BTN LiveBIG: Michigan State Product Center plants seed for food entrepreneurs

BTN LiveBIG: Michigan State Product Center plants seed for food entrepreneurs

For Tony Menyhart, coming up with a no-frills bread recipe wasn’t challenging, but finding the resources to take his product to supermarkets around the country wasn’t exactly a cakewalk.

MichiganState_ProductCenter3In order to get the guidance and infrastructure he needed to bring his company, Easy Artisan Bread, to a store near you, he turned to Michigan State’s Product Center, an organization committed to helping agricultural ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them reach market and succeed.

“Our mission is to serve the food, agriculture and natural-resources sectors,” explained Brenda Reau, the Product Center’s senior associate director. “… What we are is really a connector for clients to resources.”

Founded in 2003, the organization is a one-of-a-kind initiative that provides resources to people all over the state thanks to funding from the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station as well as Michigan State University’s Extension program.

Since its launch, the Product Center has helped develop 455 businesses and projects, leading to nearly 1,300 new jobs. In their 12 years, the Product Center has aided everyone from first-time entrepreneurs to established companies and professional growers.

“We work with them in the concept development process to really flush out and see, ‘Is this going to be a viable idea? Is there a market for this product?’” Reau explained. “Having them do even some informal market research … Really looking at the market and defining the concept.”

The organization’s work ranges from helping clients navigate regulatory agencies like the USDA, to connecting them with potential buyers.

MichiganState_ProductCenter2Their capstone event is the annual Making it in Michigan conference and trade show, which serves as a tremendous opportunity for clients to showcase their product to both consumers and distributors. The most recent one took place last week.

“I went to the first one just to learn more about it and see what the trade show was like, and we’ve actually been an exhibitor at the last four trade shows,” said Menyhart, who began working with the Product Center in 2011. “It’s been building each year. I’ve been assured by two of the senior buyers at the buyers’ stores, which are huge in the Midwest, that we’re going to be in a couple hundred of their stores.”

Now that Easy Artisan is making inroads into stores across the country, Menyhart could not speak more highly of the program that helped him take his bread from farmers’ markets to national chains.

“I think [it’s] the first place anyone with a food product should start if they’re out of Michigan,” he said of the Product Center. “It’s lonely being an entrepreneur. You have to have some support somewhere.”

By Grant Rindner

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