This is the second in a series of stories about investments in Detroit good food enterprises that are working to increase access to affordable healthy food in low-income and underserved communities. Read the first article on the Detroit People's Food Co-op here.
"When we do filling by hand, we're lucky if we do two to three bottles a minute," says Amit Makhecha.
Paltry numbers compared to what they'll soon be capable of. "We're going to go to six-hundred-plus bottles an hour."
That's one of the many opportunities that excites Amit Makhecha, co-founder and managing director of FEAST Detroit
, about his company's new manufacturing facility in Inkster.
On a very basic level, FEAST Detroit is a collaborative manufacturing facility with three partner companies: Makhecha's own M&R Ventures (chutneys), along with Marcia's Munchies
(pickled goods) and Scotty O'Hotty
(hot sauce). But the huge space, once a Garden Fresh hummus production facility, offers a lot more in terms of capacity than what the three companies need.
Which is why they're going to use the extra space to help small food entrepreneurs scale up from a shared or rented kitchen to the next level of production. That boost could provide small start-ups with the opportunity to grow their businesses and remain Michigan-based.
One co-packing client is already on board; FEAST has run production trials for two more companies and is scheduled to trials for three additional companies this month. A total of over 20 companies have reached out to FEAST to explore co-packing.
Makhecha says that, to his knowledge, there isn't anything like this facility in the country. Incubators get small companies started; contract manufacturers typically have large minimum orders that are too big for a smaller operation. Neither option is conducive for folks in the middle—like those who operate out of FEAST. A facility like this enables them to scale up to the next level so they're not limited by labor-intensive tasks like hand-filling bottles when big orders come in.
"FEAST is designed to fill that gap, at least in the local food ecosystem," says Makhecha. "It allows us to scale up, but to scale up efficiently."
FEAST is unlike incubator kitchens or shared kitchens—entrepreneurs cannot come in and use the space. As a contract manufacturing facility, companies contract to have FEAST employees make their product for them. Ultimately, this gives entrepreneurs the ability to focus on marketing and growing their brand, while FEAST takes their recipe and learns how to make the product to specification.
The project launched in October of 2016. Upgrades and remodeling were completed in July of 2017 and it officially opened in August. A 2017 loan of $180,000 from the Michigan Good Food Fund
(MGFF) through Northern Initiatives enabled FEAST to add key pieces of equipment to automate production lines and improve efficiency. MGFF has supported a variety of projects in metro Detroit with both financing and business assistance. Eastern Market Corporation and Michigan State University Product Center have also been core partners bringing the project and will remain engaged in supporting its success.
Makhecha says that MGFF's investment was crucial to the project coming to fruition, as securing financing was tough. FEAST presented to four banks, and while they were all excited about the project, none of them offered loans.
One of the things that attracted the Michigan Good Food Fund investment is the facility's potential to create a healthier food system. A local manufacturer with small-batch production making products more efficiently should result in more affordable, quality local products.
"I think it can impact positively the whole supply chain and, in turn, make it more accessible for consumers to have healthier products at a better price," says Makhecha.
FEAST has also been a job creator. It has six full-time employees and two interns. Makhecha expects that number to grow to possibly 12 by the end of 2018. Four of the employees are from the Dearborn-Inkster area. "We've had others stop in, and as we look to hire, the closer people are will be one of those factors that we look at," he says. "They obviously have an immediate investment in the community. They live very close to work. They're going to be on time."
Workplace proximity is key in high-poverty communities like Inkster where employment isn't always accessible if people don't own a car.
FEAST hopes to have an environmental impact too. If processors can co-pack in Detroit instead of shipping it out and back, that saves resources. Makhecha knows this first hand: One of his line products was being co-packed in the Traverse City area, but distributed out of the Detroit area.
"Now they're going to be manufactured in the Detroit area. It completely eliminates sending ingredients and packaging material all the way to Traverse City and getting finished product shipped back."
FEAST also hopes to have community impact beyond employment and adding to the tax base. "Because of the uniqueness of the project … we've been lucky enough to get a lot of positive press. That inherently just shines a better brighter light on Inkster. Then hopefully it encourages other businesses to locate in the city."
FEAST will be offering shared office spaces with short- and long-term lease options as well, which could bring other entrepreneurs to Inkster, further fueling economic development and opportunity.
Makhecha is also considering hosting community-type activities and events. He'd like to see the parking lot used for a fundraising event for local fire and police departments, where FEAST producers cook using their products. The FEAST team has also discussed selling its products at wholesale to neighbors one day a week.
So while providing a platform for entrepreneurs to efficiently scale up production is the foundation of FEAST Detroit, the heart of the operation is fueling a healthier food system that benefits many others along the way—from local consumers, to Inkster residents, to small business owners needing that in-between space to expand and prosper.
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.