University of Michigan Entrepreneurs Help Boost Detroit’s Growing Food Scene

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University of Michigan students and alumni are contributing to Detroit’s growing culinary scene through innovative entrepreneurial ventures in the food industry.

A number of U-M startups are part of a movement taking hold in Detroit that aims to revitalize urban communities and help residents gain access to affordable and nutritious food, especially in the city’s food deserts — areas where mainstream grocery stores are distant or absent.

Most recently, Detroit Seafood Partners, a seafood distribution company, debuted this month at the Detroit Opera House annual fundraiser. The company aims to distribute fresh, affordable, sustainable seafood from local sources in Michigan to restaurants and grocery stores. Founders say that they hope their company will also contribute to the growth of the sustainable aquaculture industry in Southeast Michigan.

“We are confident that Detroit Seafood Partners will be a vehicle that can transform aquaculture from a hobby to commercial industry, and we believe that metro Detroit is the perfect environment for this transformation,” says Michael Noeske, President of DSP and recent political science graduate from U-M’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts. The team is currently part of University’s student startup accelerator, TechArb, a joint program of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

At their recent fundraiser event, Detroit Seafood Partners worked with caterers at Dorsey Culinary Schools and teamed up with Indian Brook Trout Farm to provide fresh local trout for the more than 1,500 attendees. “The quality is unmatched by competitor farms from other states in terms of freshness, consistency and flavor. A great product that I plan to use again,” said Dorsey Chef Jeremy Abbey.

But providing high-quality fresh seafood for large events is just part of Detroit Seafood Partners’ mission. The company has also partnered with Safe Place Transition Center For Veterans and Forgotten Harvest to begin fish farming in Detroit.

According to the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the state is well positioned to expand aquaculture production because of its ample water supply and close proximity to major population centers.

Simultaneously, another U-M student venture, CARt LLC, is working to help transportation-challenged residents gain access to supermarkets. One U-M study found that Detroiters spend nearly one billion dollars a year on food, but of that amount more than 20%, or over $200 million, is spent outside of the city limits. Without enough food stores in Detroit to support the population and their nutritional needs, CARt founders aim to provide low cost rides to high-quality food.

“We’ve found that transportation is an enormous barrier for people trying to access healthy and affordable food. CARt tackles this issue by connecting existing infrastructures–ride-share companies and grocery stores–to give all people the opportunity to shop for healthy foods in well-stocked grocery stores,” says CARt’s Stacey Matlen a student at U-M’s School of Public Health.

In May, CARt teamed up with major supermarket chain to run a pilot program in Detroit. Over the course of a month, the startup facilitated 46 rides to the supermarket to customers living in 12 different zip codes across the metro Detroit area. “We quickly learned word of mouth is the best form of advertisement and customer retention, but this takes time–much longer than a month,” says Matlen. “However, in that month we heard from customers and people in the store that there is a need for improved and reliable transportation in Detroit. And of the 15 people surveyed, 100% said they would use our service again.”

CARt’s future plans include exploring more supermarket partnerships and launching not just a mobile app, but also a call center or SMS technology to better accommodate their customers.

Several University of Michigan alumni have helped propel this movement forward by taking their ventures to the next level after graduation. Among them is the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, started by U-M grad Tyson Gersh. Last year, the nonprofit organization produced more than 12,000 pounds of organic produce for local markets, shelters, and community members who can’t afford fresh groceries. It also won the top $30,000 prize in Miracle Grow’s national competition and continues to expand urban agriculture efforts in the city, including plans for a community center.

In his last year at the School of Public Health, Noam Kimelman launched his own business, Fresh Corner Café, which now brings healthy food to over 25 small-scale retailers throughout Detroit. Today, he continues to work with corner store gas stations and small-scale retailers to develop a sustainable distribution model that can continually increase access to quality healthy food in Detroit. His company sells around 600 wraps and salads a week, in addition to fruit cups and yogurt parfaits. Everything costs around $5.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Daily on Flickr.

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