Michigan Good Food Fund growing new farm and food businesses

Food is a time-honored cornerstone of Michigan’s economy—and continues to be.

More than 300 commodities are commercially produced in Michigan, behind only California. The food and agriculture industry contributes $105 billion to the state’s economy annually and employs 805,000 workers, about 17 percent of the workforce, according to Michigan Agriculture Fast Facts.

“There’s tremendous potential to add new jobs growing, processing, distributing, and serving food,” says Aaron Jackson, who has been director of the Detroit-based Michigan Good Food Fund since 2022. “But budding entrepreneurs often need help combining their knowledge of food with the business aspects of food.”

The Michigan Good Food Fund was founded in 2015 by industry partners and private donors determined to fortify high-quality food and farm businesses while strengthening and diversifying Michigan’s food system.

Tatse is a one-man operation, with Taiwo Adeleye taking orders, cooking, serving, and washing dishes.
The fund features 11 lending organizations that invest in early growth of food and farm businesses statewide. Its focus is on businesses that have been operating for a minimum of two years, but it sometimes supports newer enterprises run by entrepreneurs with industry experience or who have contributed funds to their startup.

The lending network includes ProsperUs DetroitMichigan Community CapitalCEED LendingMichigan Women ForwardDetroit Development FundCapital Impact PartnersCDC Small Business FinanceFair Food Network, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), Lake Trust Credit Union, and RCV Frontline.

A 22-member board of directors oversees the fund.

The Michigan Good Food Fund provides access to capital, business assistance from industry experts, and a peer network that spans from Southeast Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. The fund acts as a co-signer, reducing risks for the lenders and allowing customized financing.  

Loans can be sought for things like equipment, inventory, and property improvements. The fund also awards grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for training, certifications, licenses, business services, equipment, and other necessities.

Taiwo Adeleye received guidance from Michigan Good Food Fund partners.
But it’s not just about the money, Jackson says. Through Michigan Good Food Fund’s partners, food and farm entrepreneurs also receive business assistance tailored to their needs. Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and the Fair Food network offer support to food entrepreneurs related to operations, aggregation, distribution, processing, and more. 

In a four- to seven-week class called Food Finance Essentials, entrepreneurs are mentored by leaders from their niche of the industry and network with peers. They also receive technical assistance, administrative support, and help with marketing and communications.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some entrepreneurs work closely with their mentor and leverage expertise from their peer network for years. Others may want only short-term coaching.

“Food impacts every economy,” Jackson says. “Michigan is certainly no exception.”

Following are profiles of three entrepreneurs who have received assistance from Michigan’s Good Food Fund.

Tatse, an American African restaurant in Lansing

On some winter days there are fewer than a dozen dine-in customers at Tatse, a restaurant near the Michigan Capitol that serves Lansing’s only Nigerian cuisine.

It’s a good thing that owner Taiwo Adeleye is a blue-sky thinker.

Of course, Adeleye would prefer to be busier. But quiet days sometimes afford meaningful exchanges about food, music, and dance with the customers who do come by. 

By trade, Adeleye is a dancer, dance instructor, and West Africa’s first certified dance therapist. With a 2021 loan and four grants made possible through the Michigan Good Food Fund, Adeleye added “chef” and “restaurateur” to his resume to give himself more ways to share African culture.

Taiwo Adeleye delights in knowing that 60% of Tatse customers are sampling Nigerian food for the first time.
“Food has great power to bring people together,” says Adeleye, who immigrated to New York City in 2015 to work as a professional dancer. He moved to Lansing in 2018. 

Adeleye delights in knowing that 60% of Tatse customers are sampling Nigerian food for the first time, and he rejoices in providing them a symphony of flavors.

The name Tatse is shorthand for the Yoruba word for a red bell pepper. Nigerian cooks aren’t afraid to bring the heat, he says, and herbs and spices are a Nigerian chef’s best friend. Expect chili powder, curry, thyme, and ginger. Bank on tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers. Favorite meats are goat, oxtail, fish, and chicken. 

Adeleye started in the food business in 2020, when restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic halted dance exhibitions, lessons, workshops, and recitals, and friends started paying him to prepare African meals for them. 

Using the commercial kitchen at the Allen Neighborhood Center, Adeleye sold African food at three farmers markets nearby.

As his following grew, Adeleye worked to obtain the permits required to open a restaurant. He received guidance from Michigan Good Food Fund partners, then a loan from Lake Trust Credit Union. In February 2022 he opened Tatse at 221 S. Washington Square. 

The place operates as Tatse from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. It resets at 8 p.m. as Alobosa African Bar. For information on hours and events, check Tatse & Alobosa’s Facebook page

The business currently is a one-man operation, with Adeleye taking orders, cooking, serving, and washing dishes.

During the winter when customers are sparse, it would be easy for Adeleye to doubt his businesses will ever thrive, but his mind doesn’t work that way.

Adeleye is now seeking funding that would allow him to cook, bottle, and sell sinatu sauce, a tomato sauce with the blend of spices that make Nigerian cuisine unique.

“If I sit alone, I find myself recommitting heart and soul to this idea,” Adeleye says. “For Lansing to be a vibrant, modern community, global influences must be shared and celebrated.”

Wormies vermicomposting in Alto

Healthy food starts with healthy soil.
 
That’s the conviction that Luis Antonio Chen Aguilera has been living by since 2018, when the Panamanian immigrant started Wormies, a composting business that serves greater Grand Rapids.

Wormies practices vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down food waste and produce a rich compost. Gardeners describe this premium fertilizer as “black gold.”
 
“We can’t keep dumping food scraps in landfills where it might contaminate our land, water, and air,” says Chen. “We must protect our food system by composting food scraps.”
 
The Kent County Food Policy Council’s 2023 Assessment estimated that 74.2 percent of the organic waste generated in Kent County in 2021 was food waste. Of the almost 72,000 tons of discarded food, 46.7 percent came from households. 
 
Rotting food produces methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Chen says that instead of depositing food waste in a landfill, it should be composted within the community that generated it, then returned to enrich local garden soils.
 
Wormies enrolls residential and commercial customers to do just that.
 
Chen provides customers with buckets for their food scraps. The Wormies crew collects the buckets weekly or every two weeks, and adds the waste to compost piles at the Wormies farm in Cascade Township, just east of Grand Rapids.
 
Wormies has about 650 residential customers who pay $8 per five-gallon pickup. Its 25 commercial customers pay according to the number of pails they need and how often they schedule pick-up. A share of the fertilizer is returned to customers, some of whom donate it to community gardens. 
 
A five-gallon bag of Wormies compost, which has decomposed at least 12 months, costs $35 at area farmers markets, or customers can arrange to have it delivered. In contrast, Chen said, compost processed at large facilities contains fewer raw inputs, usually livestock manure and leaves or garden waste. The mixture has been decaying four to six months and costs about $45 per cubic yard.

In 2023, Chen and three part-time employees produced an average 200 cubic yards of compost per month.
 
Chen was introduced to vermicomposting at the Art of Living Centre in Quebec, Canada. All the food waste from the retreat center, which houses as many as 5,000 people, was composted into fertilizer. Chen learned their process of composting with worms and brought it with him when he and wife, Sarah Yost, settled in the Grand Rapids area, where she was raised.
 
Wormies started on a quarter-acre at Trillium Haven, a 50-acre farm in suburban Jenison that leased parcels to local growers known for chemical-free practices. Chen picked up food scraps in a hatchback automobile with room for only 10 buckets at a time.

Luis Antonio Chen Aguilera¬†started¬†Wormies, a composting business that serves greater Grand Rapids.By his second year, 2019, Chen had a van dubbed Worm Wheels and two pickup trucks collecting food waste from all over metro Grand Rapids.
 
With help from friends and family, Chen then purchased 13 acres of agricultural land in Alto. Four acres are used for vermicomposting. The rest includes a pond, an orchard, and other features that encourage natural ecosystems.
 
Of all the support Wormies has received, Chen said he is especially grateful for a $50,000, low-interest line of credit from the Michigan Good Food Fund.
 
Chen worked as an accountant until 2017, when he left his position with a large firm in Washington, D.C. Even with a background in accounting, he says he appreciated receiving guidance from mentors associated with the Michigan Good Food Fund about organizing financial statements, building his financial portfolio, and calculating growth projections.
 
Sometimes Chen is referred to as the “King of Worm Poop.” Most would cringe at the title, but he wears it like a splendid crown.

What’s the Dill, pickle sandwiches in Detroit

Leona and Kenny Milton serve sandwiches piled high with turkey, chicken, beef, cheese, and vegetables. 

But there’s no mistaking their take-out sandwiches for the usual subs. Nor is there any mistaking their small sandwich shop in Detroit’s university district for a traditional deli.

That’s because the Miltons don’t make sandwiches with bread.

At What’s the Dill, located at 4088 McNichols, the sandwich fillings are packaged between two halves of a hefty dill pickle.

There are, of course, variations. Customers restricting sodium can order their sandwich served inside a fresh peeled cucumber. What’s the Dill also features “smickles,” the Milton’s version of sliders, which are a trio of two-bite sandwiches fashioned between pickle chips. They also sell soup, with one recipe including pickles. 

Leona and Kenny Milton subsitute dill pickles for bread in their Detroit sandwich shop, What's the Dill.
The most popular items on the menu are “dessert” pickles, which are soaked in one of six flavors of Kool-Aid. They cost $2 per spear, three for $5, or $15 per jar.

“We’re unique in that we appeal to pretty much everybody,” says Leona Milton. “Our sandwiches are gluten-free. We can make them vegetarian, vegan, or keto. People who just want a novel approach to eating a healthy meal really love us, too.”

Milton doesn’t remember when pickles also became the foundation of her sandwiches because it happened so long ago. Friends often teased her about her pickle sandwiches—until they tried them.

Milton worked in Detroit restaurants over the years. She also worked a couple of decades in a pharmacy.

When the COVID pandemic struck in 2020, Milton needed to find some way to earn money from home. She owned two large coolers that would hold 100 sandwiches. She would pack the coolers with pickle sandwiches, then announce on social media where she would be selling them at lunchtime. She would always sell out in two or three hours.

This pop-up business helped her weather a tough time. It also brought back her dream of opening her own restaurant, which started in high school. Milton also hoped to sell some of her pickle products in local supermarkets.

“I had no idea how to make my hobby into a business,” Milton says. “I am forever grateful to my angel, Jamie Rahrig, for walking me through the process and giving me whatever help I needed every step of the way.”

Rahrig, a registered dietitian, is an academic specialist at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University and an innovation counselor with the MSU Product Center, both partners of the Michigan Good Food Fund.

Milton received three grants totaling $5,600 from the Michigan Good Food Fund for startup costs. She also received funding for equipment in 2022 from Michigan Women Forward, whose mission is to expand economic opportunity for women and entrepreneurs of color. 

In November 2022, the Miltons opened their 574-square-foot restaurant across from the University of Detroit. The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. The Miltons also cater meetings and parties.

“Whenever a customer walks in, our employees, who are family members, call out ‘What’s the Dill!’” Milton says. “Sometimes the customer says it back, but usually they just say, ‘Wow! It smells really good in here.’”

Kym Reinstadler is a writer, editor and researcher. After a distinguished career in daily journalism, she added library science to her repertoire, working for an international technology company that builds research databases. Big data has not overshadowed her interest in local news and people, however. Kym continues writing on a variety of platforms on topics ranging from fine arts and sports to accessibility and history. Reach Kym at [email protected].

Photos by Doug Coombe and courtesy of Leona and Kenny Milton, and Luis Antonio Chen Aguilera.

This story is part of a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability through Good Food in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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