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FoodLab Detroit: Committed to the City’s Good Food Movement

By: Toni Cunningham | May 15, 2014

If there’s one thing that can connect the people of Metro Detroit (and the world), it’s food. Despite different tastes, I think we can all agree on one thing—everyone likes to eat.

Jess Daniel, executive director of FoodLab Detroit and a fellow food aficionado, knows all about the idea. After moving to Detroit in July of 2010, Daniel was a graduate student studying sustainability and food systems in unknown territory. How’s a girl supposed to meet new people in a new area? By starting a home restaurant, of course. After Daniel’s Neighborhood Noodle opened, she started meeting fellow foodies and entrepreneurs around the dinner table.

From there, she developed FoodLab Detroit in January of 2011. What is FoodLab, exactly? According to the organization’s official website, “FoodLab is a community of food entrepreneurs committed to making the possibility of good food in Detroit a sustainable reality. We design, build and maintain systems to grow a diverse ecosystem of triple-bottom-line food businesses as part of a good food movement that is accountable to all Detroiters.”

To summarize, FoodLab is a community of food businesses in Detroit, specifically focused on retail processing and distribution.

All FoodLab businesses are interested in the triple bottom line, meaning they focus on not only being profitable, but also on how they’re creating environmental value and handling social concerns. Because of this, a lot of FoodLab’s strategy focuses on connecting businesses with one another, especially because there’s so much change happening in Detroit at the moment. Daniel said she finds that energy wonderful and FoodLab aims to connect that feeling with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Last year, FoodLab started Detroit Kitchen Connect, an organization that provides up-and-coming chefs and food businesses with commercial kitchen space and equipment.

“Detroit Kitchen Connect launched only in July (of last year), and we already have 10 entrepreneurs working out of two spaces,” Daniel said, noting that there are three or four dozen people in the waiting stages of getting into a kitchen space.

Molly O’Meara, co-owner of Beau Bien Fine Foods, is a FoodLab participant who found her commercial kitchen space with the help of the FoodLab community. She says her involvement with the organization has been invaluable.

“I love going to the monthly Food for Thought Meetings, I always walk away encouraged and energized… The discussions are always honest, open and thought provoking. When you have these discussions with other business owners in your community, they have a different level of relevance. We see overlap in customer base, sales opportunities, and government regulations. If we are willing to problem solve together, we can help each other succeed,” O’Meara said. “And in the end, more of us succeeding means a stronger city and region.”

The hub of commercial kitchen spaces is so popular that several other cities are interested in implementing a similar business model. Since developing Detroit Kitchen Connect, nearly a dozen local food entrepreneurs are able to make and sell legal products who weren’t before.

Daniel is positive that FoodLab’s latest project will be just as successful. The organization’s goal for 2014 is to focus energy on improving city and state policy around food businesses. This year, Operation Above Ground is FoodLab’s big project, and one of the major components members are working to map out are licensing policies. The project focuses mainly on alternative and new business models, for instance, operating out of shared kitchens, food trucks and pop up restaurants.

“A lot of people are operating in grey areas and it’s very risky,” Daniel said, noting that those operations can get shut down quickly.

Operation Above Ground will pair experienced entrepreneurs who have already been through the process with aspiring business owners in order to help them find their way.

Someone who knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship is Noam Kimelman, co-owner at Fresh Corner Café and one of the founding members of FoodLab, who says the organization has provided benefits to food entrepreneurs across the board.

“As I’ve been learning through my own journey, food entrepreneurship is tirelessly challenging and time consuming, regardless of one’s background. To have an organization like FoodLab in our corner working to create a more vibrant and inviting local food system, while we, as individuals, are completely immersed in our own business, is a blessing not only to the local food system, but also to the Detroit community as a whole,” Kimelman said.

FoodLab is currently composed of over 70 Metro Detroit food businesses, in addition to a vast number of “food allies” who support the organization through donations, volunteer work, and simple word of mouth.

Detroiter Johnny Lee Jenkins Jr., Creative Director/Founder of NoirAmerica Multimedia, joined FoodLab last fall with his project Crème Detropolis.

“As a result (of joining), we have met a variety of people starting some amazing food businesses and projects. Everyone is very supportive, given we all have common challenges. Joining FoodLab Detroit has connected us to a lot of great resources and opportunities that would have been a challenge to find otherwise,” Jenkins Jr. said.

Everyone needs to eat, and food serves as a universal connector: “Food is the cornerstone of neighborhood development, of culture,” Daniel said. “Food is also a way to connect people and I think that is extremely important in Detroit and Metro Detroit.”

Daniel elaborated, stating that historically, there has been so much separation when it comes to race and city vs. suburbs, that food has been a way for people from the suburbs to make their way back into the city of Detroit.

Additional FoodLab projects include Detroit Cooks (a collection of six women who cook out of the Hannan House), Fresh Food Cooperative, and Food for Thought Meetings held the second Monday of every month.

A number of successful Metro Detroit-based food businesses have participated in FoodLab meetings and workshops, including Detroit Vegan Soul, Corridor Sausage Co., Slow Jams Jam, Sister Pie and The Batata Shop.

For more information on FoodLab Detroit, visit the organization’s official website or Facebook page.