Parlaying a bevy of ‘firsts’


Elissa Hillary points to restaurants’ pervasive use of locally sourced food as one of the influences Local First has had on the region over the last 15 years. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Local First’s mission can be summed up in its name.

Since its establishment in 2003, the nonprofit has worked to promote local business, first in Grand Rapids, and now for more than 800 member businesses in eight West Michigan counties.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, Local First has had a significant part — though perhaps unbeknownst to many — in creating local business growth and appreciation in West Michigan.

Local First’s fingerprints can be seen in many ways throughout the area, said Elissa Hillary, Local First president.

And though many of its long-term efforts’ direct and indirect effects are not exactly trackable, Hillary credits Local First for a cultural change in the relationships between consumers and local businesses.

“It’s almost hard to describe the success of our work now in the context of our current culture and economy because it’s so pervasive,” Hillary said. “Some of these conversations and efforts have become such a part of our culture.”

Beyond driving conversations around supporting local business, Local First specifically has promoted local food and beverage providers, as well as what it means to be a “good,” sustainable business, Hillary said.

One of the campaigns, Fork Fest, started about 10 years ago to highlight different food purveyors and help people recognize how eating the “vast abundance” of local food and could help the economy.

When that campaign began, Hillary said only three restaurants were sourcing locally.

“Now, it’s become the norm,” she said.

“Those are all … shifts that happened, I believe, because of that eat local campaign, even if indirectly.”

With agriculture, manufacturing and tourism as the largest sectors of Michigan’s economy, she thinks there were aspects of that campaign that “really resonated with West Michigan culture and helped elevate” the culture.

“If we value this, we can help this grow and create more opportunity for people to launch a food-related business that will help support our region into the future.”

During the first couple years of the annual Local First Street Party, which started in 2003, Hillary said it was not common to be served exclusively Michigan-brewed beer from places such as the “little startup” Founders.

“At that time, that was such a novel concept,” Hillary said. “Now, you can go to hundreds of places and find only Michigan beer lists. But back when our work started, it wasn’t the case.”

The organization’s Good for Grand Rapids campaign offers resources and best practices for sustainability and social good. Involved companies can become B Corp certified through B Lab, a nonprofit that measures social performance, environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

Hillary said Local First created a shorter, more personalized B Corp questionnaire for the businesses it serves, which B Lab now uses to certify companies throughout the world.

Local First was founded by an informal group of seven business owners led by Guy Bazzani of Bazzani Building Company, first focusing on the Grand Rapids Uptown district, then the city and then the region.

Local First’s original goal was to help local businesses tell their impact on the community.

“Having companies owned by people who live here helped create a really healthy and vibrant place to live and a resilient economy,” Hillary said.

“That shared language has now largely become the language of our community.”

Hillary was hired in 2007 as the organization’s first full-time executive director, extending its reach from 150 businesses to 500 by 2009.

As her friends moved to other cities after college, Hillary said she chose Grand Rapids.

“I saw the potential of this place, and I think our local entrepreneurs see the potential of this place.”

As one of the only organizations of its kind in the country, Hillary said Local First has been featured in more than a dozen national conferences. Leaders from Japan, Ireland and Guam have traveled to Grand Rapids to learn how they can implement similar practices in their own communities.

Over time, the organization has paid attention to the ways it needed to change, Hillary said. About six years ago, staff and leadership learned more about equity and inclusivity to ensure everyone in the region could be involved.

She said Local First has been taking an “intentional” approach toward better inclusion and social sustainability, including hosting conversations with the Grand Rapids Community Foundations and other organizations about impact investing.

The Local First 2016 annual report shows a 70 percent increase in minority-owned businesses in the region.

Going forward, Hillary said Local First will continue strengthening the growing business community, being sure to reach those in the community “who have been left behind.” That includes encouraging businesses to actively address community needs through their business models — “not just philanthropically, but in addition to philanthropically.”

Local First member businesses receive a Local First window sticker to show local ownership and are listed in an online and print directory. They are able to participate in events and have access to other resources, such as Local First’s social media efforts.

Members pay annual dues based on the number of full-time employees.

Local First’s 15th anniversary celebration is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 8, in the Centennial Room at Founders Brewing Company, 235 Grandville Ave. SW in Grand Rapids.

The cost is $115 and includes food, an open bar, gifts and trivia. Tickets are available at

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