By: Melissa Anders
You can practically taste the excitement brewing in Macomb County as innovators and entrepreneurs launch and expand food and ag-related businesses.
Whether they’re producing the malt that goes into favorite local beers or developing products for a NASA Mars mission, Macomb County’s food companies comprise a growing — and diverse — segment of the local economy. The county boasts farms, orchards, chain restauranteurs, breweries, food producers and distributors and technology firms.
“Macomb County spreads the gamut between really small, true startups and then we have some of the largest distribution companies in all of Michigan,” said Jack Johns, senior economic development specialist for the county.
Lipari Foods is a major food distributor out of Warren that continues to grow through acquiring companies. It has plans to expand its space and hire hundreds of more employees in the next few years.
National Coney Island’s corporate headquarters are in Roseville and Big Boy Restaurants International is based in Warren. Bosco’s Pizza Co., which makes the popular cheese-filled breadsticks, also calls Warren home. Bosco’s was acquired by food giant Tyson Foods in 2014 but remains located in Macomb County.
Macomb also is home to a burgeoning beverage industry with Blake’s Hard Cider Co. in Armada, Sherwood Brewing Co. in Shelby Township and Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. in Warren and Clinton Township.
Shelby Township-based Motorcity Malt House processes barley into malt for Sherwood and other Southeast Michigan brewers. Co-owners Tom Laboda and Dan Bailey, who met nearly 40 years ago while attending Eisenhower High School, began selling malt in October 2015 in response to demand for locally-sourced beer ingredients.
While they grew up and live in Macomb County, Laboda said it also made business sense to locate their business here. Michigan’s Thumb region has historically produced a lot of malting barley for the beer industry, so they like to be situated between the farms to the north and the breweries of Macomb, Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.
“Since Macomb County still has agricultural heritage to it, it just ties that farm into the city,” Laboda said.
Laboda said the county’s economic development staff has “helped tremendously.” They connected him with the right people at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to get the correct licensing and put them in touch with folks from the Michigan State University Extension who helped them find farmers willing to grow malting barley.
“Macomb County has done quite a bit. I work some with Jack Johns at the county and I think he’s done a great job of pushing local small food businesses,” said Micah Loucks, innovation counselor at the MSU Product Center.
Loucks is based out of Detroit’s Eastern Market and works with food, ag and bio startups in Southeast Michigan on business planning, regulatory issues and other areas. He’s been helping Ethel’s Edibles founder and CEO Jill Bommarito figure out how to expand her distribution of gluten-free bakery treats nationwide.
Bommarito runs her fast-growing five-year-old company out of St. Clair Shores. In May 2015 she partnered with Lipari Foods, increasing her reach from eight to 14 states. She’s starting to offer her products through Door to Door Organics in April and is looking to expand into additional Whole Foods stores as well. The company is tripling its revenue this year and expects to do the same next year.
She said Macomb County and St. Clair Shores have been great partners, and she also appreciates the guidance she’s received from the state, MSU Product Center, Detroit Food and Ag Network and others.
“I’ve traveled to all parts of the country on food business,” she said. “Again and again, it’s brought to my attention … how lucky I am to be in Metro Detroit and where we are because we have a collaborative spirit, we’re going to get stuff done, and we work together. It’s not like that typically in the rest of the country.”
That collaboration is on display at the Macomb-Oakland University INCubator in Sterling Heights, a partnership between the City of Sterling Heights, Macomb County and Oakland University.
Incubator tenant Microcide originally launched in 1990 with funding from the National Institute of Health to develop nontoxic and environmentally safe antimicrobial products. After years of research, Microcide now supplies a variety of sanitizing products, including ones used to clean fruits and vegetables for NASA space missions. Thirty percent of the world’s blueberries are washed with Microcide’s product, said President and CEO John Lopes.
Microcide’s research, development, troubleshooting and marketing operates out of the Sterling Heights facility, while the products are manufactured by a third party in Auburn Hills.
Lopes said the city of Sterling Heights has been proactive and easy to approach and he appreciates interacting with fellow incubator tenants and the university. He’s counting on support from the county and its partners as Microcide looks to introduce its products in more international markets.
Detroit and Wayne County don’t have enough critical mass to have a real food movement going, so that’s why Macomb County, along with Washtenaw and Oakland counties, play an important role in the region’s food economy, said Loucks.
But together, the region has reached a pivotal point.
“I don’t think this is a fly-by-night, one hit wonder kind of thing,” Loucks said. “But now I think it’s trying to figure out how do we leverage what’s here to really grow and expand on it. If we don’t leverage the excitement and the passion around local food, I think it’ll be hard to grow at the pace it is. It’s ramped up, but I think it’s going to hit a plateau sometime soon. So how do we leverage that so it doesn’t just plateau out.”
Why Macomb? Other Viewpoints:
Jill Bommarito, Ethel’s Edibles
Bommarito chose to locate her baked goods company in St. Clair Shores because it’s located close to workers, it’s affordable and it’s safe. Macomb County’s economic development experts offered help and assistance, making them feel special.
“Being a part in this economy here in Michigan and where we are, there’s a resilience, and it’s seen across the country,” she said. “It’s amazing … we’re very lucky to be here and have the support systems that we do.”
Micah Loucks, Motorcity Malt House
Loucks and business partner Dan Bailey grew up in Macomb County and continue to call it home. They decided it also made sense to locate their malt house in Shelby Township since it’s located in between the barley farms to the north and the breweries in Metro Detroit.
“Macomb County was great to work with,” he said. “Vicky Rad and Jack Johns both helped us out tremendously. They helped us connect the dots.”
John Lopes, Microcide Inc.
Microcide operates out of the Macomb-Oakland University INCubator in Sterling Heights, a partnership between the City of Sterling Heights, Macomb County and Oakland University.
Lopes said the city has been proactive and easy to approach and he appreciates interacting with fellow incubator tenants and the university. He’s counting on support from the county and its partners as Microcide looks to introduce its antimicrobial products in additional markets.