By Serena Maria Daniels
For Victoria Eaton, a plant-based diet just made sense. She spent part of her childhood on a farm in Manchester, Michigan, outside of Ann Arbor and while the rest of her family favored more of a meat-and-potato diet, she was more interested in the veggies that grew in the fields.
That’s why she went vegetarian early on and eventually switched over to a full vegan diet, which she has adhered to for the past five years.
Sweet Peaces Owner Victoria Eaton is in pursuit of a high-growth market niche – packaged vegan and vegetarian dishes.
“I just always liked my veggies,” says Eaton. “We always had lush acres of gardens. My family was more meat and potatoes… I just left the meat out of my plate.”
Still, a plant-based diet can prove tricky in Michigan, as many vegetarians and vegans have discovered. So it was with that struggle in mind that when Eaton moved to the Flint area from Metro Detroit she decided to launch Sweet Peaces Veggie Bistro inside the Flint Farmers’ Market.
Today, 21 percent of adults with food allergies adhere to veggie-focused or vegetarian dishes, according to the Pew Research Center
Eaton’s is among Michigan’s growing women-owned businesses, which now top 265,000, according to the State of Michigan. She’s in pursuit of a high-growth market niche – packaged vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Today, 21 percent of adults with food allergies adhere to veggie-focused or vegetarian dishes, according to the Pew Research Center and a whopping 12 percent of younger consumers are more likely to identify as vegetarian and follow meat-free diets.
Sweet Peaces is kind of a one-stop shop for this growing consumer group interested in adopting a plant-based diet. Ready-made deli items, baked goods, a variety of internationally-inspired hot entrees and curated meal kits for cooking at home are all on hand.
Plus, it’s situated at the Farmers’ Market, so finding just the right components to accompany Eaton’s creations is no problem.
For Eaton, moving into the realm of specialty food maker started as more of a side gig after her son was born and she left her job as a travel agent.
A friend of hers needed help preparing vegetarian soups and other dishes at a business in the Grosse Pointe area. The occasional work grew when she was approached by the Detroit Boat Club, which also needed help adding veggie-friendly dishes to its menu.
When she moved to the Flint area, Eaton’s interest grew into education when she started teaching cooking techniques at a community education program at Grand Blanc High School.
“Once I got settled here, I started teaching classes because I started to see a great need here,” says Eaton.
Unlike Metro Detroit, which continues to see more options for diners who prefer to forgo meat-based proteins in their diets, choices in Flint were scarce.
Eaton’s offerings include meal kits so customers can take the components they need to cook her specialties themselves at home.
That demand, as well as a growing concern to combat obesity-related health problems, meant Eaton had not just found a niche market she could corner, but also could provide a healthier, flavorful alternative for Flint residents.
An opportunity opened up in 2014 when she met a manager at the Flint Farmers’ Market at a Women in Agriculture event. By the end of their encounter, she had officially become a tenant.
The business started by focusing on mostly grab-and-go deli-style items, like pre-salads and soups. But soon demand for hot dishes grew and she tapped into her love of global fare like Indian and Thai food.
“If you’re a vegetarian, it’s easier to go to those other flavors” for a delicious meal, says Eaton.
Also available are teas, spices and Eaton’s line of vegan baked goods, which are also available at Market Pantry in Bay City and the Local Grocer in Flint. Now, Eaton’s offerings include meal kits so customers can take the components they need to cook her specialties themselves at home. Ingredients are mostly sourced locally.
The momentum has gotten to the point where Eaton’s looking for ways to scale her business.
“A lot of people are waiting for my products,” she says.
To help with growth, Eaton recently participated in the Business Boot Camp pitch competition, a three-day training event featuring Flint-area food businesses and sponsored by the Michigan Good Food Fund. Happy Little Greens, a vertical agriculture, micro-greens venture, won the pitch fest and took home $10,000 to help expand its operations.
Eaton walked away with a clearer sense of the future for her bistro. She envisions a series of pop-up dinners at local urban farms.
For additional information about the Farmers’ Market, which is open Tuesdays, Thursdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., call 810-232-1399 or visit: flintfarmersmarket.com
First posted December 17, 2017 on the Hub Flint.