Hunting the Back Roads for the Flavors of Michigan

When Ada-based graphic designer Gregg Palazzolo finished working with local food publication Flavor 616 earlier this year, he knew his role in Michigan's food journalism scene wasn't over. There was too much going on, he thought, in the state's explosion of culinary talent for him to sit on his heels while others told the story.

"We just kept watching new places open downtown, one after another, after another, after another," Palazzolo says. "I can imagine, back since the furniture days of Grand Rapids, that there's been nothing like this... There’s something there, that whole synergy -- we could just feel that something new was going on."

Enter Roadbelly, a new quarterly food magazine that boasts a staff of more than 20 writers, photographers, illustrators, and other creative types. The group's mission is to search out sources of fresh Michigan cuisine that haven’t been covered before, whether they’re based out of an upscale lounge space or the back of a flatbed truck. And they arrive armed with Palazzolo's 30-plus years of graphic design experience, plus his homegrown aesthetic for Roadbelly: A sort of mashup of mid-century Swiss-style typography and the dusty outlaw adventurism of Easy Rider, complete with a cattle-horned '78 Lincoln Continental serving as the magazine's cover model and unofficial mascot.

Their first "Test Drive" issue (available here) unfurls a lush picture, through full-page photographs and bursts of textual excitement, of a Michigan food community that’s just waking up to itself and suddenly blossoming on all levels: Traditional highbrow bars and coffeeshops, apartment-based bakeries and backyard fields of hops, imported Italian pizza ovens bolted to utility trailers and roaming the highways. Palazzolo says he hopes to tell the stories of these unlikely eateries and culinary dreams-come-true, all while keeping the publication completely free of any advertising.

"We go in and capture the essence of a place as simply as possible," he says. "We're calling it kind of a photo-torial perspective, where it’s very image-laden, but there’s still enough of a story for the older generation. So you can just kind of see this Michigan food renaissance happening with words and pictures. And, we hope to leave enough intrigue on the table to get people up and out of their homes."

Palazzolo’s passion for local cuisine and ingredients runs deep: His grandfather, Vito Palazzolo, founded Palazzolo's Dairy in West Michigan in 1907. Still, passion requires resources, and without any advertising, Roadbelly requires a different sort of revenue model to bring its tales to print. Palazzolo initially conceived of the magazine as an ad-free e-book, but after an early focus group convinced him that his readers still wanted a print edition, he had to find a different model -- something altogether new and untested.

Palazzolo then redesigned Roadbelly as something that the journalism world (the respected portion of it, anyway) had never seriously tried before: A collaboration between the magazine and its subjects, where venues would pay a sponsorship fee in order to have their story told in a two-page spread. For an appearance in Roadbelly, a venue has to pay the magazine $500, and in return they receive 50 copies of their featured issue and a .PDF file of their article for their own use.

"The business model is really kind of driving the whole thing," Palazzolo says. "All these [Michigan food publications] that come and go, they’re basically whores to the advertiser. So we wanted a business model that kind of walked around that and helped the people that really need the help. The chains don’t need this, but they’re the only ones that can really afford to spend five, six hundred dollars a month for an ad in Grand Rapids Magazine."

"[The venues] pony up 500 bucks," he continues, "and in return, they become basically a bookstore, so it'll also drive traffic to their place. We came up with $500 because we thought it was the minimum investment some small place can make, and if they sell all 50 copies of the magazine [at $5.99 retail price], it's basically $200 out-of-pocket."

Journalism purists might howl at the prospect of a magazine taking money from its sources, but Palazzolo insists that Roadbelly is not about turning a profit. He’s quick to point out that fans of a restaurant or venue can come together and post their favorite eatery’s appearance fee if they’re passionate about getting their haunt featured in Roadbelly. And Roadbelly plans to cover selected locations pro bono if they believe that the venue really can’t afford the appearance fee.

"We have a handful of locations that probably can't afford even the five hundred bucks," Palazzolo says, "but we're going to cover them anyway, because they’ll be obviously a good ingredient in the full recipe of what Roadbelly is trying to impart. None of this has ever been done before, [but] it’s not being done for profit. No one’s gonna get rich on this one."

Will readers hesitate to trust a magazine after subjects have offered up money to appear in its pages? It's possible, but Palazzolo isn't especially concerned with erecting a screen of impartiality. He wants to champion the local chefs, brewers, and culinary chemists that are bringing the cuisine of West Michigan to the tip of the collective tongue -- and he's willing to try something new and a little controversial in order to do it. That's Roadbelly, then: A broth of local-first, punk food fetishism with a dash of budget-minded business sense and pragmatic ingenuity.

"[Roadbelly] is basically like a hobby gone awry for us," Palazzolo says. "We're not trying to be like a regular food critic’s magazine, because I’ve read those, and usually you end up going to the place the critic was talking about and you're like, 'Where were YOU eating?' We thought, let's let our consumer decide whether it's a good place or not. We're not going to make that call. So this is just kind of a manual, a guide we’re calling it, to just help get people out there."

Tiffany Ewigleben, head writer for Roadbelly and the wife of a local chef, sums up the dream in brief: "The idea is, we want to encourage people to explore these places on their own. It's 'Roadbelly.' We want people to go on the road, we want people to seek [these places] out themselves and go there and experience it and try it. It’s a journey."

You can read the free "Test Drive" issue of Roadbelly Magazine here

Steven Thomas Kent is a Michigan son who ran away to join the circus called Chicago for the better part of a decade. All grown up now and based in Grand Rapids, he can be stalked on Twitter @steventkent or reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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