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Posted September 30, 2014

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Food Destination: New push to market culinary tourism fits with West Michigan offerings

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By Andy Domino | FoodBiz
adomino@mibiz.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

WEST MICHIGAN - The word "tourism" may summon up images of beaches and amusement parks, but the Michigan Department of Agriculture wants it to apply to mealtime, too.

A January gathering of about 200 chefs, chambers of commerce, farmers and tour operators marked the beginning of the Michigan Culinary Tourism Alliance. It's a group hoping to use Michigan food and drink as a way to bring visitors to the state. Karel Bush, promotion specialist at the Department of Agriculture, said the meeting already has encouraged organizations to work together.

"More and more, we're finding that people are looking for a unique (tourism) experience," Bush told FoodBiz. "When you're going out to eat, you're eating foods from local farmers."

She said the separate pieces of culinary tourism are already there, from bed and breakfast homes to hotels to restaurants and farmers' markets. Even art galleries play a part, giving visitors something to enjoy between meals.

"Culinary tourism is a catch phrase," Bush said. "It's a destination based on food."

Some restaurants and tourism groups already have culinary tourism, even if they didn't realize that's what it was. Bush said there are "foodie tours" in Traverse City, where visitors head out on self-guided tours to sample local foods like cheese and cherries.

Several projects are being planned in Grand Rapids, said Janet Korn, VP of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids, the local convention and visitor's bureau. One that's already proven successful is Restaurant Week Grand Rapids, a promotion where eateries offer a selection of items for a low set price to get diners to visit restaurants they normally wouldn't. The first Restaurant Week was held in November, with the menu selling at $20.10 per person, though many bought foods that weren't on the special menu, at their regular prices, Korn said. Nearly 60 restaurants took part in the promotion. All were local restaurants, including several at The B.O.B. Others, like Bistro Bella Vita and San Chez, are part of another city food initiative, encouraging farm-to-table dining. That movement takes fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy from a farmer's field to a local restaurant. It cuts down on the amount of time and fuel used to preserve and transport the food and ensures that it's as fresh an ingredient as possible.

In March, Korn is planning a meeting with farmers in the Fruit Ridge area of northwest Kent County, to encourage them to join farm-to-table. According to the Fruit Ridge Market website, the region produces 60 percent of Michigan's apple crop.

"The story has to be told over and over again," said Bruce Barker, southwest account representative for the West Michigan Tourist Association. "The seasons change, so the produce is different."

He said apples and blueberries aren't the only crops that draw visitors to Michigan. The end of winter is time for tapping trees to boil sap and produce maple syrup. In the early spring, there's a market for flowers that can be planted in a home garden. The Allegan County Fairground hosts the Fiber Festival each August, featuring clothing and crafts made from the wool of sheep, llamas and goats. Christmas trees grown on West Michigan acreage sell every December.

While the food and other products almost sell themselves, Barker said the WMTA and groups of farmers have to take on the role of telling people about those products.

"Most of these are small, local growers," he said. "They're challenged to let people know where they're going to be and when they're open. For them to put an ad in the paper, or on TV or radio, there's very little impact. But as a group, they can do it."

While California, Italy and Traverse City may be the best-known areas for wine lovers, they're not alone. Travelers along I-94 east of Battle Creek can see signs for Sleeping Bear Winery, and more than a dozen other winemakers' cellars are located near the West Michigan lakeshore. Wineries from Saugatuck to the Indiana border have been gathered into the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country group, formerly called the Wine Trail. It offers a website and brochure, listing 13 wineries included in the organization.

"More and more people are finding wine," said Chris Moersch, general manager of The Round Barn Winery in Baroda, one of the wineries in the organization. "We put out a map, but they don't have to follow a special route."

Moersch said wine grapes have been growing in the southwest Michigan area for about 35 years. That means they're finally starting to "hit their stride," perfect for winemaking. In the summer and fall, wineries stay busy with a constant flow of visitors, but winter is a good time for tourists too, Moersch said.

"Right now, we can spend a lot more time talking about the wine," he said.

Barker said tourists from the Chicago area call regularly, looking for West Michigan food and drink, while every year sees more farm markets start up in the region.

"We're trying to get people out from buying processed food and to the farm market," he said. "Once you pick your own strawberries, you'll never buy strawberries from California again."

Korn expects culinary tourism to grow over the next few years, boosted by the popularity of TV cooking shows. These days, tourists don't see food as something to keep them going as they visit another location. Instead, they want to eat at the places they see on screen.

"Food drives tourism" she said. "The popularity of food channels on cable means people are way more into food now. People are willing to invest in their meals."

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