market Development Corp.;
* Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Produce;
* Michael Solaka of Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe;
* Jason Kado of Sunflower Market; and
* Matt Naimi of Recycle Here.

Dan Carmody started the night off with a very informative overview of the current state of the country's food system. After noting several deficiencies of the food system, he stated that Detroit was poised to be a 21st century leader due to Michigan's vibrant crop production, the central distribution center of Eastern Market, and the necessity to create a new food infrastructure due to the city's lack of retail outlets. "Detroit is in a crossroads, at an opportunity to reinvent the nation's food system, which is in a state of dysfunction," he said. "We can do in Detroit what the rest of the county is going to need to do very soon."

Greg Willerer spoke of having his own 1.5 acre farm within the city. He said that he sells his produce to a number of local businesses in the area, something he sees as reflective of a systemic change beginning to creep into the food industry. Restaurants are moving toward more bio-diverse menus and away from the corn-based fare that has long been a staple of our culture, all while staying within a local economy. "If you take a look at those restaurants, they're committed to buying locally," he said. "They're not just buying from me but other local Detroit farmers."

Michael Solaka reminisced about the days his family originally owned Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, saying that at the time the 3,000-square-foot store wasn't considered a gourmet grocer, though it did have its own unique goods and local products. Currently in the process of reviving the brand name at a new location (at the former Zaccaro's on Woodward), he said that he believes location and synergy will help the business succeed. "As soon as we signed our lease, two weeks later we found someone else was opening a store two blocks away," he said. "Which is exciting -- I'm not sure we have a food desert [in Detroit], but maybe we're a little parched." He said the city has 80 grocery stores, but it needs 80 more stores.

Jason Kado discussed his family's market business and the joys of connecting with customers. He said that one of the best aspects of being in the food industry can be the relationships formed over what people are eating and drinking. As his family is also currently involved in the process of opening up another store, he noted that one of the keys to success stems from the innovations made to be more accommodating to customers. An example? His family's new store will be opening up in the bottom floor of a Wayne State parking garage. "The university, with what they're doing with their parking structure, they're really trying to cater to their growing population," he said.

Matt Naimi talked a lot of trash -- literally. In addition to speaking about Recycle Here, he told the story of how his company, Michigan Green Safe Products, went from being a start-up to reaching the million-dollar-a-year mark in sales just three years later by greening large and small businesses alike. He showed that there are plenty of opportunities in the burgeoning green food industry and pointed out that it takes a certain way of looking at things to put them in perspective. "When you buy something, you're buying garbage," he said. "Obviously there's a product inside of it, but it's going to end up in the garbage or a recycling bin."

Writer: Ian Perrotta, Model D intern

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.