MSU Product Center hosts state's food entrepreneurs in Lansing
By Mark Bashore, WKAR
EAST LANSING, MI –
More than 100 Michigan food entrepreneurs from across the state will trade ideas and samples Wednesday in Lansing. The MSU Product Center is the sponsor of the annual "Making It In Michigan" conference and trade show. WKAR's Mark Bashore spoke with the Product Center's Marketing and Supply Chain specialist Matt Birbeck. Because of the size of the state's agricultural sector, he estimates there are several thousand small scale food businesspeople in Michigan.
MATT BIRBECK: I think probably there are in excess of two or three thousand small businesses in this state that really are involved in some form of agricultural, food--small, food scale production.
MARK BASHORE: And give us some kind of idea of what kind products and services they're involved in exactly.
BIRBECK: We really do work with the smallest blueberry grower in the U.P. pretty much to some fairly big pie companies in metro Detroit. They really come to us for many things. Either concept development or they come for food development--anything that really requires some sort of market analysis that allows them to be successful in the market.
BASHORE: You're at least four years into this conference and the trade show. What's changed for this group in those four years? What trends have you noticed?
BIRBECK: Food is become very much more sophisticated. Customers are really beginning to ask questions about food. Many years ago, I think we took food for granted. Now, customers are really beginning to look at food, look at labels, look at what's going into food products, and therefore, clients of the product center have to spend a considerable amount of time in developing a product focusing very much on ingredients, using many competitive advantages in terms of either being organic or gluten-free.
BASHORE: What challenge faces budding Michigan food entrepreneurs most often?
BIRBECK: Well money is obviously the biggest obstacle. And financing is still one of the biggest obstacles that businesses really cannot negotiate. Banks are nervous about lending money to start-up businesses, and hopefully with some incentives, you know, throughout the state things can change. But rules and regulations are obviously becoming increasingly big battles for small business, and although they're absolutely needed and we would never turn around and say that rules and regulations are not needed for food safety, they are becoming an increasingly big part of the customer's project in negotiating some of these food regulations.
BASHORE: Is there a successful Lansing-area business you've played a role in?
BIRBECK: Yes, ironically, we have. We've got a great story is that we have three sisters and although their farm originally was in Traverse City, they now live in the Lansing area. And they have created a cherry topping called Herkner's Cherry Topping. And they started off very small. They came to us with this recipe in their back pocket and we helped them develop all the processes that they needed to get this product into the marketplace and all the labeling and all the product work. And now they are just being taken on by some major supermarket chains and doing extremely well. And ironically, I had a conversation with them yesterday about a project in which they would like to ship a container of this cherry topping to China.
BASHORE: Governor Snyder's prioritized agriculture and food processing so far in his term. Are you encouraged for the people you serve at the product center because of that?
BIRBECK: I'm absolutely encouraged by that priority. With Governor Snyder's recognition in promoting the food and agricultural businesses throughout the state has given small business great visibility. We're absolutely convinced that it is going to be the small businesses that are going to be the backbone of this economy in this state as we redefine and reinvent ourselves over the next four to five years.