Food tourism sparks regional businesses

November 15, 2011

By Peter Payette

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Until recently nobody expected farms to create a lot of new jobs, but nationwide the food business is experiencing something like a renaissance. In some parts of the Great Lakes, food is becoming a main attraction for tourists and food-focused tourism is creating jobs for farmers, cooks and food purveyors.

This summer Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was voted the most beautiful place in the U.S. by the audience of Good Morning America. A man from Grand Rapids nominated the Dunes along the northeast coast of Lake Michigan. He said the scenery makes you realize the universe is a “majestic mystery.” But when ABC shot the piece they didn’t interview a poet or a painter from the area. They talked to Chef Mario Batali and showed him doing something less than mysterious--eating pizza. The celebrity chef said that in addition to the beauty and the water he likes the region because of the farmers and “great food artisans.”

Around the time ABC was scoping out Sleeping Bear Dunes, Batali was blogging at bonappetit.com about how the food scene in this part of Michigan had exploded. In one TV shot he’s sitting in the café at a local winery. Wineries are the darlings of the region’s food scene. They’ve doubled in number during the last ten years. They’re an attraction year round, but especially on fall weekends and wineries claim to draw a million visits a year statewide.

A decade ago there were few tourists like Alicia and Don English who visited Northern Michigan mainly for food and wine. Their home is a three-and-a-half hour drive south where they say they have few dining options beyond chain restaurants.

“You can come up here and have different food different nights and not have it all be the same,” says English.

The restaurant business in downtown Traverse City has grown 20 to 25 percent over the last five years. That helped the tourism business in this region grew by about five percent or more during the last year.

More and more restaurants here buy food from local farms and then promote those farms by name on their menus. That’s helped the number of farms and food purveyors increase. In 2002 there were 70 vendors at the market in Traverse City, the largest farm market in northern Michigan. This year that number climbed above 120. Meanwhile another 15 farmers markets started up across the region in the last five years.

The customers are mainly year-round and seasonal residents. But there are now enough businesses in the area buying local food that the region has its own food distributor. Cherry Capital Foods employs 12 people full time. They ship food mainly within 100 miles of Traverse City. Almost half of their deliveries are to restaurants.

This business model is highly unusual in the United States. Food is usually shipped in massive volumes from all corners of the globe. The owner of Cherry Capital Foods, Chip Hoagland, takes little credit for the success of this five-year old business. The wind of the local food movement is at their backs.

“Something lit the spark and I’m not sure what that is but it’s happening” says Hoagland. 

Within 100 miles of Traverse City is a growing crowd of entrepreneurial farmers from a variety of backgrounds. Some are young organic farmers. Others are long-time fruit growers diversifying into new markets, like wine grapes.

Mark Baker established Bakers Green Acres in Marion, Michigan after a career in the Air Force. Poultry is his main product but a few years ago he got into an unusual breed of pig called Mangalitsa. Recently he purchased a wagyu bull from a ranch in Indiana. Wagyu beef comes from animals bred in Japan for high amounts of unsaturated fat that is finely marbled through the meat so it melts in your mouth.

Mark Baker thinks these are the next steps for northern Michigan. He figures if Mario Batali tells the world that there are great restaurants along the shore of northern Lake Michigan, those restaurants need to be ready.

“We’re going to be bringing people in here that have experienced palates,” says Baker. “We as farmers have to be ready to supply our restaurants with those products. So it presents a great opportunity for farmers.”

Whether these kinds of opportunities can create enough jobs to actually register a jolt to Michigan’s depressed economy is open for discussion. Even this rural part of the state lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past decade. But many new farms and food businesses employ just the owners. Job numbers are hard to find since they don’t fall neatly into one category but are spread across farming, food service and retail.

Generally this kind of food economy is not something that has attracted the attention of economic development officials. But recently the Michigan Economic Development Corporation gave $50,000 to a group in Traverse City that wants to build an incubator for food businesses. It’s just seed money to study the concept of offering access to commercial kitchen space and storage. But it’s a sign there’s new hope for work that not too long ago was considered drudgery to be escaped.