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A changing downtown: How Kitchen 242 is transforming Muskegon's culinary landscape

Bodhi Tree Juice Co employees Jodi Bricker, left, and Lori Zeppenfeld at Kitchen 242.

Chef Damon Covington

Chef Char Morse

Donna Jeanne's Sweet Dreams' Western Market chalet in downtown Muskegon.

Drawing chefs and business owners from throughout the region, Kitchen 242 in downtown Muskegon is quickly becoming an innovative cornerstone of the city’s growing food scene.

Renée Randell is on the move.

 

Hair tucked into the net ubiquitous among food workers, she quickly makes her way through a sea of stainless steel kitchen equipment and surveys Friday’s scene at Kitchen 242, the incubator and educational kitchen located at the Muskegon Farmers Market: a flurry of similarly hair-netted workers are gliding around bins overflowing with everything from pineapples and oranges to beets and apples, creating gallons of Bodhi Tree Juice Co’s brightly colored drinks that will soon be en route to farmers markets throughout West Michigan.

 

These days, Friday’s buzz of activity is routine for Randell. A kitchen filled with employees, the hum of the juicers, and the preparations being made for the busy days ahead at farmers markets in Muskegon, Sweetwater, Grand Haven, Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, and Holland have become commonplace. But, just one year ago, life was a significantly different picture.

 

“When we started at Kitchen 242 in October 2016, it was just my husband and I,” says Randell, who co-owns Bodhi Tree Juice Co, which uses ingredients from local farms to make cold-pressed, organic, and raw juices, with her husband, John Randell. The two also own Bodhi Tree Market, a company specializing in fair trade goods that operates one of the Western Market chalets in downtown Muskegon. “We had one juicer. We sold at one farmers market, the Sweetwater Farmers Market. Now, we have seven employees, nine including me and my husband. We have three juicers. We go to five farmers markets. And in two weeks, we start a home delivery service.”
Renée Randell, owner of Bodhi Tree Juice Co and Bodhi Tree Market, at Kitchen 242.


Randell’s experience is one of a growing number of success stories at Kitchen 242, which launched in July 2015 following about a year of planning by the Muskegon Farmers Market, the City of Muskegon, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, and the nonprofit Pioneer Resources. In addition to Bodhi Tree Juice Co, there are currently four other businesses operating in Kitchen 242a space that’s meant to provide culinary courses and educational space for the community at large (Pioneer Resources and Goodwill Industries of West Michigan, for example, use it for classes and training) and offer area entrepreneurs affordable access to cooking equipment and a physical venue in which to operate. Particularly for those just starting a food business, equipment and space can be prohibitively expensive; at Kitchen 242, hourly rates to regularly rent the space range from about $12 to $15.

 

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Kitchen [242],” Randell says of her success over the past year. “It allows people to pursue their dreams. Plus, this is a top-notch kitchen. Restaurants would be jealous of this kitchen.”

 

That it allows people to pursue their dreams is a sentiment echoed among all of the chefs and entrepreneurs at Kitchen 242 whom we spoke with for this article, and the venue itself seems to mirror a narrative that’s playing out in Muskegon: one of innovation and growth, of creativity and support for people from all walks of life.
Kitchen 242 is located at the Muskegon Farmers Market in the city's downtown.


Drawing business owners from throughout the city and the region (outside of Muskegon, the nearest incubator kitchens are not incredibly close, with one in Grand Rapids and another in Hart), Kitchen 242 is quickly becoming an innovative cornerstone of the area’s growing food landscapea place of new food trucks and recently debuted restaurants, of scientists-turned-chefs dedicated to teaching healthy cooking classes, of cuisines that focus heavily on local ingredients and range from pizza and pho to soul food and seafood. Plus, it’s located less than half a mile from Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, which operates the student-run Courses Restaurant in downtown Muskegon and which several of the chefs at Kitchen 242 have relationships, as pupils and teachers.

 

“I grew up here and moved away; I’m a Catholic Central guy who joined the Navy. I came back to teach at the Culinary Institute of Michigan,” says Damon Covington, the owner of Grace55, a soul food operation that includes a catering business and food truck. “I’ve worked all over; I had recently been in Norfolk, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, and it’s really tough as a small business owner to find a commissary. Kitchen 242 is a blessing.”
Rubee Maloley, an employee at Bodhi Tree Juice Co, hard at work in Kitchen 242.

 

Like culinary incubators across the state, from the Detroit Kitchen Connect at the Eastern Market to Michigan’s first commercial incubator kitchen, the Starting Block in Hart, Kitchen 242 aims to interact with the community on a number of different levels, including growing a strong local economy rooted in businesses owned by area residents, supporting community nonprofits, promoting a healthier population by connecting people to cooking classes and other nutritional information, and inspiring a diverse group of entrepreneurs who are creating a city that’s increasingly inclusive.
 

In Muskegon, an evolving economy

 

Inspired by similar incubator spaces around the state, area leaders in business, nonprofits, and government entities decided to launch Kitchen 242 (named for its address at 242 Western Ave.) about a year after the Muskegon Farmers Market moved to its downtown location in 2014. Even before its opening at the farmers market, Kitchen 242 had landed support from throughout the community, including from Mercy Healthwhich donated much of the equipment for the kitchen, from stovetops and ovens to stainless steel tables. Nonprofits too lauded the initiative. Pioneer Resources, a Muskegon-based organization that works to empower and support individuals with disabilities and seniors, immediately partnered with the venue, and Richard Thorstenson, a staff member at Pioneer Resources, helped to design the kitchen.
Donna Jeanne's Sweet Dreams operates at Kitchen 242 and runs a Western Market chalet in downtown Muskegon.


“We thought this is a perfect place to put [an incubator kitchen],” Renae Hesselink, the manager at Kitchen 242, says, adding that the incubator, and the market in general, are playing crucial roles in transforming a downtown that was devastated by the closure and demolition of the Muskegon Mall, which left an eight-block, 23-acre span of land in the middle of downtown completely vacant in 2001. Plus, she notes, the market and the incubator too are helping transform a city economy once dominated by industry into a more diverse space that can support longtime residents, newcomers, and tourists alike.

 

“I can’t stress enough the excitement of people creating their own businesses,” says Hesselink.

 

Currently, the market is home to five businesses: Bodhi Tree; Honor Yourself Foods, a granola company; The Kernel’s Place, which makes and sells gourmet popcorn; Grace 55; and Donna Jeanne’s Sweet Dreams, a business that specializes in small-batch baked goods and confections and which, like Bodhi Tree, operates a Western Market chalet. Fresco Mercato, a gourmet flavored noodles company, recently left the market to open its own production space in Muskegon Heights. Ebby’s Pet Bakery & Boutique too recently left the incubator space to strike out on their own, opening a shop in Spring Lake.

 

As of now, the incubator kitchen is at about 30 percent capacity; to draw more businesses, Hesselink is considering reducing the hourly rates for owners who can operate during the late night and early morning hours (the facility is open 24 hours).

 

“I love watching them get to know and support each other,” Hesselink says of the business owners and employees at Kitchen 242. “They’ve become a close-knit group.”

Grace 55: Using food to build community and bridge divides

 

After working as an award-winning chef, culinary consultant, and instructor around the country, Covington returned to his home city this year to teach at the Culinary Institute of Michigan and recently brought his business, Grace 55, to Kitchen 242. Here in Muskegon, Covington, who's also a Navy veteran, is using food to do what he has done for years: build community; bridge divides; and lift up joy, laughter, and friendship amidst the deep scars and fresh wounds that life brings.
Chef Damon Covington. Photo courtesy of Damon Covington

 

As he gets to know his home community again, Covington believes food can play a powerful force for good in Muskegon, as it has been for the chef personally.

 

“My sister, Talfrieda Covington, was murdered here in Muskegon; I lost my brother [Jamel Covington] in a swimming accident; my uncle [Gary Armstrong] died; I lost my father [George Edward Covington] just as I was getting to know him again; and I lost my grandma [Ruby Mae Armstrong], who I learned how to cook from, a couple years ago,” Covington says. “Food gave me balance. It’s still the core that holds everything together for me.”

 

Finding meaning and strength through his cooking, Covington launched Grace 55 prior to moving back to Muskegonand the business is emblematic of his spiritual beliefs, he explains.

 

“Five represents grace, so, really, it’s Grace Grace Grace,” Covington says. “So, Grace 55 is a shorter version of whatever God graces us with. When we stop and eat, we all pay homage to somebody. For us at Grace 55, we’re graced to be out here doing our thing, doing what we love. We’re grateful, and we thank God we can do what we do.”

As he has found solace in cooking, the chef hopes Muskegon too will build its own strength through food, including by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to a downtown that’s now fairly homogeneous in terms of race.

 

“Food is the perfect bond,” says Covington, who, in addition to preparing food for his soul food truck and catering business at Kitchen 242, teaches classes at the Western Avenue space. “What’s exciting about downtown Muskegon now is the farmers market. You can go there and it doesn’t matter what your skin pigmentation is; food is the common bond. It’s a powerful tool, and it’s shaping this community for the better.”

 

“Would I like to see more diversity at the [farmers] market?” Covington continues. “Heck yeah. But we’re getting there. There are many people that I’ve grown up with, both from Muskegon Heights and Muskegon, that won’t come to downtown Muskegon. They have no idea about the farmers market and all the other amazing things going on downtown.”
The Grace 55 food truck at the corner of Apple Avenue and Pine Street. Photo by Anna Gustafson


In order to reach individuals who have yet to regularly access the downtown, there needs to be outreach and support for business owners of color, the chef emphasizes.

“There are people who are good cooks at home and are advertising on Facebook that they’re selling dinners. If they were presented with a viable business, think about how many amazing restaurants we could have in our community,” Covington says. “I want to see more information about startup grants and building businesses for people of color and veterans.”

 

All of this, he says, will lead to a Muskegon in which everyone will want to live.

 

“I think black folks need to come out of their shells and talk to white folks, and white folks need to come out of their shells and talk to black folks,” Covington says. “We need to understand we need each other to build a Muskegon our grandkids will be proud of.”

 

Right now, Covington is operating his food truck (which offers a rotating menu that recently boasted such options as smoked rib tips, smoked lemon peppered wings, a pulled pork sandwich, and crab mac and cheese) at Apple Avenue and Pine Street, but he will soon be closing down for the winter. During the winter months, he'll be focusing on his catering business and expects to offer pop-up dinners at Kitchen 242. Additionally, the chef is working on opening a food truck court at the corner of Apple and Pine.

 

“The long term goal would be to attract more food carts to the Apple and Pine Street location,” Covington says. In addition to his soul food offerings, Covington says that “vegan, tacos, and ice cream are the concepts that I feel will service the area best.”

 

Partnering with nonprofits for a healthier Muskegon

 

For Pioneer Resources, a nonprofit that provides housing, transportation, employment and training, and recreation for people with disabilities and seniors in Muskegon County, Kitchen 242 has provided the organization further opportunities to connect the individuals they serve with skill-building programs and information about nutrition and cooking.
Haley, Brandon and Daniel from Pioneer Resource's Food For Thought class. Photo courtesy of Pioneer Resources

 

Through a grant from the Community Foundation of Muskegon, the nonprofit recently launched a gleaning project that uses both the market and Kitchen 242. Every Saturday, Pioneer sends an individual to the market to pick up produce the farmers couldn’t sell, which is then temporarily stored at Kitchen 242 before being redistributed to local food pantries or other organizations that need it, like Meals on Wheels. As part of the gleaning initiative, members of the nonprofit’s “Food for Thought” program, which works with high school student with disabilities, go to Kitchen 242 to learn about the food that was gleaned, including what items are edible and which are not. Individuals then learn how to cook the edible items and compost the food that cannot be eaten. Individuals in Pioneer’s skill building program, which also works with people with disabilities, too participate in the gleaning project by, for example, helping to deliver the food to area agencies.Liz attends Pioneer Resource's skill building group. Photo courtesy of Pioneer Resources

 

Now in its second year, the gleaning project has collected more than 10,498 pounds of food9,034 of which was put back into the community through 23 local organizations. An additional 1,463 pounds of collected food was composted, with the composted material being used to provide nutrients to three area community gardens, including one at Pioneer Resources.

 

“It works out wonderfully because the instructor for Food for Thought, Lindsay Frazier, she is bringing the students to Kitchen 242 to learn what it’s like to work in a licensed kitchen,” says Pioneer Resources Executive Director Jill Bonthuis.

 

“For individuals in our skill-building program, individuals are learning soft skills, pre-vocational skills,” Bonthuis continues. “Every Monday morning, they’re delivering the food to area agencies. They’re working with people, learning to follow instructions, learning how to have good customer service.”
Chef Char Morse, center, teaching a class at Kitchen 242. Photo courtesy of Char Morse.

 

'Part art and a lot of science': Chef Char Morse brings a passion for food & health to Kitchen 242

 

In addition to providing space and equipment for business owners and nonprofits, Kitchen 242 focuses on offering classes for the general public—such as from Covington and Chef Char Morse, a science buff who received degrees in applied biology and biotech before graduating from culinary school.

 

As to what led Morse to Kitchen 242? In one word: insomnia.

 

“It was over two years ago, and I couldn’t sleep one night. I was scrolling through my newsfeed when I saw something about Kitchen 242,” says Morse, a Baker College graduate who, in addition to teaching classes at the incubator, works as a consultant for food companies (she’s helped Gerber develop recipes, for example) and frequently shares cooking advice on WZZM 13. “I said, ‘Wow, look what opened in Muskegon. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to cook there.”

 

So, Morse sent Kitchen 242 an email asking if they needed a teacherand, beginning September 2015, she launched a teaching tenure at the incubator space that has amounted to offering some of Kitchen 242’s most popular courses, such as pasta cooking and tutorials on working with Himalayan salt blocks. Morse's course variety mirrors the classes in general at Kitchen 242; recent events have centered around Southern cooking, gourmet pizza, Halloween cupcakes, and more.

 

“[Kitchen 242] provides opportunity; it’s provided me an opportunity to do what I love. I love to cook, and I’m getting to teach others what I love,” says Morse, who has a long history with food: her first job was picking asparagus in Oceana County, and she went on to work at a maraschino cherry factory in Hart, where she helped them make recipes after college—and where she “made the connection that food is part art and a lot of science.” For years, she worked as a pharmaceutical rep before going to Baker College in 2010 in order to pursue the culinary life full time. Now, she does everything from teach kids and adults how to incorporate healthier food into their liveslike with spiralized vegetablesto offering advice on working with locally found ingredients.

 

“It’s amazing,” Morse continues, referring to the incubator. “We’re so lucky to have it. It’s an opportunity for those in Muskegon who want to learn how to eat healthier or change it up a little in the kitchen.”
 

This story is part of Rapid Growth's "On the Ground-Muskegon Lakeshore" series, which aims to amplify the voices of the community members who make up Muskegon's waterfront neighborhoods. Over the next three months, our journalists will be embedded in the city's lakefront communities in order to dive deeper into topics important to residents, business owners and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Anna Gustafson, please email her at AKGustaf@gmail.com, or connect with her on Facebook.

 

Support for this series is provided by Downtown Muskegon Now, the Muskegon Business Improvement District, the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Pure Muskegon, Watch Muskegon, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

 

Photography by Jenna Swartz unless otherwise noted. To connect with Jenna, visit her website and Facebook page.

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