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How a Unique Scholarship Spawns Food Businesses, With a Little Push

Robbie Feinberg

About a year ago, the Kalamazoo non-profitFair Food Matters launched a one-time program called the Business Builder Scholarship. It was a first-of-its kind program largely funded by the city that granted $60,000 to low-income residents with business ideas but few resources. So how did the new experiment fare? 

Launching your own business – especially in the food sector - can be really hard when you’re low on cash. Southwest Michigan is good at helping out established businesses already through university funding or venture capital. But it’s not so easy when you’ve just got an idea in your mind and no cash to get it off the ground. There are a lot of up-front costs.

"All the business registration costs, ingredient purchases, packaging purchases," explains Lucy Dilley, a program manager with Fair Food Matters. She goes on: "Food safety training and licensing. Farmers' market table fees…"

Dilley says that was the idea behind the Better Business scholarship: to help small food businesses pay for those initial costs and push them over the hump.

"There's just only so much you can do if you don't have startup capital," she says. "Actually, there's really nothing you can do if you don't have startup capital."

The true draw for most of the scholarship recipients was that these grants weren’t for school. This was real life. Meka Phillips received a grant to start her own baking business, called Dessert First.

WMUK abridged interview with Meka Phillips of Dessert First

"The idea of packaging, what logo, what colors, what to do, who your consumer is," Phillips explains. "So just working out the kinks with the local business professionals has been trying, but it's been a good opportunity. You have to start somewhere and I feel I've grown so much."

Maliesha Pullano was in a similar position only a year ago. Pullano’s a mother who’s worked in all sorts of jobs, including selling tutus. But she heard about the Business Builder scholarship and had an idea: handmade cold brew coffee. She received one of the grants, and now she spends nearly all of her time inside an industrial-sized kitchen bottling her product called Mamaleelu Cold Brew.

Inside the kitchen, with pans clanging around here, Pullano has perfected a tricky balancing act. She uses some beer brewing equipment to suck her coffee up from a giant vat and siphon it, very carefully, into small glass bottles.

"See, I almost did it! I almost went too far," Pullano says as the liquid nearly overflows over the lip of a bottle. 

Credit Robbie Feinberg
Meka Phillips of Dessert Firstslowly pours batter for her red velvet cupcakes into set forms

  It was only a year ago that Pullano even dreamed up the idea to start her own business. Yet now she has a real product, label, logo, and distribution. It’s a sophisticated process. But it hasn’t been easy.

"There were many times, and even still, I feel like I want to just video-record myself because there are moments of pure panic," Pullano explains. "I have moments of pure panic. I remember when I was trying to pick out the beans, I was just going 'What am I doing? What the heck am I doing? What am I doing?!'"

Those obstacles are scary, but Pullano says she loves the trial-by-fire style of the program. Instead of sitting through business school, Pullano was tossed into the flames and emerged. And succeeded. 

Mamaleelu is available in seven Kalamazoo stores, plus three other markets near Detroit. Pullano wants to add an employee or two over the next year. Then expand outside of Michigan. So while that panic may still creep in every now and again, Pullano knows she can handle it.

"Whenever I'm in those moments of panic, I go, 'Okay, a year ago you weren't here. Where will you be next year?' Just sit in that panic and ride through it and just keep going through it the best you know how," she says.  "And a lot of things and information and opportunities come to me by just being able to breathe through that panic moment. A lot of opportunities have sprung up."

Not all of the scholarship recipients have been this successful. Some are still just getting off the ground, and others are taking a break. But Dilley from Fair Food Matters says profit isn’t the point of these kinds of programs. It’s about opportunity, and she wants to see more.

"There are so many business ideas in the Kalamazoo area," Dilley says. "People are so creative and innovative, that I think it should definitely spread beyond the food business. And there are so many services a food business needs that can be provided locally! So if there are more small business that can start up that support the food system, that's great."

The initial $60,000 in funding was designed to last only a year, so the scholarships have mostly dried up. However, Dilley says that Fair Food Matters has secured some private funding to hand out one or two more scholarships annually over the next few years.

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