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Beers and Business

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"My mother was a lousy cook," Jan Litterst begins. "I was underweight my whole life until I got married and learned how to cook on my own." But for Litterst and her now ex-husband, "Ho Hos and Romanburgers were our thing."

In 2000, doctors told her she was pre-diabetic. "I was not going to be on medication," Litterst says, "so over that period of time I have become a very strong advocate for healthy food, local food and anti-processed food."

Litterst was a financial planner with a long career working for corporate giants like Morgan Stanley. When she'd had enough, she helped form the Slow Money Cleveland chapter. Its mission is to "enhance food security, food safety and food access" and "transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration," among other things, by encouraging investment in local food startups that have a healthy or sustainable bent. The group began meeting regularly last summer in the old Fries & Schuele department store building, just around the corner from the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

A handful of people mingle in the bright white, industrial-chic meeting space, sipping Dortmunder and Wright Pils from plastic cups. A few seem to know each other but most do not, and handshakes are exchanged as often as business cards. "Tell me about your business," echoes around the room.

One of the attendees of this gathering is none other than Dan Conway, Great Lakes Brewing Company co-owner and an avid supporter of the Slow Money movement. Conway's interest in the nonprofit is natural given his brewery's reputation for sustainability and his own background as a banker.

"You got a sense that there's a quiet revolution taking place around the globe about local and/or organic food, or indeed many things local," says Conway. The problem is, many entrepreneurs don't have access to the funds necessary to grow or get started. Because the food industry is high risk, banks aren't lending to these kinds of startups, and chefs and farmers often lack the network required to attract private investing.

"Cleveland has a vibrant local food community, and it's natural that a Slow Money resource be here for the benefit of existing and future businesses," Conway explains.

Other faces at the meeting include Carly Keeter, a personal chef wanting to network, a husband-and-wife team hoping to grow their Rooted in CLE market farm stand and Bill Hildebrandt, owner of the Hildebrandt Building and the Meating Place, a community kitchen on the west side. Some, like Hildebrandt, have resources to offer, while others want a helping hand to bring their ideas to market.

The Slow Money Ohio group already has helped local dairies Snowville Creamery and Lucky Penny Creamery to purchase new equipment. And a handful of Cleveland startups have been nominated for a national showcase in Louisville, Ky., this fall, such as Saucisson (artisan charcuterie), Chateau Hough (an inner-city winery) and Sow Food (catering).

Conway is excited about the potential these companies represent. "If this can be advanced, then we would hope to see the impact across many neighborhoods of the city, not unlike what you see today in Ohio City."

Slow Money has a solid track record of giving a leg up to creative social enterprises. Just like its counterpart Slow Food, it encourages more mindful living, from wallet to mouth. And while Cleveland is already recognized as a startup-friendly city, organizations such as Slow Money can help keep that reputation a reality.

Plus, you know, the meetings have free beer.

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