Michigan residents take pride in their state and what it produces. Cory Wright discovered this when he founded Mitten Crate in 2013, a premier online retailer of Michigan food and food-related products and a subscription food-box service.
“Michiganders are always looking for ways to support their communities and uplift each other,” Wright says. “We grew up in Michigan and call it home, so for Mitten Crate, there isn’t really an option to conduct business elsewhere.”
That sense of state pride may be why more than 856,000 small businesses employing nearly 1.8 million workers call Michigan home.
Relying on Michigan’s Great Agriculture
One of the keys to small business success in Michigan is the partnerships formed between these companies and the agriculture industry.
Connor Sports’ manufacturing headquarters is located in Amasa in the Upper Peninsula’s Iron County. Founded in 1872, this small business employs about 125 Michiganders and another 25 people across the country. The company manufactures flooring for sports venues including famously producing the official surface of the NCAA for men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. It also builds basketball floors for around half of the NBA teams and has created surfaces for the World Cup and the Olympic Games in Rio.
“We use northern maple for 99 percent of all basketball and gym courts that we produce,” says Doug Grove, national sales director. “There is an abundance of northern maple trees growing in the Upper Peninsula, so our manufacturing plant is correctly located near the resource.”
To get the best performance for a sports court, Grove says they must use maple trees grown north of the 35th parallel. In this region, of which Michigan is a part of, the growing seasons are shorter and the cold temperatures make the wood hard. This allows for permanent gym courts to withstand the weight of the bleachers and allows the portable hoops, which are moved frequently, to be moved without splintering the wood.
In addition to its national and international presence, Connor Sports showcases its Michigan pride by supporting the local community. Each year, it supports the Great Eight Winter Games, where eight high schools around Iron County compete against each other.
“Everyone gets excited about the Final Four,” Grove says. “This year is special because one of the regional games is in Detroit, so we will be manufacturing the floor in northwest Michigan and installing it in southeast Michigan.”
Connor Sports harvests northern maples grown in Michigan, and it works closely with sustainable growers to ensure the resource is managed properly so forests can regrow.
“We pay close attention to sustainability,” Grove says. “There are more trees here now than there were in 1950.”
Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City also takes advantage of Michigan’s rich local agriculture resources to create its products, including Ole George, a straight rye whiskey that has earned five gold medals and three best of category designations at the American Distillers Institute.
“One hundred percent of our wheat, rye and corn is locally grown by Send Brothers Farms, about 10 miles from our distillery, and all of my malted barley now comes from Michigan malting houses,” says Kent Rabish, the distillery’s owner and president. “We want to support Michigan agriculture and produce a spirit that starts off with grain being delivered to our location and ends up a spirit in our bottle.”
Since opening in June of 2007, Grand Traverse Distillery has prided itself as a “Grain to Bottle Artisan Distiller” which supports the state’s agriculture industry and now boasts the “Pure Michigan” seal on most of its products.
Grand Traverse Distillery is a craft distillery producing gin, rum, a selection of vodka varieties including wheat, cherry, chocolate and chipotle, and a series of whiskeys including cherry, Bourbon and Islay.
Rabish grew up farming on his uncle’s farm in Pinconning. “I loved the idea of taking a seed in the ground in spring and harvesting something from it in the fall. When I experienced craft distilling out West, I wanted to do the same here in Michigan.”
Sustaining Business for the Future
It’s that confidence in Michigan that leads so many businesses to open and thrive in the state. Mitten Crate launched in 2013 as a way for lovers of Michigan food to discover new locally made items.
“Initially we had just a subscription box that was sent out once a month,” Wright says. “Over the years, we have added corporate gift programs, event gifts and small-scale distribution. We are relaunching our website to be the premier online retailer of Michigan food and food-related products.”
Mitten Crate ships shelf-stable foods, or food products that can last a while such as salsa, toffee, candles, chips, spice rubs and trail mix. It features “Michigan Made” products, Wright says, which includes things grown in Michigan as well as items processed by local companies.