Wrapping up 2016 at Local First

Every year, Local First continues to see the local economy grow by putting people first. As we wrap up another great year packed with educational programs and community-building events, we are inspired by the response of the people who are putting their money where their mitten is. As we look ahead to 2017, we ask for you to do the same.

In the coming years, we hope to take our work to new levels. However, our work can only grow so much without the support of individuals like you–individuals who believe in the power of relationships to create a resilient economy and a vibrant and sustainable West Michigan. Your tax deductible gift of $50, $100, $250 or even $750 or more will allow us to teach and show others how to become active participants in their economy. Each of these levels comes with its own gift – check them out


Thank you in advance for your thoughtful giving – we sincerely appreciate your support!


You matter,

Elissa Hillary, Executive Director

What we did in 2016

At the Annual Meeting in January, we honored businesses and individuals who help strengthen our economy by using their business as a force for good. During the ceremony, I shared some of my own personal experiences from the year and what it means to me to live on a human scale.

In March, more than 20 farms participated in Growers’ Fare, a collaboration between Local First, the West Michigan Growers Group, and MSU Extension. Over 200 people came to learn about community supported agriculture and what it means to support the local food system.


This spring, we kicked off our third INsight Series, monthly workshops that educate business owners about sustainable business practices. Panel experts shared their knowledge on topics that ranged from inclusion and equity to reducing energy costs.

In June, we brought hundreds of people together at a soggy Street Party in Downtown Grand Rapids. We ate, danced in the rain, drew on the sidewalk and made recycled arts and crafts. In August, and not to be outdone, the Lakeshore Street Party was dramatically introduced by a region-wide Tornado warning. Fortunately, the sun came out and attendees were able to safely enjoy the day’s events.

This fall, we hosted two Fork Fest events that helped build a human connection between 50 local food entrepreneurs and 900 attendees in Grand Rapids and the on the Lakeshore. We are so grateful for everyone who participated in this fantastic year of putting people first!


Madcap returns to Fork Fest!

Today's Fork Fest celebration will feature local food and beverage businesses who have been mainstays in West Michigan for decades, but it will also highlight newer businesses who have recently made a big impact on the local scene.

One of those recent success stories, Madcap Coffee, will return as a Fork Fest vendor this year to showcase their Oktoberfest brewed hot coffee and their nitro Cold Coffee.

“I am excited for the event as we will get to put coffee into the hands of people who might not be able to make it downtown and experience it at the cafe,” said Jonathan Miller, Madcaps’ Cafe Educator and Trainer. “We’ll also get to share how we are growing as a company and the exciting things to come.”

As the holidays approach after Fork Fest, Madcap will once again feature their seasonal bestseller blend, Holiday Fusion. New for 2016 will be Madcap’s Ethiopia Series, it will contain a set of eight different coffees all from distinct areas of Ethiopia, each having a unique flavor profile. “With the series, you will be able to experience the vastness of what coffee can taste like from where it originated,” Miller said.

Madcap was founded in 2008 as a coffee shop focused on building relationships between farmers, baristas and customers. “As Madcap has grown, we have worked hard to make ourselves an important part of the community and are excited to be expanding and growing in our hometown. We look forward to being able to offer the Madcap experience to the different neighborhoods of Grand Rapids.

Try Madcap’s samples in person at Fork Fest, which will run from 5-9 p.m. with food and beverages from more than 40 local vendors, as well as live music and on-site demos. Tickets are available at the door. 

Indulge in Traditional Italian Favorites at Fork Fest

The Koeze Company won’t be the only local centenarian business taking part in this year’s Local First Fork Fest. G.B. Russo's has been serving food and wine in West Michigan for over 111 years.

Giovanni Battista Russo came to Grand Rapids in 1902, arriving from the small village of Montelepre, Sicily. He first worked for the gas company until he saved enough money to fund his own store a few years later. His first location was in East Grand Rapids and when his only son, Frank, was born in 1916, the company name was changed from G. B. Russo Importer to G.B. Russo & Son. In 1976, the family moved their store to 29th Street, where it has remained since.

As the holiday season approaches, customers can order gourmet gift baskets, antipasti platters for gatherings, unique items like smoked Tuscan brisket and caramel apple pie cannolis, and browse through thousands of wines, beer and liqueurs. “We offer a unique shopping experience, where every aisle is a gourmet adventure,” said Kelley Russo.

Attendees at this year’s Fork Fest will have the chance to try many of G.B. Russo’s offerings, including authentic Italian antipasti, gourmet charcuterie, flavored cannoli and other delizioso Italian foods.

Fork Fest will run Thursday, October 20, 2016 from 5-9 p.m. with food and beverages from more than 40 local vendors, as well as live music and on-site demonstrations. Tickets are available online and at the door.

Think locally sourced this holiday season

Mid-October has arrived. The leaves on the trees have started to shift in color, soon they will tumble down leaving the branches bare. Halloween will come and pass later this month, and then the festivities of gathering with family and friends around the table will begin. With that comes busyness. The holidays are full, we bustle to and fro, attempting to find the right gifts, decorations, and recipes to make for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas day. This year, might we suggest a trip over to Byron Center Meats? There you will find a variety of products from fresh, locally sourced meats to seasonings, to unique gift boxes to send to family near and far.

Byron Center Meats, located on Freeland Avenue in Byron Center started as quaint, family-owned butcher shop in 1946. Seventy years later, the once small butcher shop has grown into a USDA-inspected plant that not only supplies the best local cuts to its local customer base but also to restaurants, businesses, and with the addition of HarvestBox last year, Byron Center Meats ships to 48 of the 50 states. The company carries a mission to provide quality products with superior service.

As you plan out menus and grocery lists this season make sure to stop by Byron Center Meats for your Thanksgiving Day turkey or Christmas Day ham—or try cooking up something new this year: prime rib, a whole tenderloin, or pork crown roast. Not sure how to best cook each meat? Just ask the helpful staff or jump onto their website for cooking instructions.

In addition to having both fresh and frozen meats available, the retail store also houses seasonings and sauces, local fruits and vegetables, and a variety of dairy products such as milk and cheese to fill your table. Not only can Byron Center Meats help with your holiday meals, but they also offer an array of gift options for the meat lovers on your list. In store they have four customer favorite gift boxes ready to take home. If you would prefer to build your own, you can mix and match any of the items available in store. These gift boxes make great personal and corporate gifts.

If you have family and friends out of state to whom you want to send a bit of Michigan love, you can head over to HarvestBox.com where you will find a section of all natural meat collections (Wagyu Beef, Grass-fed Beef, Free-range Chicken, Free-range Pork and Wild-caught Salmon). Simply order, pay, and let HarvestBox take care of the rest. It’s a simple and easy way to spread the local love this holiday season.

Ease the busyness this year and let Byron Center Meats and HarvestBox help you out with your holiday preparations. Sample some of their delicious local meats and hear their story at Fork Fest this Thursday, October 20 from 5-9pm. Then visit the shop next week Thursday through Saturday, October 27-29, take advantage of their Customer Appreciation Sale, and find out how they can best serve you this holiday season. 

Fork Fest – NEXT WEEK

Join Local First for an evening of local food and drink at the 6th annual Fork Fest, presented by Brewery Vivant! The event will be at Romence Gardens & Greenhouses from 5-9 PM on Thursday, October 20. Feast on offerings from more than 40 of West Michigan’s finest restaurants, farms, grocers, bakeries, breweries, and more.

Fauxgrass will provide bluegrass musical accompaniment to an evening of scrumptious samples and refreshments. The full list of West Michigan participants is available here. Adult beverages from Brewery Vivant, Long Road Distillers, Fenn Valley Vineyards, and Vander Mill Cider pair well with the Fork Fest experience. All samples are included in the price of admission and a cash bar will be available.

New this year will be an on-site butchering demonstration provided by Louise Earl Butcher. Shop owner, Matt Smith says, “[Fork Fest] is a fun event and we wanted to participate in a Local First event at a unique venue, and help heighten the awareness of the food conversations happening in West Michigan.” The shop helps provide local support for Michigan farmers and educational information regarding the well raised, naturally produced animals. In addition to the demonstration, Louise Earl Butcher will also be bringing ready-to-eat dishes that showcase what the shop is all about. Look forward to Louise Earl Butcher’s new line of pickled items, salsa, and many other canned items all produced in the shop using local items in the coming year.

Come hungry to the 6th annual Fork Fest event at Romence Gardens Thursday, October 20 from 5-9 PM. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door, kids 10 and under feast for free! 

Eventbrite - Local First Fork Fest

A Fork Fest tradition continues

The Koeze Company has been a West Michigan tradition since 1910, producing specialty food products ranging from peanut butter to high-quality chocolate, cashews and hand-dipped caramel apples, as well as unique gift baskets that can be sent to friends, family or businesses.

“Since my great-grandfather, my family has been committed to giving our customers the best product for their money,” said Jeff Koeze, who took over as president of the company in May 1997.  “As a member of the fourth generation of Koezes to run the company, I'm dedicated to our traditions of providing the highest quality products, continuing family ownership and maintaining the stability of our workforce.”

Attendees will have a chance to sample some of these products firsthand when they visit the Koeze table at Fork Fest, happening October 20, 2016 at Romence Gardens & Greenhouses. Koeze will be featuring their caramel turtles, peanut butter clusters, mixed nuts w/ cashews and a nice assortment of our chocolate confections.

“We look forward to Fork Fest as a reminder to Grand Rapidians that yes, we are still around and flourishing with some of the finest gifts and baskets full of wonderful nuts, chocolates and your favorite holiday treats,” said Tom Lakos, Koeze’s National Sales Manager.

Fork Fest will run from 5-9 p.m. with food and beverages from 40 local vendors, as well as live music and on-site demos. Tickets are available online and at the door. 

Keeping score at Fork Fest

The Score will join Local First for the first time at the 2016 Fork Fest. Located on Northland Drive, The Score serves as a sports bar with good eats, ample beer options, and great outdoor entertainment. Since opening nine years ago, the popular sports bar has been a hub for the sports lover, foodie, families, and everyone in between. And it’s easy to see why.

The Score is constantly reaching for the next level of excitement and quality it can bring to its customers. They offer live entertainment seven days a week over the summer, have three outdoor volleyball courts, waterfront dining, 70 TVs, and 120 beers on tap. If you’re a fan of college football, The Score has live DJs for Michigan State and U of M football games to provide an at-the-stadium level of excitement to the viewing experience.

What separates The Score from other sports bars is its commitment to food and quality. They choose local options when possible, are loyal to Michigan craft breweries, and proud of being a made-from-scratch kitchen. Nothing ever comes out of a frozen bag.

They’re most excited about their new BBQ addition, all smoked on site. Customers can choose smoked chicken, sausage, pulled pork, brisket, and many other staples of smoked food. And while they’re still tweaking options for Fork Fest, bets are on their delicious pulled pork sliders.

In addition to Fork Fest, the Score is involved in community outreach programs like the Wizards Ball fundraiser for Make a Wish Foundation, and hosting Funds for Friends, donating 10{6be771524f35e681d5eb1711abbe9ad08f29540a742404ae9fff00be7e8f65de} of the evening’s profits to the cause. Stop by their booth at Fork Fest next week to learn more!

Eventbrite - Local First Fork Fest

Supporting local farms and creating urban gardens

When Paul Lee and his wife opened the Winchester in 2008, they were hoping to create a neighborhood staple, a place where people would feel comfortable meeting friends for a meal and drinks. If the last eight years have been any indication, it’s been a huge success as the restaurant has become a local favorite for after work drinks, dinner, and weekend brunch.

The Winchester’s philosophy when it comes to food is to source locally whenever they can. That idea of local is extremely important to Lee. Not only does it allow the restaurant to support local farmers, bakers and meat producers, but it led them to create a garden across the street. The Winchester Garden provides produce like tomatoes, beans, and squash and helps improve the streetscape, by adding beauty to an otherwise empty lot.

The Winchester serves a New American cuisine of sandwiches and sharable plates. Over the years, the restaurant has produced some memorable dishes like the Pad Thai and Cuban Ruben. With periodic changes to the menu, Lee hopes to create some new favorites as well. Speaking of favorites, Monday nights are Burger Nights at the Winchester with a burger and beer for around $10. In addition to a classic burger, there are always a few new unique burger options to try.

Not only does Lee own the Winchester, Donkey Taqueria located across the street (both of which will be at the upcoming Fork Fest at Romence Gardens), and the What the Truck food truck (a staple at the Local First Street Party), but he is working on a new restaurant concept at the corner of Wealthy and Fuller. More details will be coming soon and hopefully we’ll see this new venture at future Fork Fests! 

Yoga, tacos, and Dia de los Muertos at Donkey Taqueria

Nestled at the bustling corner of Wealthy and Henry, Donkey Taqueria has quickly become a go-to spot for locals and visitors alike with a hankering for Mexican food and margaritas.

Opened in 2013, the restaurant, located in a revamped service station is the second of Paul Lee’s restaurants to open on Wealthy. The first, The Winchester, is located across the street serves a new American cuisine. The idea for a Mexican restaurant came from wanting a concept that would complement and not compete with the Winchester.

The menu focuses on tacos, tortas and tostadas. Additionally, they have a weekend brunch menu and an excellent selection of tequilas.  Donkey sources as many ingredients as it can locally and many vegetables from the garden located next door.  They also offer catering and are converting an old 1956 Grumman Olson step van into a mobile bar to further enhance the catering experience.

Donkey has also become a place to check out for special events. They partnered with AM Yoga this past summer to offer Sunday morning yoga classes out on the patio and look to continue that again next year. They also host celebrations for Cinco de Mayo, and the upcoming Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration on November 2nd featuring local band Cabildo.  

As someone who lives a quick walk away, Donkey has become one of my favorites.  If you stop down for the Dia de los Muertos party or earlier, I suggest the queso fundido with both cauliflower and chorizo and a few of the prickly pear margaritas. You can also try a sampling of their best fare at year's Fork Fest at Romence Gardens.  

Eventbrite - Local First Fork Fest