A hub for the West Michigan food systems. A place for local farmers and food producers to connect with diverse customers. Opportunities for entrepreneurs. Education about farming, food, nutrition and healthy lifestyles.
Mimi Fritz, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, shared the original vision for the city's food center when it opened in May 2013—but what does the market offer today? Mimi offers updates from the market's first three years, and what to expect in the future.
How has the market met its original expectations—and how has it grown to fulfill additional purposes?
Three years later, the Downtown Market has exceeded nearly all our expectations. Its presence and success has spurred development in the neighborhood, our Education Foundation is giving back to the community every single day, and our Market Hall and Incubator Kitchen have many successful tenants, including some who are even branching out on their own or with new locations.
The Market was also designed to be a catalyst for economic development, and to that regard we have seen many successes. Neighborhood revitalization seems to be on the fast track as the Market District now includes two fully-renovated loft buildings that are full to capacity, with new retail, including recently opened Moosejaw and Craft Beer Cellar, opening this fall. Additionally, we've seen multiple Incubator Kitchen tenants graduate from our kitchen and programs—and at least six of our tenants have significantly expanded their business models or added locations.
At 3 years old, we're still quite young from a business perspective! But we work hard every day to cultivate a sustainable, vibrant food economy, to be the preeminent regional destination for innovative food experiences, and to connect people to opportunities for healthier living.
We're particularly proud of our valuable community partnerships and collaborations, and are always excited to welcome both individuals and community groups into the market to learn about how to cook healthy meals and how to grow their own food.
How has the Downtown Market changed over the past three years?
One exciting thing about a place like the Downtown Market is the entrepreneurial spirit. This means that you'll find something new and different every day you visit the Downtown Market. Our tenants are always trying new recipes, adding products, offering new tastes and—most importantly—love to hear their customers' feedback.
Our Market Hall has evolved and changed, with the addition of two full-service restaurants and many new businesses thriving in the Market Hall. While the Incubator Kitchen is out of sight from the general public, there's a tremendous amount of important work and developments going on there. At any given time, the Incubator Kitchen is home to 20 or more start up food businesses, many working through scholarship rates.
The Downtown Market's mission remains focused on building a sustainable food business economy, and the Incubator Kitchen is where it starts. We have a new partnership with GVSU's Small Business Development Center that requires tenant participation in SBDC programming, and our program with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber and the Latino Business and Economic Development Center of Ferris State University offers opportunities for Latino-owned food entrepreneurs. Our recent acceptance into Varnum's MISpringboard program offers Incubator Kitchen tenants the opportunity to receive up to $5,000 in free legal services tied to starting a food business.
What does the market offer the community?
The Market has been successful in creating a large number of ongoing partnerships to help community members and organizations. Our greenhouse has become not only a place for growing plants, but also for growing people: We're working with The Dwelling Place to teach neighborhood residents gardening skills; conducting soil sample testing for the Well House community gardens; working alongside client teams of individuals recovering from brain injuries from the Hope Network; donating greenhouse-grown plants to community groups such as the Urban League, Garfield Park Neighborhood Association and the Child Discovery Center; and working in community-based occupational training for high school special needs individuals learning workplace skills.
In addition to all those partnerships, our Market Hall and outdoor spaces offer the community a place where everyone is welcome to gather for a meal, meeting or any of our many free events throughout the year.
We have recently completed a three-year strategic planning process, and our vision and mission will be reviewed and amended, if necessary, in three years. What we know is that the Market District that the Downtown Market has given birth to is now starting to grow. That is exciting to me personally, to the board of directors, to the Market staff and tenants, to the neighborhood and also to the community. Last month, two new businesses opened in Klingman Lofts, both a great tie into what we are working so hard to create.
What has surprised you the most about the Downtown Market?
We've had tremendous interest and success in two areas where we weren't sure what to expect—our education department and event rental programs.
We have a very robust education program that offers classes and programs for individuals and groups of all ages. We never imagined we'd need a full staff for this department, and it has grown beyond our wildest imagination. Each year, thousands of people participate in culinary classes, beverage classes, greenhouse classes, summer camps, scholarship programs and more. These types of community offerings allow us to further our mission in creating a healthier community.
The Downtown Market offers multiple venues for private event rentals, which is also far above and beyond what we anticipated. This year alone, the Downtown Market will host more than 400 private events, including over 65 wedding receptions, with many weddings taking place in the greenhouse.
Learn more at downtownmarketgr.com.