How Two Northeast Michigan Food Business Owners Got Their Start

There is more in Northeast Michigan than just local food; amongst the woodlands, small towns and farms, there is a community that wouldn’t be possible without local entrepreneurs and changemakers dedicated to good food. Amongst these are Thadius McKay, also known as the ‘Mushroom Man’, and Kristen Fairey, Owner of Birch Hill Grocery. Both have great stories behind where they are today. 

Birch Hill Grocery’s Kristen Fairey

Fairey had never owned a business before taking ownership of the local community grocery, Birch Hill Grocery. Her past includes locations from NYC to Costa Rica and a career in academia and education. But her roots started with baking, beginning when she was just 7 or 8 years old. In fact, many recipes in the store today call back to these small beginnings, including Lulu’s Date Nut Cake and Mimi’s Bourbon Balls, named after her grandmothers. This love of baking led to catering jobs during her college years (including an infamous stint with a Yale secret society and a ‘Red Onion Soup’ made on the fly), but Fairey never pictured culinary arts as a viable career option. “For the next 30 years, food prep was never more than a passion I pursued through entertaining eclectic groups of friends and acquaintances around often makeshift dining tables using beautiful crystal, silver, and china I hauled from apartment to apartment,” she illustrates, noting that she hopes to one day be able to use the beautiful serveware for intimate ‘Grand Lake Chic’ dinners. 

Flash forward to 2020, a year of tumultuous change for many. Fairey, finding challenges during the pandemic in New York City, chose to relocate to Grand Lake, “where [she’d] always been happy.” Her family had been coming to the area since 1925, when her great-grandfather purchased Crescent Island in Grand Lake. Birch Hill Grocery was under contract with another buyer, but when they bailed right before closing, the owners turned to Fairey, who bought and re-opened the business three weeks later, despite never having run a business before. “Birch Hill Grocery has always been more than ‘just’ a grocery store — an assessment people have shared and identified pretty much all the way back to its opening in 1950. Doing this, though, has been the most creative sustained endeavor I’ve ever undertaken that simultaneously has actually fed my soul and being,” Fairey illustrates. 

This doesn’t mean that it is always easy – but Fairey refers to a sign sent to her by one of her sons that says ‘everything is figureoutable.’ “It’s true, I think, given enough time and brain focus. The issue, of course, is figuring it out efficiently enough to keep the doors open!” she jests. “Having never run a business of any sort before doing this one… I’ve had, and still have, a lot to learn every single day.” She thinks the key to success is remaining flexible and responsive while staying true to her North Star, a vision of what Birch Hill Grocery is and will continue to be. 

Now, with the help of a small grant, this vision includes harkening back to her roots of baking. Fairey plans to sell her famous Date Nut Cake, along with other baked goods like Cowboy Cookies and Sour Cream Cake, online, with ordering available throughout the country, bringing a Grand Lake sense of place to anyone, anywhere. 

The Mushroom Man, or Thadius McKay

Thadius McKay has always been interested in mushrooms. From their medicinal properties to their key role in soil reparation and ecosystem communications, funghi was fascinating to McKay. Then, there was also the fact that nobody focused on mushroom production at his local farmers market. “So it seemed like a good rabbit hole to enter,” he says. Thus, the Mushroom Man, LLC, was born. 

McKay credits Chris Williams of Michigan Mushrooms, LLC, for getting him started. The two had grown up together, and McKay learned that Williams was making a living with mushrooms. He visited William’s operation and was ‘blown away’ by all the different species growing onsite. “It was unreal,” he says. Since then, Williams has been a mentor for McKay, helping him field questions that textbooks didn’t easily cover. Beyond that, McKay credits Dion and Molly Stepanski of Presque Isle Farm, who have been role models of well-designed production systems, and the power of planning and expanding upon a good business model. 

Since starting, McKay has figured out how to produce mushrooms faster and more efficiently. “ Every production design usually has a spot that needs improvement,” he says. From attending a couple of markets each month, to heading into town every Saturday, to attending three markets – Alpena, Gaylord, and Oscoda – simultaneously, his business has grown. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he even sold mushrooms via a drive-through system. “I think that period and seeing the food shortages in the supermarkets really pushed me to start growing other produce and create larger food production systems.” 

For McKay, getting into food production started out being all about ‘fresh, great produce.’ “The process of growing something from nothing, harvesting it at its peak form, then consuming it and it not only tasting great but adding to your overall health was a pretty amazing feeling,” he says. But experiencing the community at the Alpena Farmers Market is what took it from a hobby to a professional passion. “Seeing the farmers bring in their crops each week and everyone sharing tips and ideas was very inspiring,”  he says, and in fact, it inspired him into a rewarding career.

Next time you’re in Northeast Michigan, be sure to chat up the person behind the counter or market stand. You just may get an incredible story! Each reflect the spirit of resilience and passion that defines Northeast Michigan’s culinary scene, a blend of dedication, dreams, and the joy of good food. 

Claire Butler is the Content Strategy Specialist for Taste the Local Difference. Contact her at [email protected].

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