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Cheap thrills: How to explore downtown Grand Rapids without breaking the bank

This article is the first installment in Rapid Growth’s series covering ways to explore our city’s incredible neighborhoods without breaking the bank. This week, we head downtown. Don’t let the new, shiny buildings fool you: there’s still plenty of ways to have fun and not spend a ton of dough.

There’s nothing better than an unexpected day off. So, what is there to do around the city if you have an entire free day to spend? Michigan winters can snow on your parade a bit, but it can also unexpectedly, and quite literally, brighten up your day.

First things first, text your best friend and see if they’re available. If you’re a first time day-off adventurer, it may be best to tag team the day with a friend. For all others going solo, bold or otherwise, don’t forget to grab your headphones and make sure your favorite music and podcasts are all downloaded and synced while you still have some strong wifi at home.

If you’re fortunate enough to live inside the city limits, grab your bus pass and check the Transit app for the next bus headed downtown. If you live outside Grand Rapids, or you don’t have a bus pass, grab those keys and head downtown.

This is where you might be asking yourself: why should I take the bus? I have a car with gas to burn and a need for speed. Allow me to answer your question with the following: Slow down, fast and furious, it’s an adventure so try something different; don’t waste your day/money looking for parking, and finally use the free time to hang with your friend or sink into your favorite podcast.

So, the best place to start is at the Downtown Market. If you don’t have bus passes, mosey up the hill to the Silver Line stop on Division near Wealthy and purchase a day pass ($3.50 for an adult). Head back down into the market and grab a hot chocolate and pastry from either Field & Fire or the market’s newly arrived Madcap. As you munch away, put together a loose plan of what you feel like doing. It’s a day off, so don’t stress on packing the day with activities. Travel from spot to spot and let your mood guide you through the day. Heck, I’ve spent whole afternoons riding the same transit line back and forth in major cities just listening to music, and popping out just for snacks -- and I don’t regret a second of it. Here, with your $3.50 day pass, you can kick back and relax while getting to be a tourist in your own city.

When you’re finished with breakfast, head down Ionia, past the bridge underpass and then take a right to pop back up onto Division, where you should be sure to head into any of the Avenue for the Arts shops. Walk into Parliament the Boutique and check out the team’s latest crafts, or just admire the cat it in all its orange glory.

Cross the street to check out some music at Vertigo, and be sure to find a favorite artist in the stacks. Then browse nearby in the same genre and see if you can’t find something that catches your attention. I have found plenty of new favorite artists this way. You can snag plenty of music for under $10 -- including some amazing vinyl finds for $1. Just have your headphones ready for an impromptu album listen right there in the stacks.

Now, if you’re still feeling chill from the Vertigo vibes, take a walk down the street to the UICA and catch a noon film ($4 for members, $8 for non-members). Heads up: for discounts to places like the UICA, check out a Michigan activity pass with your public library card.

Don’t feel like sitting for an entire movie? Keep those legs moving and wander around the city streets, soaking in architecture, art, more art, and history with self-guided (read: free!) tours. Be sure to take this free interactive tour of GR’s Civil Rights history. Created by Kent Innovation High students, the tour includes 12 stops that provide insight into incredible achievements by our city’s African American residents and organizations, such as Helen Claytor, who fought tirelessly for racial justice and was the first black woman to serve as president of the Grand Rapids YWCA.

And, if you’re hanging out on a Tuesday, be sure to head to the Grand Rapids Art Museum -- you’ll be able to get in free all day. (You can also bypass admission costs on Thursday evening from 5-9pm.)

Want to move your feet in a different direction? Head north and keep the tunes blasting because you’ll be catching the Dash North (free and no bus pass needed) to Higher Ground Rock Climbing for some fancy footwork. Be sure to get off the dash near the 6th street bridge and walk on over to Higher Ground. Get set up for your climbing session and let it rip. Pro tip: having wireless headphones will let you turn your climbing session past 10 and straight to 11. (At $22, which includes a day pass and all the rental equipment, this is the most expensive thing on our list -- but you can stay there for as long as your feet can keep climbing.)

So you’ve rocked it at Higher Ground, and now your stomach is clamoring for food. Cross the street and start walking down to the Dash stop right on the corner of 6th Street and Monroe. Be sure to get off right before the bridge underpass. When you’re off the bus, head down to the Silver Line stop, heading south and get off at the Wealthy Street Station to walk back to the Downtown Market.

If your head is spinning from these transfers you can always get out your phone and hail a Lyft, so if your stomach is roaring it’s best to tame the beast and head to food quickly!

Now that you’re back at the Downtown Market, head to Slow’s BBQ. Get the small, $3 pit smoked beans and watch as they kindly fill it to the brim with beans and small chunks of barbecue meat. Walk over to Field & Fire and buy the smallest bread available to help slop up the delectable beans and sauce. Turn around and grab a cold can of guava juice from Rak Thai, then head upstairs into the greenhouse seating area to soak up the sun while it’s still up.

So you’re back where you started, and you’ve had a full day. Congratulations on your mini-adventure, but there’s still hours left on your watch and the night is young. Do you double down and head back out or call it a day? Let us know in the comments how you would continue your mini-adventure, or if you would like to hear our second half of our day off adventure!

Until next time, stay moving, stay cheap, stay curious.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Their fingers on the pulse of Grand Rapids, GRNow's new owners roll out big plans for website

What’s going on in Grand Rapids this week? Well, for starters: the Lumineers are playing at the Van Andel Arena, internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit opens at Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Symphony is performing a live score for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and there’s the USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championships -- not to mention about a billion other things.

It’s no secret that Grand Rapids’ cultural and entertainment scene is exploding, with everyone from international superstars (think: Kanye and Garth Brooks) to local celebrities (Vox Vidorra and Lady Ace Boogie, to name a couple) providing the soundtrack to our city, the debut of a nearly constant stream of new restaurants and bars, venues like 20 Monroe Live and Studio C opening their doors, and, of course, arts and music festivals that have landed the city in headlines across the country.

With everything that’s happening, it’s become an almost daunting question: What should I do tonight? This weekend? This spring (or on the strange winter days when it feels like flowers will be blooming at any second)? CJ DeVries and Jeff DeLongchamp want to help you answer that.

DeVries and DeLongchamp, both longtime Grand Rapidians, purchased the website GRNow.com from the former owner, Josh Depenbrok, last August, and the duo have been unrolling ambitious plans to make it, as DeVries says, “the most comprehensive list of events” in the city, from sports happenings and live music to art openings and theatre performances -- and everything in between. Plus, the website features bloggers covering Grand Rapids’ food, fashion, city living, and art scenes.

“Both CJ and I are big Grand Rapids fans; we’ve been here for a long time,” says DeLongchamp, who also co-owns ELK Brewing and owns ElectionSource, a Grand Rapids-based company that provides election products and services nationwide. “That we can provide a media outlet for everybody, one place where everybody can go and not just list events but find events that are going on is exciting. We want it to be the place to go. If you’re going out on the weekend, we want this site to be the site you go to.”

Like DeLongchamp, DeVries, who founded and owns Innovative Social Exchange MKTG, a Grand Rapids-based creative marketing firm, says she was thrilled to take on a new role as co-owner of GRNow.com.

“With my marketing company, I had used GRNow from the advertiser perspective, so I got to see how powerful it is,” DeVries says. “It made me believe it’s such a great platform; it helps local businesses grow. And I used it personally, so when I found out Josh was getting out, I was like, hands down I want to do this. It’s really neat that Jeff and I get to have something that I’ve really looked up to.”

The site, which DeVries and DeLongchamp are planning on growing, currently has about 10 people working for it, and the two owners are set to unveil a new GRNow.com website this year, apps they’ll soon be beta testing, and more content.

“The apps will have features that people are really going to like,” DeLongchamp says, hinting that the upcoming applications will be event-heavy. “There will be some very fun things, and I think they’ll be used immensely.”

Plus, DeVries notes that they will in the near future launch a show during which they’ll talk about upcoming happenings in the city. For the program, she’ll be partnering with former Second City comedian Joe Anderson -- who’s set to soon open a new downtown comedy club in Grand Rapids.

With all of this new movement from DeVries and DeLongchamp, the work that Depenbrok invested in the site and the site’s massive social media presence (it has more than 70,000 Facebook likes and nearly 32,000 Twitter followers), GRNow’s reach is skyrocketing -- its recent 2017 development roundup (written by Rapid Growth’s former publisher, Jeff Hill), was seen by 135,000 people, for example. With those kind of numbers, DeVries says the owners are hoping the site’s weight will translate to major support for the city.

“We’re using this medium, this platform, to help charities, and we’re very much trying to collaborate with other businesses,” she says.

As connoisseurs of events, restaurants and more in GR, DeVries and DeLongchamp shed some light on some of their go-to favorites in the city.

What's your favorite restaurant/bar?

DeLongchamp: ELK is number one. And we have great restaurants: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, The Chop House -- those are two favorites, but there are so many great local restaurants, so many places to eat, like Electric Cheetah, in Grand Rapids; it’s unbelievable. We have a lot of great food in this area; it’s changed so much over the past 25 years I’ve been here.

DeVries: My favorite place to eat is Little Africa; it’s awesome. My other favorite restaurant is whichever the next one I’m going to try -- I love the fact I can walk out of my office and see a new place opening up. But we have to understand even if there’s a new place, we still have to patronize the places that have made Grand Rapids what it is.

What upcoming event are you excited about?

DeLongchamp: The 12th annual Winter Beer Festival at Fifth Third Ballpark in February. [Tickets for the festival’s Saturday event on Feb. 25 are sold out, but brew lovers can still snag a spot on Friday, Feb. 24 here.]

DeVries: The Yoga Dance Party and Brunch at Lions & Rabbits, Huntin' Time Expo at DeltaPlex Arena, Cookies and Canvas at Cheshire Kitchen, and the USAC Fat Bike Nationals at Indian Trails Golf Course.

What’s your favorite hidden gem in Grand Rapids?

DeVries: Dime and Regal -- they have very minimalistic jewelry; they want you to be able to have artwork but at moderate prices. Nothing in the store is over $75, and there are local artists. Also, Goodwill has an upscale boutique, reBlue; it’s amazing.

DeLongchamp: There are so many. If you’re looking downtown, there’s so many neat little niches. The SpeakEZ -- Eric Albertson, who owns it, has done a great job with that place.

Literary sensibility: Books & Mortar and Congress Elementary partner to provide books to students

When Chris Roe and Jonathan Shotwell opened Books & Mortar in East Hills this past fall, they knew they wanted their passion for books, reading and literacy to translate to support for the inclusive, empathetic and caring community that surrounded them.

So, when many of their customers would relay their fears about the incoming administration in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration, Roe and Shotwell began to think: what could they do to showcase, and lend hands to, a community that thinks globally and acts locally? In the face of a divided nation, what could they do to continue the unity sewn by so many in their neighborhood and city?

To answer these questions, they looked to their neighbor: Congress Elementary.

Roe and Shotwell have just announced that they are partnering with Congress to create a fund that will provide books for every student in March, books for teachers and school workers, and other financial support for a wide range of literacy opportunities.

“We were getting people all day who are very down about the climate of the country and the administration,” Roe says. “We thought, ‘We should be promoting the little things that we can do.’ We felt helpless, but there are so many things that keep us going forward in our community. Congress is in the backyard of the store, and we’re both huge public school advocates.”

Essentially, Books & Mortar will be partnering with Congress “for forever,” Roe says, explaining that the fund is meant to support the elementary school with any of its literacy programs and goals. In the coming months, the fund will pay for books -- chosen by the teachers -- for the entire student body, and, come May, every fifth grade student will get to go to the store and select a book for free. Additionally, the fund will provide books for the teachers, and the shop will keep educators’ book dream lists on file, allowing customers to purchase, at a discounted price, books that the teachers want.

“At the most rudimentary level, this is about making a value statement and saying, ‘These children and this school have a huge amount of value in this community,” Roe says. “It’s really just about putting out there that the school matters. It’s as simple as people coming to the store and realizing there’s a really great school resource in this community.”

A big component to this partnership is an emphasis on it being just that: a partnership.

“We really want this to be a mutual relationship; we’re giving to Congress, but Congress already gives so much to the community,” Roe says. “Congress is putting out all these children, teachers and families that are awesome assets to this community.”

And, Roe says, they’re looking forward to seeing how their work with Congress, and the community at large, continues to grow.

“When we started [Books & Mortar], we always wanted to be part of the community,” he says. “This is the first step; we’re really excited about this. This is a tangible way to respond to the state of the union.”

To support the Congress Elementary literacy fund, you can make a donation of any amount at the store, located at 955 Cherry St. SE. When you donate, you can put your name and a thoughtful message on a recycled paper heart that Books & Mortar are using to fill the shop's windows. On March 1, there will be an all-day event to kick off March Is Reading Month, and the store will be having special discounts for those who donate to the fund that day.

For further information, 
email Books & Mortar at info@booksandmortar.com, call 616-214-8233, visit its website, and follow it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A culinary adventure: Blue Ribbon Farms carves out specialty niche with rabbits

Rabbit farmers. Rabbit farming. Free range rabbits.   

These aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind when looking for the new agricultural businesses in the area. However, sometimes it is the unexpected ideas that can turn into something very special.

Blue Ribbon Farms is owned and operated by Chris Pabst and Jason Courtade. It was established in 2014 and is located on 8th Ave. in Marne, Michigan.

Jason Courtade says the inspiration behind Blue Ribbon Farms is not all about about rabbits; it is about creating awareness of alternative, healthy food sources and production systems.  “We want to change the way food is produced by making it healthier, flavorful and more sustainable.  Rabbits are just the first step in our long term goals.”  

The fact that rabbit is not readily available at local butcher shops or a staple at local restaurants is a big part of the business opportunity for Courtade. “Rabbit is, and has been, popular in many other countries for a very long time. Rabbit has been tested to be extremely lean, low in calories, and high in protein,” and it contains a high moisture content, he explains. “It really is as versatile as chicken.”
 
As Blue Ribbon Farms ramp up production and marketing efforts, there are a few early adopters where you can purchase their product. “Currently, customers can find our meat at Sobie Meats on Remembrance and A Gemmen & sons (The Meat Market) in Allendale. We are also currently looking to expand in West Michigan.”

As far restaurants go, Courtade is anticipating several local restaurants to feature their rabbits. “Spring is a popular time to put rabbit on the menu and we are currently working on finalizing the restaurants that we’ll be partnering with,” he says.

Beyond supplying local butchers and restaurants with their product, Courtade says Blue Ribbon Farms has a multifaceted business model.  “Supplying, fresh, local rabbit is our first priority,” he says. “It is not just about growth, but providing the freshest and highest quality rabbit meat with great service to our customers. We have aspirations to expand through sustainable means as well as teaching others how to raise their own meat rabbits. Additionally, rabbits provide some of the best manure available. Marketing it to the home gardener will be one of our next projects this spring. We have used it in our own gardens and have seen incredible yields from our plants that we hadn’t seen in previous years without manure. It’s a natural, proven way to encourage growth.”

Ultimately, where the rubber hits the road when it comes to rabbit farming comes down to consumers being open to try something new. When it comes adding rabbit to your home menu, Chris Pabst says there really is nothing fear, especially with their meat. “The taste of the ‘domesticated’ meat rabbit can be described as a mix between chicken and pork,” Pabst says. “There is no ‘gamey’ taste in the domesticated meat rabbit that we produce. Several times a year we sample rabbit meat at Sobie Meats for people to try. Feedback has always been excellent.  We encourage people to give rabbit meat a try; typically people are very surprised as to how excellent it tastes and the moistness of the meat.”

For those still a bit squeamish about rabbit, Pabst has shared a few recipes. “We have experimented with many different recipes that have been proven to be winners at our houses and with some of our customers.”

1. Ground rabbit meat – just like ground beef, but rabbit.  We use this for taco meat, burger patties, spaghetti meat sauce, etc.
2. Rabbit Chicken Sweet Italian Sausage – Available at Sobie Meats; a fantastic lower fat sausage option
3. Smoked Rabbit – Whole rabbit with Tim’s Blend Dry Rub (available at Sobie Meats). Smoke in smoker using maple or cherry wood.  Meat pulls off bone effortlessly.
4. Rabbit Loin Medallions – Bite size rabbit meat cubes wrapped cross grain with Sobie’s Homemade Thick Cut Bacon held with a toothpick. Cook on a smoky grill.
 5. Deep Fried Rabbit – Start with a fully broken down rabbit and dredge in egg, then roll pieces in Skeeter’s Lemon Mustard Light Batter Frying Mix (available at Sobie Meats). Fry in peanut or grapeseed oil at temperature between 350-375 degrees fahrenheit for about five minutes or until golden brown.
6. Grilled with dry rub.

To learn more about Blue Ribbon Farms, you can visit their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

SpringGR trio collaborates to launch new line of cosmetics

With a little help from his friends, Juan Autrey, founder of J. Autrey Cosmetics, celebrated the launch of his new product line of lipsticks.

Autrey teamed up with fellow SpringGR graduates Latesha Lipscomb (Posh Entertainment; I Got Face Cosmetic Concierge) and Nicholas Dean (Dean Catering) to throw a private launch party on Friday celebrating the release of his new products.

Autrey has been working on his line of lipsticks since 2011, experimenting and creating his unique colors from his home. He launched his first products to sell in 2013. and, then, with the help of SpringGR in 2014, formalized his business plan and energized his efforts to build a sustainable cosmetic business. 

For the launch, Lipscomb’s company, Posh Entertainment, planned, promoted and hosted the event, while Dean’s company catered the party.

Autrey says his products are unique, featuring very distinct colors.  He says he purposely chooses women of all ethnicities as models, who help highlight the universal appeal of his lipsticks. Currently, Autrey says his products are manufactured and packaged in New York and are available through his website.

Arlene Campbell, SpringGR business coach, says this type of event is a great example of the networking and mentoring that SpringGR encourages.  "This collaboration is distinctive because of the cohort model that we use in SpringGR,” Campbell says. “These three businesses have teamed up to launch J. Autrey Cosmetics. It shows the power of collaboration to get someone started in their business. Juan won the people choice award and has worked hard to use his social capital to connect to others to launch his cosmetic line.  SpringGR would like to help expand Juan’s networks as well.”

SpringGR is an entrepreneurial training, networking and mentoring resource for individuals interested in starting a business or scaling their current venture.

You can learn more about SpringGR here and J. Autrey Cosmetics here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The sweet life: Laham family pursues the American Dream with Chocolates by Grimaldi

There’s no doubt about it: Steve and Molli Laham are living the sweet life.

Literally.

The husband and wife duo, both of whom were born and raised in Grand Rapids, not long ago had been living in Indiatlantic, Florida, a small beach town perched on Florida’s east coast, with their two sons when the idea hit: Why not return to their home state and open a family run chocolate shop?

It was an idea born from visiting their friends’ chocolate store in Florida (“where everything was amazing!” Molli exclaims), and one that came naturally to the Lahams, who had owned and operated businesses in Grand Rapids for years prior to heading south.

“We wanted to show our sons how to start a business, run a business, grow a business,” says Molli, who owned a dental lab for 15 years in Grand Rapids.

Plus, moving back to Michigan was a no-brainer for the couple, with Steve citing “the values that are so core to the Midwest and West Michigan” being a major draw for their family of four.

“We’re Grand Rapidians,” says Steve, who owned an ATV, snowmobile, personal watercraft, and boat business in Grand Rapids for 19 years before going to work for a French multinational company in a senior level capacity for a decade and a half. “When we do a tour, we say, ‘We’re smitten with the mitten.’”

So, Molli and Steve and their two sons, Nick and Zach, packed up and hit the road, returning to the place they always called home: West Michigan. In 2012, the family opened Chocolates by Grimaldi in Grand Haven, and, with everything from tours of its chocolate factory to its chocolate-covered potato chips and truffles that seem to fly off the shelves, the space has flourished. Now, four years after its inception, the chocolatier continues to do what it does best: whip up caramels, hand-rolled truffles, chocolate-covered fruits hailing from local farms, and more — plus it’s gearing up to grow the business, including offering more events in the shop that’s located in a former roller rink at 219 N. 7th Street.

“We love creating recipes for chocolate confections and sharing them with everyone who comes into our shop,” Molli says. “Seeing the smiles and contentment on our customers’ faces while they savor our chocolate creations is priceless.”

Using a 30-foot 1950s enrober (a machine that coats the candies in chocolate and, despite being more than 60 years old, looks impressively futuristic), the business frequently uses local ingredients from places like the Ferris Nut Company, Crossroads Blueberry Farm, Gordon Foods, Better Made Potato Chips, and more to create their products that they proudly describe as using no artificial ingredients, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.

This emphasis on using local ingredients is something that the Lahams stress is celebrated by their customers.

We have so many of the same people come in on a weekly basis; I think a lot of it has to do with supporting local,” Molli says. “When you can find a place that supports the local growers, that’s something people want to support. Michigan has such amazing crops, from strawberries to blueberries to cherries; we have great ingredients that are grown locally.”

Part of this focus on local is a natural fit for the Lahams, who say building relationships with the community has been one of their ultimate priorities, which can also be seen in the way they interact with customers.

“[West Michigan’s] more relaxed pace and outdoorsy activities allows you time to be able to talk, and when that happens, you start to create relationships,” Steve says.

Already, numerous community groups from area schools and religious organizations take advantage of the space, going on the tour that the Lahams offer of the chocolate factory, and the owners say they plan on expanding how they offer the space to the public. “We’d like to do events like chocolate-making classes or wine and chocolates,” says Steve, who adds they also hope to expand by growing their gifts for sale. “If you think about the perfect gift, chocolate is pretty darn close to perfect,” he says.

No matter how the business grows, there’s one thing the Lahams say they know will remain constant: their love for chocolate.

“It’s surprising you never get tired of chocolate,” Molli laughs. “You think it will just become part of your day and not be a novelty for you, but that’s not the case. Everyone who works here enjoys coming to work because it’s a fun product.”

To learn more about Chocolates by Grimaldi, you can visit the website here or check out their Facebook page here. You can also find their products locally at their factory at 219 North 7th St. in Grand Haven, or at Crossroad Blueberry Farm and the Sweet Tooth in Rockford. Those interested in taking a tour ($4 per person) should schedule it in advance by calling 616-935-7740.

Cooking up dreams: Small business owners find space to flourish at Downtown Market incubator kitchen

As physicians, Monica Randles and Andrew Maternowski have a deep understanding of what it means to be healthy  — and the critical role food plays in your well-being. Longtime locavores who would regularly support area farms, the couple realized, after they and their two children became vegetarians, that while they could find plenty of healthy, West Michigan-grown produce, they couldn’t find the same for locally made substitute meats.

“We started looking at alternative meat options for vegetarian/vegan eating, and it became obvious to us there weren’t really super healthy options,” Randles says. “There were a lot of chemicals or processed products. We wanted to see what we could make for ourselves that are healthy and delicious, and we ended up making vegan sausages using walnuts, hazelnuts, brown rice, and quinoa. Any sausage is really a vehicle for seasoning, so we could have a hot Italian sausage, a breakfast sausage, which are super healthy and very flavorful.”

The couple started working on their recipe around 2010, and in July 2014 they founded Nutcase Vegan Meats, at which time they knew they needed a commercial kitchen to continue making their line of sausages. A friend recommended connecting with the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, which provides space, cooking and packaging equipment, and business development assistance for food start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“They really helped us,” Randles says of the kitchen, which now houses 21 businesses, ranging from Bloom Ferments, which makes kombucha drinks, and coffee company Prospectors Cold Brew to D’Arts Donuts and soul food spot Southern Smoke. “They’ve been really critical with education and mentoring for the business. We didn’t know what to do in terms of hiring employees or looking for additional staff and support and licensing. They’ve been a big source of information.”

It’s those kind of reviews that Whitney Lubbers, who manages the incubator kitchen, is thrilled to hear. After all, she says, in a city awash with an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s crucial that small businesses owners with limited funds are able to access space to flourish.

“A place like this is so important,” Lubbers says as she sits in her office overlooking the kitchen, an expansive sea of stainless steel equipment that’s used practically around the clock by businesses for everything from frying donuts to slapping labels on bottles. “If they’re not successful here, in the kitchen, they’re not losing everything they have" because they don’t have to invest in an often incredibly expensive brick and mortar site.

One of the few incubator kitchens in West Michigan, the space at the Downtown Market allows businesses to work with Lubbers to make sure they have a viable business plan, and they have immediate access to the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which helps owners on a range of topics, including the county and state licensing processes.

“They’ll really walk you through the process; you can take the ServSafe course so you understand food handling and regulation,” says Randles, whose business now sells their vegan sausages at about a dozen places throughout the state, including at spots like Kingma’s Market, Nourish Organic Market, and Horrocks Market in Grand Rapids. “The incubator kitchen helps you understand the process well prior to having a state inspection. We can’t say enough good things about the incubator kitchen; we wouldn’t be where we are now without them.”

Many of those who go to the incubator kitchen do so based on recommendations, as Randles did, and the space has grown from housing six businesses when the Downtown Market first opened in the summer of 2013 to the current 21 businesses. For Lubbers, that’s indicative of  a need for shared commercial space for entrepreneurs. The kitchen has five distinct areas: pastry, packaging, catering, production, and prep, and the hourly rates to use these spaces vary on a tiered system, depending on what equipment one needs to access and financial need (there are three choices: market rate, support rate and scholarship rate). Plus, the market offers owners access during “non-peak hours” (10pm-6am), which also makes the price drop.

“It was important to us to offer this as soon as the Market opened, to have something that would support small businesses in the city,” Lubbers says. “We saw a need to foster this entrepreneurship; we’re able to accommodate a lot here.”

Of the businesses that have worked out of the kitchen, one, Cultured Love, has “graduated,” or grown out of the space, and two others, Bloom Ferments and Prospectors, are soon poised to leave. While at the incubator kitchen, Prospectors inked a deal with Meijer that places their product in more than 200 stores throughout Michigan and the Midwest.

Sydney Dennison, who runs Masen James Bakery with her mother, Clarice Dennison, and works out of the incubator kitchen, says the communal space has given them a chance to live out a dream.

“My mom has always had a passion for baking,” Dennison says. “For her whole life, people would say, ‘Oh, you won’t make any money that way,’ and so she went and got her Master’s degree in business leadership and works at a hospital now. But every since I was young, I knew she had a talent for baking, and I wanted her to do what she loves. You only have one life; you may as well do what you want. So, I said, ‘Show me how to bake; show me how to do this.”

Dennison notes that it’s not just having the space itself that helps, but that owners have a chance to share words of wisdom with other entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great way to connect,” she says. “We’re sharing the kitchen with a ton of different businesses, and people do collaborations with other businesses all the time. We’ve done things with Prospectors. We feed off of each other; we give each other great exposure.”

For more information about the incubator kitchen, visit its website here.

U.K. based Create and Craft opens Grand Rapids office and is hiring

 , a U.K.-based 24-hour crafts TV channel, is expanding its presence into the U.S. craft shopping and education market with a new office In Grand Rapids at the Calder Plaza Center (250 Monroe Ave NW.)

Offering a variety of products and established brands across craft, sewing, quilting, knitting, and niche creative arts, Create and Craft began broadcasting nationally into approximately 40 million homes in the United States on December 29. Programming can be found on Direct TV channels 85 and 222, along with dish Network channel 221 and online at www.createandcraft.com.

Clive Briscoe, Create and Craft's U.S. project leader says as part of the expansion, the firms has already hired six staff for its Grand Rapids office  and plans to hire at least double that number over the coming months.  "The Grand Rapids office will be responsible for website management, digital, marketing, merchandising and logistics coordination at this stage, however we will likely expand in all areas in the new year."

Briscoe says they will be looking for candidates with experience in the areas outlined above and have posted the most recent opening to the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America website and plan to post other relevant job openings on major and local job boards.

The decision to locate in Grand Rapids came down to several factors. "We considered other larger cities including Chicago. Grand Rapids was on our radar initially because of our partnership with Notions Marketing (distribution of our products). After many visits, we discovered West Michigan was a perfect fit for us with a talented workforce and impressive arts culture. We were also happy to learn that Grand Rapids is host to AQS QuiltWeek that attracts 10,000 people."

Create and Craft boasts an interactive website with project tutorials, promotions, and programs, most of which are currently filmed in the U.K, but which will be partially filmed in Grand Rapids in the future. A custom app is expected to be released in early 2015. "We are excited to bring this innovative crafting network into the US market to inspire creativity and creation. We hope crafting enthusiasts will join us online at createandcraft.com, via Roku or on Dish Network channel 221 or Direct TV channels 85 and 222." says Briscoe.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Job News Editor

'Tis the season for alpaca products, fa la la la la

Beginning in December, Via Verde Farm will be opening their first pop-up store in Ada, displaying a wide variety of alpaca and fiber products for the holidays.

Tamara Miller, owner of Via Verde Farm, says the pop-up store will be based in Scooper's Ice Cream Store at 591 Ada Dr SE in Ada. 

Miller says the inspiration for the pop-up store was really just constant encouragement from her customers and demand for her products: "I had been to a few sales and things went well. There was demand and people were interested. This is the season for alpaca products."

The store will feature alpaca sweaters, coats, hats, mittens, and socks as well as carpets made from fiber from the farm. There will be also be hand-spun yarns and commercial yarns.

Miller says she will also have a unique product with a family twist. "I have several handmade dog leashes constructed out of hand-spun alpaca yarn and then twisted into rope. The handle is woven back into the rope and a clip is twisted into the rope so it is secure. My son makes the rope."

Besides the traditional alpaca products, the pop-up store will serve as a launching pad for a new venture that Miller and two friends are working on. "Two of us make the fabric by nuno felting alpaca fiber into silk or chiffon. Then our friend designs gorgeous pieces of clothing from the fabric," she says. "I will have several of the pieces in the store."

The store will be open until December 21st with operating hours of Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To learn more about Via Verde Farm, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Holiday gift program gets a makeover and investment through Start Garden

There is a personal backstory to the Elf Factory's tag line: "a handmade holiday school program specializing in gifts that parents don't have to pretend to like!"  

Kirsten Field, founder of the Elf Factory, explains the inspiration behind her new venture. "I volunteered at my kids' schools and I was disgusted at the products for the holiday workshop. I knew there had to be something better."

Describing herself as a "stay-at-home-mom getting back into the workforce," Field submitted her idea to Start Garden and received $5,000 in funding after she ran one pilot program with an elementary school. Field says she will use the Start Garden funding for  customer development experiments with five new schools and ultimately try to determine if the idea is scalable. "Our goal is to get a 75 percent participation rate at the schools."

Operationally, Field says that once a school decides to go ahead with the Elf Factory program, she partners with a parent organization and then provides all the craft materials  order forms, timelines, online training videos, and other tools they would need to run an Elf Factory at their school. The concept is designed to for simplicity (approximately four minutes to make a present), affordability, and a much higher quality product than existing holiday programs.

Currently, Field is the only full-time employee but she has four part-time staff that help with assembling the craft boxes.

To learn more, you can follow on Facebook for Elf Factory updates or check out their website at www.elffactory.com.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Dear Prudence adds some bling to downtown Grand Rapids' boutique scene, expands workforce

Another tiny boutique in the retail incubator space at MoDiv has opened, this one with a bit of bling and a lot of custom jewelry options including pieces crafted by local artisans. Dear Prudence, whose flagship store remains in East Grand Rapids (701 Bagley St. SE), jumped at the opportunity to open a second shop, this time in a central downtown location (40 Monroe Center Ave. NW).

Prudence and Brad Kauffman set up the new shop in just 200 square feet nestled next to bokay by Eastern Floral and Wolverine Company Store. The owners, who both have full-time day jobs, added a full-time position to the downtown economy when they brought Stephanie Wood aboard as shop manager.

"We wanted somebody who could be creative, and confident enough to make decisions on their own," says Prudence Kauffman. "We met Stephanie several months ago and she was available. She wants to eventually open her own shop, so she's getting a lot of experience with us."

Kauffman says she selected the most popular items featured at Dear Prudence in East Grand Rapids to sell downtown. Those items include custom monogrammed necklaces, phone cases, iPad cases, and wire jewelry in the shape of the state of Michigan. Other pieces include jewelry made from vintage maps -- customers can customize the pieces to any location -- and jewelry by local artist studios Luminous Creation and Lake Effect Studios.

"We lived in Winston-Salem for 20 years and saw how that city struggled because it didn't have a vibrant downtown district," Kauffman says. "So when we moved here and saw the big push to create downtown, we wanted to be a part of it. When we opened the first store, we couldn't afford anything downtown, but then we heard about MoDiv."

Dear Prudence will have a grand opening on Thurs., April 18 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Source: Prudence Kauffman, Dear Prudence
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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Cabela's Grandville store to open soon bringing 200 jobs, some positions still available

Cabela's, which bills itself as the world's foremost outfitter, opens its third Michigan location in Grandville on March 21 and plans to have some 200 new part-time, full-time, and seasonal employees ready to serve customers.

The new 88,000-square-foot store (44th St. at Ivanrest) is part of a 43-acre mixed-use project under development by CWD Real Estate Investment, who purchased the former X-Rite property in 2009.

Cabela's, a stand-alone building within that development, will feature an indoor replica mountain populated with North American game animals, an indoor archery range where customers can try out archery gear before purchasing, a deli, and a 40-flavor fudge shop.

Although many of the jobs are filled, this week Cabela's website listed several positions still open, including retail marketing manager, boat/ATV service mechanic, power sports sales outfitter, and gun library manager.

Cabela's spokesperson Wes Remmer says the company encourages interested applicants to visit the store's website, complete an application, and submit a résumé.

"Being retail, jobs are always opening up," Remmer says. "We're looking for people passionate about the outdoors and who love to provide good customer service."

To review all of the jobs or to apply for a position, click here.

Remmer says the grand opening on Thurs., Mar. 21 begins at 11 a.m. and will run the entire weekend, featuring outdoor television personalities, product giveaways, and family events.

Source: Wes Remmer, Cabela's; Tyler Lecceadone, SeyferthPR
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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Downtown Grand Rapids' new Kilwin's location is a great place for first time job seekers

For many high school and college students, summer doesn't just mean time off from school -- it also means landing their first job.

Tim Calderone, owner of the newly opened Kilwin's Chocolates and Ice Cream franchise in downtown Grand Rapids (McKay Tower, 146 Monroe Center NW), is happy to employ first-time job seekers as well as those who have minimal work experience.

"We hire a lot of first time jobbers," Calderone says. "We've got seven or eight people who have never had a job before. One of our fudge makers, probably our best guy who works in the kitchen in production, never had a job before. Both my wife and I have a lot of leadership experience in our professional life, so we look forward to being able to help develop some of these young kids as we build the business."

The new franchise, which opened in May, currently supports 17 part-time workers and one full-time management position, most of them high school or college students. Calderone says he is still looking to hire additional part-time customer service and production employees for 25-30 hours a week.

Employees hired for production positions will work in the store's show kitchen making fudge, caramel and hand dipped chocolates, while customer service employees are in charge of all ice cream and chocolate sales.

Calderone says he is looking for outgoing people who enjoy interacting with customers and are willing to help create a unique experience for shoppers.

"The product is good, that's a given," Calderone says. "But the experience when people come into the store, we want them to go out saying, 'that was a really cool place to go because of the people.'"

For an application visit www.kilwins.com/career-opportunities.

Source: Tim Calderone, Kilwin's Chocolates and Ice Cream
Writer: Charlsie Dewey, Freelance Reporter

Independent grocer explores technology to serve customers

Although there have a been a great deal of technological advances in the grocery industry over the years, primarily operational, technology is not always the first thing that customers think about when grocery shopping.  

However, for independent grocer Forest Hills Foods, applying technology to  customer service will be one strategy they explore to better serve customers.

Jeff VandenBerge, president of Forest Hills Foods, singles out a mobile shopping application currently being developed in conjunction with Jonathan Engelsma at the Grand Valley State University App Lab as one example of how technology will be used for customer service. The  app will have several features, such as an interior map of the store and coupons to make the shopping experience easier and faster.

Forest Hills Foods' website also has a meal planning interface, daily recipes, information on cooking workshops at the store, exclusive email coupons and links to their Facebook page.  

VandenBerge is quick to point out that he is more concerned with not being "behind the curve" than being "ahead of the curve."

"Everyone in this industry is looking towards technological solutions to enhance the shopping experience," he says, "and we are a little ahead of the curve, but our resources are limited. The potential is tremendous, however."

Besides the application and web-based services, VandenBerge also focuses on non-technological ways to remain responsive to customers, pointing out the growth of their gluten-free products and the increase in locally-sourced produce. "Many of our marketing initiatives are the result of what our customers tells us," he says.

To learn more about Forest Hills Foods, you can visit their website here.

Source: Jeff VandenBerge, Forest Hills Foods
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs Editor


Online buying club ready to roll after January Startup Weekend

At Startup Weekend last January, Paul Kortman pitched an idea and spent the next 48 hours working to start the development of a web-based buying club.

While Startup Weekend is an event with the intention of "starting something," some ventures move forward after the weekend, and others do not. In Kortman's case, the weekend proved to be the platform he needed.

Kortman came to the weekend with the concept partially developed, but stated "we wouldn't be here today without Startup Weekend. I formed a team, and am now lightyears ahead of where I would be without that experience."

Kortman, owner/founder of Connex Social, now has a dedicated team and is ready to test Bulko, a concept that "leverages the power of group buying by providing wholesale purchase discounts to subscribers of the service."

Kortman references the growing trend of discount buying services like Groupon and says his niche will be products versus services. Initially, Bulko will focus on three industries: wine, health food/natural products and consumer products in the green/energy sector.

The Bulko team is ready to test their concept with 25 participants in West Michigan and has plans to enter an expanded beta test this summer.

Kortman is also seeking investors for his venture, which is a change from his initial approach of bootstrapping the operation. "We are looking to get funding to have developers quit their day jobs," he says.

Team members include developers Joe Vanderstelt, Jack Slingerland and co-founders Sarah Cleveland and Paul Kortman.

Source: Paul Kortman, Bulko
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs Editor

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