What is your official title?
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
They vary, which is good. Some days I will be meeting with a client that’s been with us for many years to do what we call a quarterly incubator meeting. Those meetings are with us at the Can-Do Kitchen, a business counselor, and the client to talk through how things have been going the last quarter, and what needs to be done to move things ahead. The goal is that they graduate from the program.
I do a lot of emailing with clients, and I talk with a lot of other people around the state who want to do similar programs. I do a little bit of outreach; sometimes it’s Fair Food Matters stuff, sometimes it’s with Can-Do Kitchen. Since I am the program manager, I set goals for the program and make sure that we’re meeting them, and I put together the budget for the program as well. Because it’s a small program, I also do things like make sure there’s extra soap in the closet, and if something breaks, I am the one who’s responsible for getting it repaired. I do a little bit of everything.
Can you tell us about the history of the Can-Do Kitchen?
It is a commercial kitchen that is rentable. Along with that, we have the business incubator services, so the resources to support starting a business. It’s really designed to be a low financial risk environment for people to start a food business so they can test it out and make sure they want to be a business owner, make sure their product is something people want to buy on an ongoing basis without having to build their own facilities and lose a lot of their own money up front.
We provide a basic kitchen; probably the most specialized thing it has is a steam jacket kettle, which is basically a big soup pot that is connected to a gas burner and has a pocket of steam around it. Everything else is pretty basic, but just a little bigger than at home. We partner very strongly with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Western for business counseling and classes. We basically require our clients to meet with John Schmitt up there at SBDC, but definitely strongly encourage it. Part of our support is that we gather resources and suggestions of where our clients could go to get certain services. We are trying to help them create that support network around themselves. We want to help them cut back some of their time on trying to find people like graphic designers, or accountants, or label specialists – all of the people that you need to help get a business up and running.
When I started the program about eight years ago, it was just an idea that came up after working at the Food Co-op. So many good things that are a part of my life now first started at the Food Co-op – even my marriage! We had this one particular small cafe/coffee shop in town, The Space, that was looking for a space where they could start to sell baked goods, too, but didn’t have the means to do it. They asked us if they could use our kitchen, and we were like, well we like the idea, but we don’t have room in the Co-op’s kitchen. I figured there had to be somewhere in the area that had a kitchen they could utilize. I poked around a bit, and found that it was hard to use a space like a church for liability reasons, and that’s when it hit me that there was a real need for what these people were looking for.
I started researching and found that there were similar programs around the country and did some surveying to get a sense of whether or not people would use a space like this to cook, or potentially start a business. I was granted a trailer for two years from the Michigan Organic Food & Farm Alliance. They gutted it and put a commercial kitchen inside of it, and typically farmers would use it for a few seasons to see if they needed to build their own commercial kitchen on their farm. That was like our pilot study, because we got to have a place to see who would come out of the woodwork to use it, but we found right away that it was too small. We knew we needed to plan for something with a bigger capacity.
We found, ironically, a church who wanted to rent their space out to a non-profit. We were at First Baptist Church for two years, and we got a lot more clients who were regular. I started realizing that people wanted this type of service, but we wanted to make sure that it was self sustaining. We wrote a few grants to get things going, and I started talking to the SBDC, and there is an incubator specialist there, Sandra Cochrane. She has helped me so much to realize that if you want to support food business, you need to have these services to help them. We wanted repeat clients, but at first we weren’t really doing much to help them build their business so they would be.
We’ve had clients who have stuck with us and grown their business. We’ve had four graduates, and we’re still figuring it out, as it’s still kind of new to Kalamazoo. Me might have more graduates if we pushed people out, but we really love our loyal, long-term clients and enjoy being part of their business evolution. I love having Mike’s Bean Dip with us; he’s one of our original clients, and we’ve learned so much from each other. We’re usually supporting 12-15 businesses, ranging from being with us since the trailer days four or five years ago, to last week. Everybody comes to us with really different needs and understandings of what they need to do to start their business.
All of our graduates now are very different from each other. One is Kurry Guru, and she now has a kitchen she rents on Portage Road. Another is The Cheese Lady, who is out in Texas Corners; her graduation was a store, and she’s done so great. We have a graduate called TCB Food Processing, and they make asparagus salsa and guacamole. TTheir graduation was to outfit an existing food manufacturing facility in Lawton with the number of steam jacket kettles they needed to increase their production so they could supply the major grocery stores chains. Another is K Street Eatery, and she runs a lunch window. You can see how different they all are; we just want to help people figure out what their next steps are.
What is your background?
To me it’s very clear, but it may seem kind of random to outsiders looking in. I have an environmental studies and earth science degree. My motivation for doing this work is to have more local foods available, so everyone can eat local, not just people who have the money to do so. To me, eating local is tied to the environmental world; they are linked together in my eyes, and that’s what really got me interested in doing what I do.
Working at the Food Co-op while I was in college really opened my eyes as to where food was coming from. I was working with a non-profit called the Kalamazoo Community Gardens Initiative, which doesn’t exist anymore; we folded it about eight years ago. I learned a lot from that; we were going around neighborhoods and talking about community gardening before it was really a thing. And we were outsiders, naive students, going into primarily low-income, African American neighborhoods, telling people that community gardening was the answer to all of their problems. This just simply isn’t so. I feel horrible about how we went about it and think very differently about community building today. KCGI was an energetic, innovative, grassroots organization that helped bring community gardening to the forefront. Despite the challenges, we did build and sustain several gardens with neighborhood residents.
I’ve been with Fair Food Matters for many years now, and we are very committed to listening to the community and not just going out and doing things in neighborhoods because we want to, but because people are engaged and want to work together on what they’re passionate about. It’s great to have my work journey and my personal journey meet up together.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
The scholarship program. It’s called Business Builder Scholarships. Right now it’s a grant funded program, and I think it always will be. We started it because we can’t let people use the kitchen for free. We don’t have that luxury, but we also want to be really accessible for people who have really great ideas, but may not have the money to support that idea. Over the years we’ve seen people who have been the most successful had some money that they could put into the business and not necessarily be expecting to get it back.
The program is designed to give seven people about $8,500 as seed money. And it goes quickly; it needs to be more, but it’s a really good start. It’s a good program because we have an application process, and a lot more screening than we do for our other clients; it’s made me realize how valuable that process is. Through the application process, we realized that people weren’t as ready as we needed them to be. It’s a grant funded program, and there is a timeline to be able to use the funds provided. We came to the conclusion that we needed to have two tracks, one for building a foundation and finding your concept, and one that’s for people who are ready to launch. It’s been a good process, and I feel good about the clients who have started it.
Food Hub is another big project. It’s very exciting. It’s aggregating and collecting local produce or products at a central place, then redistributing in a way that’s more effective than having 300 people drive to 25 farms. And make local food fit in with more institutional ways of. Eating local food shouldn’t leave a huge carbon footprint. It’s a way to streamline and make local food fit in with the institutional ways of food ordering. Part of my motivation for working on this is that getting local food doesn’t have a huge carbon footprint. We want it to be green and truly sustainable. I think that the Food Hubs could really help with that.
A few weeks ago, I went to a Hub Camp up in Grand Rapids that was put on by this company called Local Orbit out of Ann Arbor. They were great because they were tech people, but also really community minded, so they were able to go into both worlds. They hosted a workshop, and we learned the ins and outs of starting a Food Hub. What we’re going to do is sign up with Local Orbit; I’ve made a chart of locations that all of our clients deliver to in the area, and you can see that there are just so many places that several of our clients are driving to every week. We want to step in and be a helpful middle-person to help them use their valuable time doing things other than delivering all over Kalamazoo. We want to show business owners that it’s important to value their own time and we also want to make it easier for stores, restaurants and institutions to access local foods.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
The people, definitely. The combination of the size and the people is really good. There are so many good things going on and there’s also a lot to do. I don’t think we’ve even figured out all of the stuff there is to do here, and I like that. I’m very motivated to stay and make things even more awesome here.
What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?
I think that the more that we can truly break down the barriers between different parts of the community and actually talk more and do things more together to build trust, that will help make Kalamazoo better.
What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?
Andrew Bird – he does a lot of whistling. That is one of the hardest questions for me. I don’t have a lot of new music coming across me anymore, which is fine. A lot of Peter Pan music, which I can’t say I really like, but it’s what my son likes to listen to.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
I sort of drink coffee; I drink espresso.
What is your favorite app to use?
Probably Pinterest. I don’t use many apps, but that’s one that I do use. It’s my favorite, but I also try not to always be on it.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
The Food Co-op!
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Travel more, or move away somewhere else; live one other place before you settle down. Or to not worry so much. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility growing up, but looking back I really didn’t need to worry so much about it all.
If you could use the Can-Do Kitchen to make something of your own, what would it be?
There are lots of things I like to make, but I don’t know what I would turn into a business. I love making bread, so I’ll go with that.
What is your dream for the future of the Can-Do Kitchen?
I would like the Can-Do Kitchen to be more of a cooperative dynamic between the clients and the staff, so we are doing more things together.
I would also like the Can-Do Kitchen to take more initiative in helping to get local food products on the shelf that are competitively priced with national brands. It could be canned tomatoes or frozen foods – it doesn’t have to be anything complicated – it’s just about getting the products on the shelves and actually compete. My dream is that we take the initiative to put ideas together instead of waiting for people to bring them to us; the more proactive we are, the better we can support people.