If you want to buy local food products wherever you might be in Michigan, grab a copy of the annual guide published by Taste the Local Difference, a Traverse City-based marketing and consulting firm that represents clients throughout the state. Consult tastedifference.org to learn how to obtain a copy. Christina Marbury, marketing director for Taste a Local Difference, recently talked to Berl Schwartz about her firm’s origins and operations. (This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.)
When we began in 2004, we were simply a project of a nonprofit called the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities here in Traverse City. We’ve since become our own forprofit business. Now we cover the whole state of Michigan as well.
Are you similar to buy-local organizations?
We have a little bit of the same goal to encourage more people to support local, but we definitely focus simply on local food and the food system.
What difference are you making in helping businesses that are producing locally?
We put out an annual print magazine that is a state guide to all sorts of local food businesses. We also have a robust online directory and newsletter, as well as blog posts. We are spreading the word about local food — telling the stories of individual businesses, talking about local food, sharing seasonal recipes and giving ideas for how to store things. Really, everything that somebody might need to know in order to start making a lot of their diet come from local food. We have about 900 partner businesses statewide. Then people who are not formal partners of ours can also list in our directory. There are thousands of businesses that are in our online directory.
Whom do you work with in Lansing?
Some of our partners in Lansing are the Allen Neighborhood Center, Capital City Market, Giving Tree Farm, Cravings Gourmet Popcorn, the East Side Lansing Food Co-op, Fur Real Dog Snacks, Hot Pepper Karenni Farm, Looking Glass Sheep and Wool, Peckham Farms, Reese Farms, Smokeshow Barbecue and the Social Sloth Café — which has a recipe that will be in our guide that we put out this year
Why buy locally? What differences does it make where my jam or jelly comes from?
One of the big things is trying to keep more of your purchasing power in the local community. It’s really a great way to help build the economy right in Lansing.
Also, when you’re supporting local farms, the produce that you’re buying is going to be fresher and it’s going to be harvested when it’s actually ripe, when it has the most flavor and the highest nutrient quantity.
Then, also, it doesn’t have to be shipped very far, so it’s better for our environment. So much comes from California, Arizona, Florida. if you want to buy an apple in the winter and you’re not buying a Michigan apple that’s been stored throughout the winter, you’re likely buying an apple that comes from Argentina. Really, really, really far away. Then finally, it’s just a great experience to purchase locally, especially if you are able to go to a farmers market or purchase from a farm stand or from a store that has their own storefront. You can get to know the people who own or work for that business directly.
That’s something that I think just brings a lot of joy to the eating experience.
Let's say someone is convinced they bake the best chocolate chip cookie ever and want to make a living at this. How do they get started?
Michigan has the Cottage Food Law, which says that you can make a variety of food products in your own home as long as you’re selling them directly to somebody else — at a farmers market or people call you and place an order and pick it up at your house, or you deliver. You actually can start a food business really small. There are some limitations, but the list of products is really wide. That’s something many people will do.
Then go to the farmers market or build a website and start building an online presence to try and get the word out. From there, it’s really a matter of growing your presence. That’s something we do at Taste the Local Difference. People have a lot of success who do some promotion with maybe a restaurant if they’re a farm and they’re growing a product and they’re selling it to a restaurant or somebody who has a decent presence already and is known within the community. A really beautiful thing about local business is that it’s much easier to do that on a local scale than it is on a national scale, because you can have personal relationships with the other business owners in your community. Something that we really strive to do is connect people with one another. If you are a blueberry farmer and we know that there’s a jam producer who wants to source their blueberries locally, we can help to make that connection, and that can be really successful for folks who are trying to grow a business.
I will also give a shout-out to both the MSU Extension product center. They’re a great organization for helping food businesses who are developing a product, getting them the kind of consulting and advice that they need. Also, the Small Business Development Center has offices all over the state and their team offers free consulting as well for people who are looking to get their business up and off the ground.
What role are local incubators playing?
Incubators and other forms of shared kitchen space are so valuable. When you’re starting really small, there are some things you can do at home, but as soon as you want to resell your product and have it in a grocery store, have somebody else helping you sell it, or if you want to produce more than you can produce on a very, very small scale, you really need to be in a professional kitchen space.
There are really great incubator spaces across the state. I know Allen Neighborhood Center is pretty innovative in what they’ve been offering, and they’ve been offering that incubator space for quite a long time. Other people also will try and work together with folks. If they know of a restaurant that is only open a certain number of days a week, maybe they can partner to use their kitchen on those off days and things like that.
The rule of thumb is most new businesses don't survive five years. How do you beat the odds?
The most important thing when you’re starting a new business is knowing how to communicate what differentiates you from other businesses. Maybe it’s that you fill a product need that’s not available locally in your community, maybe that you are sourcing some ingredient that makes what you’re producing really special. Or if you’re a farm, maybe you have unique growing practices or you’re growing varieties or different products that not a lot of other people locally are growing, or there’s something really unique about your story and how you came to open this business.
On top of that, putting the energy into marketing your business is really important. That’s something that’s challenging for a lot of small business owners. Having that awareness of your business and exposure is really important in those first few years — making sure that people know who you are and what you do and why they should be supporting you.
What's an inspirational story of a business that you've seen go from ground zero to turn into something?
I did some work recently with a business called Hot Pepper Karenni Farm, located just outside of Lansing. They’re Burmese refugees. They’ve been in Lansing since 2009. When they came to the area, they didn’t have very good access to the type of traditional Asian produce that they were used to consuming and cooking with. They started really small. They started in a community garden plot growing things that are not typical to the American diet, certain Thai chilies and unique Thai eggplants and African eggplants, Asian long beans. There are a lot of Karenni people who live in the Lansing area, so they were able to really create a market for their product quite quickly, just through the group of people that they knew in the area, who were looking for these things to cook with, and filled that need for those people.
They’re still a relatively small business. They have a few acres that they grow on outside of Lansing, but I think that’s really inspirational to me, the way that they were able to bring their culture with them and also provide this service to those people in the area who wanted to consume those more traditional foods.
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