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Sunday, 13 November 2016 13:47

Starting Block diversifies model to offer training, services to existing food companies

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Tenants at The Starting Block, an incubator focused on food production and located in Hart, work with commercial-grade equipment to produce their products. The Starting Block includes a full commercial kitchen with separate specialty facilities registered with the USDA to produce meat, cheese and other animal products. Tenants at The Starting Block, an incubator focused on food production and located in Hart, work with commercial-grade equipment to produce their products. The Starting Block includes a full commercial kitchen with separate specialty facilities registered with the USDA to produce meat, cheese and other animal products. Courtesy Photo

HART — After operating for a decade, The Starting Block has helped the West Michigan craft food movement grow from an idea into the fledgling industry it is today.

When it opened in 2006, the Hart-based kitchen incubator was the first of its kind in the state, offering a full complement of commercial kitchen equipment, storage and office space. Now, 10 years later, the incubator is preparing to adapt to shifts in the food processing industry. 

While the kitchen incubator concept was slow to catch on, The Starting Block began to gain steam in the recession years as people gravitated to entrepreneurial ventures to compensate for lost jobs and general economic upheaval, said founder Ron Steiner. 

“Our whole mission to start with was that we strongly suspected that entrepreneurial fire in the belly was ubiquitous in all people,” Steiner said. “That’s been confirmed over 10 years. When the recession hit, even if they kept their job, they came to the incubator after that and they started their business at our place after hours.”

Since opening its doors, The Starting Block has graduated 23 clients who have gone on to start their own companies, the vast majority of which are still in business, Steiner said. The incubator currently has approximately 30 clients.

For budding food entrepreneurs, The Starting Block offers a 17,000-square-foot building with a variety of food production equipment, including specialized areas for meat and dairy production — both of which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

While the incubator will remain the organization’s primary focus, The Starting Block plans to diversify its service offerings in the coming years.

For one, the incubator has opened up space to established food processing companies to serve as an off-site skunkworks facility where they can research new products.

“Those companies could do the research in their plant but they don’t want to bog down their resources, so they’re renting the kitchen in blocks of time,” Steiner said. “They might rent it for exclusive use for three to six months. That’s exciting for us because that’s in line with our 10-year-old mission statement. It’s not just about entrepreneurs and startups but any crazy, wild ass idea.”

Two unnamed companies have engaged the program thus far, Steiner said. 

Moreover, The Starting Block also has spent the last year and a half developing a training program to provide a certificate to people interested in working in the food processing industry. 

“The skills gap is very much alive with food processors,” Steiner said. “We hear this from food processors all the time.” 

For the industry, much like other sectors of manufacturing, the talent gap stems partially from a perception issue, Steiner said. 

While many see the industry as a dead-end minimum wage job, food processors need their workers to have an understanding of microbiology, machine operation, sanitation and other skills. 

The incubator has partnered with the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West (MMTC) to develop the curriculum. The six-week program is currently seeking partnerships with community colleges but is ready to go as soon as it has enough students, Steiner said. 

As for consumer trends in food, Steiner points to the increasing popularity of vegan and gluten-free options as growing product segments among Starting Block’s tenants. 

BUSINESS MENTORING 

Steiner is quick to strike a divide between typical commercial kitchens and the incubation services that The Starting Block offers. 

The incubator attracts clients from approximately 100 miles around Hart, with some clients coming from as far away as Detroit or Indiana for its specialized services.
Graduates of The Starting Block’s incubator program include Holland-based Good Life Granola LLC, Hart-based La Fiesta Tortilla Corn Chips Inc., Bear Lake-based Wee Bee Jammin’ and Mother Mary’s Canning LLC of Muskegon. 

When The Starting Block takes on a new client, it begins by working with them to establish a target market and validate products. Once that’s in place, The Starting Block helps the company create a business plan. Eventually, it also will work with its tenants to identify the best type of funding to help them grow. 

That sort of close interaction helped Bridget Henley, founder of Hart-based North Beach Foods LLC, decide to focus her business on ready-to-bake vegan brie en croûte, made from cashews and pastry crust. 

“I had always wanted to do my own food products business (but) I think I probably came at it from a different place than other clients,” Henley said. “They come with a product in mind where I came with the idea of starting a business but not a product that I wanted to make.”

While North Beach Foods is still a tenant at The Starting Block, Steiner notes that the incubator’s goal is to have each of its clients progress beyond the startup phase before they graduate and move out. 

“When they’re ready to leave the nest, they have their business plan and if they choose to go to a bank, they’re no longer a startup,” Steiner said. “That’s the key for any incubator. When they graduate a client, they’re not a startup anymore or just a rosy idea, they’re a business with cash flow.” 

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John Wiegand

Staff writer

[email protected]

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