‘Shark Tank’-type contest aims to grow businesses

Aly Caverson, owner of Happy Girl Granola in Owosso, is shown at last year’s pitch competition to support small businesses, conducted at The Armory.

SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — Local entrepreneurs soon will get a chance to obtain help growing their food businesses with an upcoming “Shark Tank”-type contest.

In the program, applications are being accepted through Sept. 25 for “Shiawassee Small Batch Support,” a program in which small food business finalists make a pitch to judges during a virtual competition set for Oct. 23.

Up to 10 winners will be awarded a host of consulting services and opportunities worth up to $5,000 each.

“This will absolutely help a new business in the food industry. In terms of the services awardees will win, the program really wraps its arms around the entrepreneur and walks them through the stages to launching production or taking their product to market,” said Sue Kadlek, interim president/CEO of the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The “Shark Tank” TV show on ABC features a group of successful business people who listen to pitches from small business owners who hope to obtain financing or other support to take their products national.

The local program is hosted by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in partnership with the Chamber and MI Small Business Development, Owosso Main Street/Downtown Development Agency and Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership.

To be eligible, applicants must be located in Shiawassee County, have under $750,000 in annual revenue, have 10 employees or fewer and operate a food business under the Michigan Cottage Food Law or Michigan Food Law.

Between five and 10 businesses can win, with each receiving customized support services valued up to $5,000, for a total of no more than $25,000. Services include consulting by experts on branding and marketing, e-commerce development and operations, and strategic planning.

Winners will receive production/processing space inside the Michigan State University Food Processing and Innovation Center, a cutting-edge facility in Okemos, where they will learn how to create and commercialize new foods and beverages.

Industry experts will share their knowledge about labeling, packaging, food safety, marketing and other important aspects of the food business, Kadlek said.

Awardees will also get exhibit space at the 2021 Making It in Michigan food show, an annual event held at the MSU Breslin Center, attended by such large buyers as Meijer and Kroger.

Maybe most importantly, winners will get critical connections to buyers — without whom no business can succeed.

“Long-term relationships with retailers can come out of it,” Kadlek said, pointing to the success of previous winner Joe Oginsky, who has a storefront in Westown. Oginsky’s cream horns are featured in the refrigerated dairy section at retail giant Meijer.

Winning the pitch contest last year was Aly Caverson, owner of Happy Girl Granola in Owosso. The publicity she gained brought new customers into her then-new storefront in Westown. She used her prize money to offer other retail items in the store.

The pitch itself helped her overcome her shyness in speaking in front of a group.

“I was really nervous, and it helped me have a little more confidence in speaking to a group of people about my business,” she said.

This time around, because of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, Shiawassee Small Batch Support pitches to judges will be conducted online.

Told about this year’s consulting services prizes, Caverson said, “That’s a huge benefit for people who are just starting out or who are ready to take their business to the next step with a lot of help and support. At Michigan State University, you’ll get many more connections, too.”

Here’s the contest time line: Applications close Sept. 25. Finalists are announced Oct. 2 with an invitation to participate in the virtual pitch. Oct. 8 is a Pitch Prep Workshop for finalists. Winners will be announced at the end of the virtual pitch session Oct. 23.

Judges for Shiawassee Small Batch Support are yet to be determined but in the past have included local business leaders.

All it takes to win is a great idea for a food business — among the types of businesses that have been popping up a lot in Shiawassee County.

“We have seen a rise in food-related companies locally,” Kadlek said, naming newer local businesses Cupcakes and Kisses, Nom Nom Sweeties and the Owosso Cookie Company. “These folks have found a niche, and turned their kitchen hobby into viable businesses.”

For more information or to complete an application, visit pmbc.connect.space/small-batch-support/details or email pmbc@michigan.org.

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