game changers

Rising Tide in Benton Harbor: Women lead way to improved fresh, local food options

By / Photography By Ben Pancoast | September 02, 2015
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Benton Harbor draws food lovers downtown thanks to the creativity and collaboration of (left to right) Jayme Cousins, Cate Smedley and Teri Robinson.
When Cate Smedley heard of a gelato shop in downtown Benton Harbor, she was skeptical. Smedley, a 2013 transplant from Cleveland, thought Benton Harbor had little more to offer than the big-box stores off Pipestone Street. Then she found GelatoWorks, tucked inside Benton Harbor’s Water Street Glassworks, an art studio and retail space just over the bridge in the city’s Arts District. 
As she treated herself to the artisan gelato made by Palazzolo’s in nearby Fennville, she looked across the street and saw The Livery microbrewery and pub. Smedley, a cook and fermentation specialist with a degree in culinary anthropology, says, “I came down and applied and was hired the next day.” That was in 2013.
Today, Smedley, along with other local women—like Jayme Cousins of the Mason Jar café and Teri Robinson of Phoenix Rising café—is working to make fresh, Michiana-grown food a trademark of downtown Benton Harbor. But by sourcing produce and meats from nearby farms and bringing new business into the city’s core, they have done more than just up the availability of artisanal food; they have joined forces with city leaders and residents transforming Benton Harbor from a local food desert into a local food hub.
Ingredients from local farms shine on The Livery’s beet, fennel, arugula, thyme, goat cheese and housemade prosciutto pizza.
Craft beers, handmade pizzas
Since its opening in 2005, The Livery has cultivated a large fan base with its craft beer. Now, thanks to Smedley, that following increasingly extends to its food as well. The menu features hand-tossed pizzas topped by whatever Smedley can think up, including house-cured meats, vegetables from the farmers market, cheeses from Indianapolis’s Smoking Goose and, for the adventurous, a kimchi pizza. 
“I put that on there for myself,” Smedley admits. “It’s made with hoisin sauce and pork belly that comes from the farm where I live. I really didn’t think that it was going to sell well at all, but it’s our top seller.”
Smedley sources most of The Livery’s produce from within 30 miles of the city, from places like Middlebrook Farm in Three Oaks and Meadowbrook 1936, the Benton Harbor heritage breed pig farm where Smedley lives. “And,” she adds, “most of it’s less than that—it’s five miles.” Some comes from even closer: Smedley grows a variety of herbs and small vegetables right outside the pub on The Livery’s beer porch.
Smedley also uses as much as she can from The Livery’s brewing process. “I use spent grain in our pizza crusts. And anytime we empty out the tanks, I take those castoffs and turn them into vinegar. From that I’m able to do pickles and reduction sauces that end up on our pizza.”
Local fare at Phoenix
Just down the road from The Livery, Teri Robinson has been running the Phoenix Rising café for five years and was one of the first in the downtown area to start sourcing her food locally. 
“The farm-to-table idea has always been a part of my life,” Robinson explains. “There’s the health benefit of knowing where your food comes from. If there’s an option to not have something traveling across the country, it’s just common sense to get it from close by.”
And, she adds, “There’s a sense of community when your food is local. It becomes more meaningful.” Robinson is now looking into partnering with a community center, Brunson Hill Arthouse, a nonprofit that teaches children in one of the city’s more economically challenged areas how to grow food.
The Phoenix café serves food sourced mainly from Mud Lake Farm in Hudsonville and a few small local farms, depending on what’s in season. Most of Robinson’s menu is housemade. “The thing we’re most known for is our croissants, which we make from scratch. But my personal favorite is the Squirrel Plate,” she says while pitting cherries that will be used in her baked goods. The plate features housemade hummus, walnut-encrusted goat cheese and fresh veggies.
Dining al fresco at the Mason Jar in Benton Harbor.
Creating a niche
Local food is also on the menu at the nearby Mason Jar café, a popular spot for breakfast and lunch. “Michigan is such a huge agricultural state that it doesn’t make sense to get it from anywhere else,” says Jayme Cousins, who runs the café with her husband, chef Abel Martinez.
Cousins buys produce regularly from Piggott’s Farm Market in Benton Harbor and Blue Star Produce in Buchanan. She also buys organic eggs from Green Meadows Farm in Elsie for the café’s famous huevos rancheros.
The Mason Jar celebrated its one-year anniversary over the summer. Cousins, who’s lived in the area for eight years, was initially wary of opening a from-scratch breakfast and lunch business in Benton Harbor. “Before we opened, we had a lot of people tell us they didn’t want that kind of food,” she recalls, seated inside the restaurant that’s now so busy there’s often a wait for tables. 
“We’ve had real success here, and now people tell us that they love it.”
A city founded by farmers
The availability of fresh local food in Benton Harbor is a change from just five years ago but is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the city has a long history as a distribution center for regional fruits and vegetables. Benton Harbor was founded by fruit farmers who built up the town by constructing a canal and turning the area into a lake port with a successful fruit trade. 
“Benton Harbor had a huge produce market years ago,” says Rod Lawrence, coordinator of the Harbor Market, the newest farmers market in town. “It was a major, major business in the area. Farmers could bring their produce to Benton Harbor and they could put it on boats to Chicago and other places quickly.” By the 1930s, the city had one of the largest non-citrus produce markets in the world.
That changed, Lawrence explains, when the trucking industry took off and shipping by boat was no longer the best option. Business slowed, and as industry left the area so did farmers. For decades afterward, fresh food was scarce in a city plagued with socioeconomic difficulties.
A turning point
Five years ago, the Berrien County Health Department brought a farmers market to the heart of downtown, offering area vendors fee-free spots to sell their fruits and vegetables to residents. Nicki Britten, director of community health planning, knew that the city needed fresh local food and sought out several grants to support the market. The Benton Harbor Farmers Market accepts cash, Bridge Cards, WIC Project FRESH and Senior Market FRESH coupons in an effort to make the produce accessible. 
“On one hand, we’re helping to get fresh fruits and veggies downtown,” explains Jillian Conrad of the health department. “And, on the other hand, we’re helping out the local economy by letting these vendors sell their produce without any fees.”
A second farmers market, the Harbor Market, opened on Main Street one year later. “It started as kind of a very little project,” coordinator Rod Lawrence remembers, but the market quickly attracted clients and now features 30 to 50 vendors and 400 to 500 customers a week.
“Benton Harbor is a really vibrant place with a lot of things that get overlooked,” Conrad says. “There’s a lot of work being done to enhance the community.” Residents, she notes, are starting their own community gardens and participating in cooking classes and demonstrations offered
by the health department.
For restaurants, however, purchasing wholesale local produce was a challenge until Smedley, Robinson and Cousins joined forces. Even after the Mason Jar opened last year, the women found that wholesale farmers wouldn’t come downtown. “It just wasn’t financially worth it for farmers to drive here and drop things off for us,” Smedley explains. “I was doing a lot of running around and just gathering everything, going to different farmers markets and driving out to Indiana to pick things up and bringing it all back in my car.”
The women realized that by working together, they would all benefit. “We started placing orders together to get them to be financially enough of an incentive for somebody to come down here,” Smedley says. “Now, with the three of us doing as well as we are, it’s not a problem anymore and we’re able to get weekly deliveries of amazing produce.”
In fact, the women are now approached by farmers coming to their doors to ask if the kitchen is interested in their crops. “A farmer came in with organic strawberries the other day and said, ‘Do you want these?’” Cousins recalls. “I said, ‘Of course we want these!’ It’s amazing now how a lot of people are finding us.” 
‘The support is there’
All three women believe that Benton Harbor is on an upswing. “This area has obviously suffered a great depression,” Smedley says. “There’s this lasting impression that Benton Harbor is dangerous or that you can’t be here at night, and that’s really unfortunate because that’s not the case. It’s an incredibly welcoming community.”
“Definitely, there’s a lot more business and more people coming here,” Robinson affirms. “When people think of the restaurants here, they do think of good food. Benton Harbor’s starting to build up a reputation as a place to come eat.”
“If the last five years have been any indication, I do believe it’s going to continue to grow,” she continues. “Eventually I want to have a warehouse offsite where I’m baking bread and roasting my own coffee. I would love to see those types of things come back to Benton Harbor and I think it’ll happen. It just takes a little time and the right support, and I think the support is there now.”
‘A mutual respect’
Cousins, Robinson and Smedley meet regularly to talk shop, share notes and support each other. “There’s a mutual respect, there’s a friendship and camaraderie. We know how difficult it was for us in our own ventures to get things going so it’s just better to work together. We all meet and kvetch and share stories of woe and triumph,” Smedley says. “If anybody runs out of anything, it’s just a phone call away. It’s basically like borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor.”
Robinson says she appreciates what the women have been able to bring to the city. “It’s good to see women are becoming a bigger part of the local food scene downtown. We all bring something to the table. It’s a powerful connection, and when you have multiple people working together you can do far more than one person can.” 
The Livery
190 Fifth St.
Benton Harbor, MI
Phoenix Rising
124 Water St.
Benton Harbor, MI
Mason Jar Café
210 Water St.
Benton Harbor, MI
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