If organizers of the Better Blackstone Association get their wish, somewhere along Blackstone Avenue will be a hub for food entrepreneurs, budding chefs and a beer maker.
It’s a grand plan, but one that is slowly taking shape thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation’s FreshLo program that is aimed at spurring neighborhood revitalization by integrating food, art and the community. The private foundation is based in Troy, Michigan.
This could be part of a renaissance for Blackstone, to return it to a time when it was thriving and vibrant.
Kelsey McVey, project manager at Better Blackstone Association, a community development corporation
The Better Blackstone Association, an off-shoot of Fresno Metro Ministry, received the grant last year and has been using it to lay the groundwork for what they hope will be the creation of a food business incubator. The project will include room for eight to 10 food vendor stalls, a shared commercial kitchen, a craft beer operator and space for art and music.
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“This could be part of a renaissance for Blackstone, to return it to a time when it was thriving and vibrant,” says Kelsey McVey, project manager at Better Blackstone Association, a community development corporation.
Although it will take additional funding from the Kresge Foundation and perhaps private donations to build the food hub, McVey says the group is already starting to identify potential food entrepreneurs.
As part of that, the association created two pop-up events where home cooks and food professionals were invited to share their cooking with the public. The first event, called Bites on Blackstone, was held on March 12 at Manchester Center and featured seven cooks who created a dish around the theme “multicultural soup celebration.” The cooks created dishes, including Lao chicken noodle soup, Southern chili, and soup made from jackfruit, a tropical delicacy whose meaty texture is mildly sweet, with notes of pineapple, pear, banana and papaya. When harvested immature, the inside of the fruit is used as a meat substitute.
McVey said the March event was appreciated by the public and the participating cooks.
“It gave our home cooks the opportunity to showcase their culinary talents and heritage,” McVey says. “Most of our home cooks have aspirations for opening a food-based business, restaurant or catering company, and this gave them a taste of what that is like.”
One of the cooks who participated and won the people’s choice award for her Southern chili was Celeste Harrell of Fresno. Harrell’s dream is to open her own restaurant or maybe a food truck. She describes her cooking style as “down-home cooking.” It isn’t fancy or fast food, it’s just good old-fashioned comfort food.
“I’m talking about a real hearty bowl of chili, some really good fish, greens and barbecue,” Harrell says. “There isn’t enough of that in Fresno.”
Harrell loves cooking, having grown up working alongside her grandmother, Leona Williams, owner of her own restaurant in Cincinnati. Her winning Southern chili recipe is just one of the chili recipes she likes to make. She also makes a Cincinnati-style chili that is poured over spaghetti noodles and a Detroit-style chili that features ground beef heart and serves as the perfect topping for chili dogs.
“Just add some onions and mustard on that and it is so good,” she says.
Harrell hopes that the Bites on Blackstone event will serve as the launch pad for more food entrepreneurs.
“This is something that Fresno really needs, to give people a chance to show what they can do with their cooking,” she says.
The next food event is April 2 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Manchester Center. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at www.betterblackstone.com. The theme is stuffed, wrapped and rolled.
Harrell will be making cupcakes. She promises they will be delicious and stuffed with a secret ingredient.
“Trust me, it’s going to be good,” she says.
Other dishes featured for the next event will be Lao tapioca pork dumplings, pupusas, chile rellenos, Southern-style meat-stuffed rolls, cabbage rolls and jackfruit tacos.
Felix Muzquiz, co-project manager for the Better Blackstone Association, says the event gives the public an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone to try something new.
“This can really open up people’s imaginations of what is possible here,” Muzquiz says. “Sometimes people are not aware of all the wonderful food that is made in this Valley.”