Accelerator kitchen to offer food startups a place to scale up in Southwest Michigan

BATTLE CREEK — Economic development organization Battle Creek Unlimited and St. Philip Roman Catholic Church in Battle Creek have come together for a project that embraces the identity of the Cereal City.

Just recently, their Southwest Michigan Accelerator Kitchen project got a major boost forward.

“Battle Creek has a history of food companies here — food is in the DNA of this city,” said Shabaka Gibson, vice president of Battle Creek Unlimited, a nonprofit that serves as the economic development arm for the city. “Because of that, we have a lot of food-related talent in the area and a lot of food business supporting assets. That combination has turned into a lot of really small, micro businesses that are getting started. 

“The impetus for doing this project was the fact that we had all these small food companies that had no place to grow.”

The desire to support late first stage or early second stage food businesses has shaped the Southwest Michigan Accelerator Kitchen, a facility that will take residence in a historic, unused building owned by the St. Philip parish, located at 30 W. Van Buren St. in Battle Creek.

Battle Creek Unlimited became involved with the project in 2018. Gibson and his team worked with St. Philip to shape the church’s original vision, which was an incubator kitchen and space for community programming that would focus on health and nutrition for vulnerable populations throughout the city.

Over the last two years, the groups raised private funds and applied for grant dollars to bring the new vision to fruition, but a recent one-to-one grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) pushed it over the finish line.

The EDA awarded Battle Creek Unlimited $2.1 million for the project. The organization will now move forward with securing a general contractor and subcontractors to provide renovations to the five-story, 20,000-square-foot building called The Tiger Room, which is on the historic registry but has gone unused for decades.

Gibson was hesitant to put a timeline on the project, but estimated that it could be completed by late spring or early summer of next year, or however quickly federal grant dollars allow them to move.

A home for food business

Connie Duncan, project manager at St. Philip, explained that in addition to the church’s public programming, the original vision for the facility was to create an incubator kitchen where aspiring culinary professionals would have access to the resources to turn their raw ideas into a food business.

However, with Battle Creek Unlimited involved, both sides of the partnership began to take notice that Southwest Michigan already had incubators and once new food business ideas were born, they had nowhere to go.

“There really isn’t (an accelerator kitchen) in Southwest Michigan at all,” Duncan said. “We have all the incubator kitchens who are graduating folks and they don’t have anywhere to go. We want them to stay in Southwest Michigan and of course we want them to stay in the Battle Creek area, as well. This is the place to get support for that growing business so that it can sustain itself afterward.”

The kitchen, which will be situated on the ground floor of the facility, will service two early stage food production companies and will also be home to product testing and workforce training. 

Ultimately, the accelerator kitchen will serve as a bridge for young food companies that still are not equipped to invest in their own facilities.

At the same time, St. Philip is able to maintain its vision of serving the community by utilizing 2,000 square feet of space on the second floor for public programming.

The remaining three floors will be leased to tenants, with hopes that the space will also be used by food companies.

“We didn’t want to create programming in a facility where, after renovations, we had to continue looking for soft funds to support the programming,” Duncan said.

Community support

Gibson and Duncan both cited community support for moving the project along.

It’s impossible to talk about the vibrant food economy in Battle Creek without mentioning its cornerstone in Kellogg Co., which put its stamp of approval on the accelerator kitchen with a $500,000 gift and also will serve as an active partner.

“(Kellogg) did give us a lot of money, which is great, but the biggest value that they’ve given us is providing us with their time and their talent,” Gibson said. “That’s stuff that you can’t buy. We really appreciate that. And all the other food companies — the big ones and the small ones — they’re all very happy to see this happen because it strengthens the entire economy for this general area.”

Kellogg Co. will offer subject matter expertise and also provide small-scale manufacturing support for accelerator participants through its pilot plant, which is located in the W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research in Battle Creek.

“We’ve been proud to call Battle Creek home since the company was founded in 1906,” Kris Bahner, spokesperson for Kellogg, said to MiBiz in a statement. “Our founder, W.K. Kellogg, was a true visionary and food entrepreneur. Over a century later, his legacy lives on, and nowhere is it more prevalent than right here in our hometown, where we are a proud member of the community and an active part of the local food ecosystem. 

“Investing in the Southwest Michigan Accelerator Kitchen allows us the opportunity to embrace our entrepreneurial spirit, while also sharing our expertise with the next generation of food innovators in our community.”

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