Starting a food business In Detroit? These programs could make all the difference

Hardly a month seems to go by in Detroit without a new food venture popping up on the scene like a fresh batch of cookies. Trendiness, however, is no guarantee of longevity. The ability to make killer cakes or a mind-blowing jar of salsa is much different than knowing how to deal with red tape or keep a ledger in the black.
While startups encounter many stumbling blocks, local food entrepreneurs have a lot to be thankful for; Detroit is chock-full of resources to help new and growing food businesses.
These include incubators and mentoring groups like the BUILD Institute and the local chapter of SCORE; nonprofits that offer information, grants and networking assistance like the Eastern Market Corporation and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation; the local business network FoodLab Detroit; and Detroit Kitchen Connect, a program that connects food startups with neighborhood community kitchen spaces.
Ronier Golightly owns Motor City Popcorn, a company that turns corn kernels into gourmet treats. He's sold his product at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center, as well as smaller local events, pop-ups, and farmers markets.
Although Golightly had prior experience operating a retail outlet, he made sure to do his due diligence and researched the specific needs of his business when he launched his popcorn company in 2013.
He attended workshops with SCORE and project planning classes with the BUILD Institute, joined FoodLab Detroit, and learned about microfinance with LaunchDetroit, a program sponsored by the Rotary Club.
"All of these put me into a position to sharpen what I'm doing," he says. "SCORE is run by a bunch of business owners and big time executives. I wanted to run it by them."
"BUILD helped me break down the numbers -- how much it's really costing me per bag," he adds. "FoodLab definitely got me aware of all the licensing that I would need and different types of insurance. And last, LaunchDetroit helped me really get the financing and get a fair view of the costs of paying for financing."
Golightly believes shared kitchens spaces are a smart move for emerging food businesses.
He started popping corn in the kitchen of his Detroit home, but due to the nature of his product found it difficult to locate an appropriate shared space. He ended up buying his own equipment and setting up at Forgotten Harvest in Oak Park, which has its own kitchen with enough room to accommodate his needs.
His advice to budding food entrepreneurs? Do the research.
"I would definitely say, 'Learn, learn, learn.' When it comes down to the paperwork and the licensing, knowing your finances, that will really keep you in business better than having the best cheesecake in the state."
April Boyle, Executive Director of the BUILD Institute, knows all about research and planning.
The core of her organization's work is an 8-week business and planning course for entrepreneurs and other project innovators. Her group also sponsors a monthly networking forum and, with partners, puts together a pop-up marketplace that offers startups a chance to test out their ideas.
About 30 percent of the businesses that pass through BUILD's program are food-based enterprises.
"Food seems to be a pretty easy way to start because all people eat and many people cook," she says. "And there's something in Michigan called the Cottage Food Law, which has allowed many people to start home-based businesses without a lot of regulation."
The tricky part is expanding from there. Boyle says folks are often dead set on getting a brick-and-mortar site, when they should be focused on strategic growth.
"For many people it's wise to start before you have that space," she says, "So bootstrapping, doing markets, doing cottage food out of your kitchen is a way to start building your brand and testing your ideas before you decide to put a bunch of money into a space."
Another common mistake is doing too much, too fast.
"That is a recipe for failure," says Boyle. "Starting with one thing and doing it really well and then listening to customer feedback for other opportunities, other revenue streams that you can bring into your company or business [is smarter than] trying to launch all nine of your product ideas at once."
April Anderson owns Good Cakes and Bakes Detroit with her wife Michelle. Always a baker at heart, Anderson resolved to start her own bakery in 2013 after getting a degree in pastry arts from Macomb Community College.
She had trouble expressing her vision, though, so she enrolled in BUILD's 8-week program, where advisors helped her condense her ideas from a sprawling mass of notes into a streamlined, 13-page business plan.
BUILD also helped test out her product and connected her with REVOLVE Detroit, a DEGC program that matches businesses and artists with vacant building owners. She entered a competition thinking she would just get some technical assistance, but ended up winning a $10,000 building improvement grant.
In their rush to open their business by the contest deadline, Anderson and her wife learned an important lesson.
"We did everything backwards," Anderson says. Although they pulled the right permits for plumbing and electrical, they failed to take care of some zoning changes from the city.
Luckily, Anderson, a founding member of FoodLab, was able to call on a fellow entrepreneur for help. Amanda Brewington of the Always Brewing Detroit cafe sat down with her for several hours to help her figure out the rezoning process.
To this day, Anderson remains active with FoodLab and stays in touch with BUILD Institute and REVOLVE Detroit. Reaching out made a world of difference for her business. It's a lesson she urges prospective food startup owners to heed.
"You need to connect with some type of organization that's geared to small business," she says. "Someone that's going to be there, not just as one-time thing, but who is going to continue to offer technical support and engage you."
Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.