Foodlab Detroit Fosters New Business Paradigm, Jobs

As Detroit recovers from staggering unemployment due to the mass exodus of the auto industry, small business creation is now being touted by many locals as a better solution for resiliency, higher wages and employment stability than big business recruitment. But starting a new business from a dream with little business experience can be daunting, especially without the capital to carry you through early mistakes.

In the life of a new, start-up business owner, there are many hurdles, big and small. For a food entrepreneur who is trying to look beyond "profit, profit, profit" models of the past, hurdles can seem like mountains, especially if you're going at it on your own. From licensing and distribution channels to fair labor standards and nutritional quality, there are a myriad of challenging, technical issues to address.

Foodlab graduate offering samples, photo by Mira Luna
Foodlab graduate offering samples, photo by Mira Luna

In Detroit, food entrepreneurs have come together via an organization called FoodLab Detroit to share resources, experiences, and ideas in hopes of making new models of business more sustainable and just. Together we are working to create a diverse ecosystem of triple-bottom-line food businesses as part of a good food movement that is accountable to all Detroiters. Fair wages and democratic workplaces are on the agenda of many of the businesses as a part of the solution. Members participate by going through a start-up training program and supporting each other as they learn and grow.

For the past three months, FoodLab Detroit has run our second annual “Building Your Good Food Business” Bootcamp. Participants co-learned around five main topics- visioning, community ecosystems, triple bottom line accounting, sustainability tools, and relationship building. Throughout the sessions, over 25 expert community members contributed their skills and knowledge to the conversation, resulting in new ideas and collaborations. Many of the graduates appreciate the peer support network resulting from going through the program together, which helps nurture their businesses post-graduation and creates a feeling of solidarity.

Graduates of Foodlab Detroit's Business Bootcamp, photo by Mira Luna
Graduates of Foodlab Detroit's Business Bootcamp, photo by Mira Luna

On April 2nd, community leaders, established business owners, friends, family, and allies gathered for a celebration of our trainees featuring (of course) delicious food. Each of the 18 Foodlab graduates created a visual display of their business, incorporating their business vision and triple bottom line principles. Nearly 100 guests wandered through the space, asking questions and tasting samples of the businesses’ products.

The open-house celebration was a celebration of the greater FoodLab community that extends beyond just businesses. People who chatted with business owners got a better sense of how they are working to create social change through responsible and creative business practices. It allowed FoodLab graduates, many of whom do not have ready access to traditional means of capital, to make connections with potential supporters. One graduate who is hoping to open a small sliders restaurant said she “felt like a legit business” after getting encouragement from the community at the event.

Guest samples new business food samples, photo by Mira Luna
Guest samples new business food samples, photo by Mira Luna

Our April 2nd celebration also served as a recruitment/networking event for our "Kitchen Connect" project, developed in partnership with Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation. For many of our businesses, the next step in development is becoming licensed in a commercial kitchen space. Kitchen Connect will be the management hub for a network of existing, licensed kitchen spaces in organizations across the city. We hope that sharing these spaces and making them more financially and physically accessible will help early stage businesses to succeed us and help us move toward greater equality in the food entrepreneurial community.

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