Ismail Samad is a chef, food systems expert, and local food advocate with projects in Vermont and Boston. But he first noticed food access inequities when he was just a kid growing up in East Cleveland.
Now, his one-year-old nonprofit business incubator Loiter East Cleveland is buying Wake Robin Fermented Foods, and he is hoping to transform the decade-old company into a tool to help urban farmers and entrepreneurs in East Cleveland thrive.
Wake Robin Fermented Foods is a farm-to-jar company that ferments vegetables and turns them into products like kimchi, pickles, and curry cauliflower to promote healthy and tasty eating. They source their vegetables from local family farms around Northeast Ohio.
Food Depot to Health, a nonprofit organization that runs a community-supported agriculture program and teaches Clevelanders how to grow their own food, will help operate Wake Robin after it is acquired by Loiter East Cleveland. Executive director Veronica Walton will lead these efforts.
Designing a Sustainable Food System
The Cuyahoga County Planning commission and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health’s Supermarket Assessment found in 2018 that 35% of Cuyahoga County residents lived in food deserts, meaning the nearest grocery store is sometimes miles away. More than 50% of those food desert residents were African American.
In East Cleveland, the median household income is around $22,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For Samad, these issues of race, income, and food access are undeniably linked. So last year, he launched Loiter East Cleveland, a nonprofit business incubator and community-led movement that’s “an intentional effort to reconsider and reimagine a different future for Black communities centered on spatial and economic justice.”
The organization is less than a year old, but already they plan to launch a marketplace that sells local food products grown and manufactured by East Cleveland residents, create farms and apiaries on side lots and other vacant lands that East Clevelanders own, and help residents retrofit their homes to make them more sustainable.
Samad hopes that by buying Wake Robin, he can give other East Clevelanders opportunities for entrepreneurship by investing in urban farms on land that they own.
The other half of the team is Veronica Walton, executive director of Food Depot to Health.
Walton’s journey into food advocacy began in 2007 through a for-profit called NEO Restoration Alliance. In 2018, she helped transform that organization into the nonprofit Food Depot to Health.
Its work is not only about “reclaiming lives and land in our community,” Walton says, but also, “introducing individuals to every part of the food system that we possibly can, from the ground to the plate to the store.”
Today, Food Depot to Health aims to educate the community about how to feed themselves sustainably and take care of the Earth. It teaches Clevelanders how to grow food in a 10-week urban homesteading class, distributes community-supported agriculture shares at the Gateway 105 Farmers Market, and offers healthy eating and cooking demonstrations.
“When you start to look at Wake Robin as a resource to the goal of what Loiter and Food Depot to Health are looking to do, it just seems like a good first step into owning as many pieces of the supply chain as possible” — from buying raw ingredients from East Cleveland businesses to employing community members to selling food back to the community, Samad says.
Planting Seeds for Change
Pat Murray, Wake Robin’s former owner, ultimately wanted the company to be an integral part of the local community.
“One of the things my daughter and I talked about when we started was the idea of community ownership, but we just didn’t get big enough to make that a reality,” Murray says. “Being participants in Black and brown entrepreneurial development in Cleveland is just a really nice conclusion.”
Murray and his daughter, Molly, founded Wake Robin in 2013. Today, the company turns locally grown organic produce sourced from family farms into fermented foods like kimchi.
With a team of between three and five people, they’ve established market share in Ohio and Illinois, with products in about 60 stores. Murray says the company grossed around $160,000 in 2021.
Murray is proud that Wake Robin has always intentionally recycled their glass jars and plastic tubs and donated food waste. He’s also proud to support local farmers.
“We buy between 30,000 and 35,000 pounds of vegetables a year,” Murray says. “We’re already a significant support for three Amish families [in Northeast Ohio] right now, and we could transfer or expand that support to farming families in East Cleveland.”
That’s where Loiter East Cleveland and Food Depot to Health come in.
Samad, the founder of Loiter East Cleveland, thinks acquiring Wake Robin will also help other community-owned businesses grow as the company moves to buying ingredients from East Clevelanders. In addition, he’s working toward the goal of a closed-loop food system, in which farmers sell to restaurants, restaurants recycle waste, and then that waste is recycled to restore the soil.
Wake Robin currently operates out of the historic Hildebrandt Building in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood of Cleveland, but Walton and Samad hope to create more opportunities in East Cleveland in the coming years.
Buying the company “presents a very clear roadmap to Black farmers and community-owned land to have an outlet for the things they’re growing,” said Samad.
Murray will stay on at Wake Robin for at least another year to help acclimate Samad and Walton to operations. He says he’s excited by the work left to do, but it’s just as much a nostalgic end as it is a new beginning.
After they learn to run Wake Robin as a business, Samad and Walton plan to scale up. They hope to add tea and honey to the company’s product line and to buy ingredients for existing products, like herbs, carrots, and beets, from urban farmers.
Ultimately, Samad hopes to make Wake Robin a national brand as well as an employee-owned company, and to “share the story of what a closed-loop food system could do for the city of East Cleveland,” Samad says.
“We can rattle off all the last names of the people who’ve amassed all the wealth,” Samad says. “Now, what would happen if those people made their companies employee-owned? We wouldn’t be talking about the 1% because there’d be shared wealth for people who built those companies.”
Walton says what excites her most about this opportunity is creating more opportunities for Black-owned businesses in the region.
“I have a son who is an artist and a foodie, and he has years of experience doing both. I’m excited about him, and others like him, stepping into a place that makes them feel valued and respected where they can learn a different type of business,” she says.
“There’s a history of entrepreneurial energy in African American communities that I think too often is ignored,” she adds. “But if we look at the fruit of that type of behavior, it’s good fruit.”
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