2017 CITIZEN OF THE YEAR HONORABLE MENTION: Finding the common ground in food

MANISTEE — They say, “food is our common ground, a universal experience.” A microcosm of this is certainly true in Manistee.

Mixing her passion for food with compassion for her community, Dannee Hoffman has perfected a rare recipe. And for it, she has been named an honorable mention for Manistee News Advocate’s 2017 Citizen of the Year.

“I do what I love, with people I love, in a town that I love,” she said. “To me, that’s pretty special to have.”

Dannee Hoffman, director of the Iron Works Cafe, was named an honorable mention for the Manistee News Advocate’s Citizen of the Year. (Courtesy photo)

Dannee Hoffman, director of the Iron Works Cafe, was named an honorable mention for the Manistee News Advocate’s Citizen of the Year. (Courtesy photo)

Hoffman, the director of the Iron Works Cafe — located at 254 River St. — has focused her expertise in the industry into providing healthy and locally sourced options to the area’s food landscape. As a private citizen, she’s been instrumental in helping stock the shelves of local food pantries, promoting Manistee, and generally assisting those in need.

“I’ve witnessed a lot of good deeds in this town,” she said. “It’s always been such a welcoming place.

“It’s exciting to see Manistee grow and change, and of course to be a part of it.”

Since buying a Manistee home in 1999, Hoffman has played a major role in a movement toward healthier eating through her work at various Manistee establishments, including the former Tuscan Grille, TJ’s Pub and now the Iron Works Cafe.

“I used to live in an area where the varieties of foods and ingredients were very abundant,” she said. “I never had to question that, so I was hoping to change the landscape of the food that was available here, even though I was told it would never work.

“I love the food business and really have a driving passion for it,” Hoffman added. “My goal was to provide some fresh ingredients and recognize the local products that are available to us.”

As time went on, Hoffman’s personal mission correlated with that of Manistee Community Kitchen founder Brandon Seng’s.

“Brandon came to me and said he was so excited about what I was doing, bringing healthier items to Manistee,” she recalled. “‘It’s what we want to see,’ he said, ‘what we want to grow into.’

Dannee Hoffman, director of the Iron Works Cafe, was named an honorable mention for the Manistee News Advocate’s Citizen of the Year. (Courtesy photos)

Dannee Hoffman, director of the Iron Works Cafe, was named an honorable mention for the Manistee News Advocate’s Citizen of the Year. (Courtesy photos)

“Later, (Seng) gave me the opportunity to direct the Iron Works, which was a chance to take it to another level,” Hoffman said. “All of a sudden I was being encouraged to purchase ingredients from (local vendors) and pay the price that helps sustain them, because this is (the Manistee Community Kitchen’s) mission, not only as (the Iron Works) restaurant, but as a multidimensional organization.”

Hoffman stresses that, while providing a full menu of healthy options, the Iron Works Cafe is not a conventional restaurant, rather a community hub, in which special events and educational classes can be held.

“The whole notion of the place is working,” Hoffman said, which was validated recently when the Iron Works Cafe received a “Michigan GROWN, Michigan GREAT” award during the 50th annual Michigan Restaurant Show in Novi. It was one of five Michigan food establishments presented with the honor.

Hoffman expanded this mission to her recently established catering business, Dannee’s West Coast Catering.

“I spent a lot of time on the west coast of California, and I’ve spent my life here on the west coast of Michigan,” she said of the name. “It’s healthier influences that you see in California cuisine, although, we’re highlighting Michigan’s agriculture and what’s offered here.

“I want to cook things that are healthy, fresh and local, and a lot of clients really embrace that.”

As the holidays approached during the final months of 2017, Hoffman spearheaded a food drive to support the backpack program at CASMAN Academy of Manistee, which provides food and hygiene products to its students in need throughout the school year.

“One of my children attended CASMAN, and it really changed his life,” she said. “They were just so loving and good to him, and I’ve never really had the opportunity to give back to them.”

Hoffman’s original plan was to pay off any delinquent lunch accounts the school’s student body may have accumulated, but when offering she discovered an even greater need at the school.

“The administration told me that there weren’t many delinquent accounts, because most students receive free or reduced lunch,” Hoffman said. “But they said, ‘Here’s what you could help with.’”

For nearly five years, CASMAN Academy director Shelly VanVoorst, along with coordinator Wendy Miller, has been orchestrating the program that supplies take-home backpacks of food and/or hygiene products to CASMAN students on an as-needed basis during the school year.

VanVoorst estimates about 15 to 20 students utilize the backpack program every week.

“There are little places, little pockets, all around us where people are trying to help each other,” Hoffman said, “but they don’t always get the support they need.”

Hoffman organized the drive as a private citizen, but utilized the Iron Works Cafe’s space as a public drop-off site, the results of which were overwhelming.

“So many people in this amazing community were happy to help,” she said. “It was incredible.”

Humble, Hoffman is quick to spread the credit, however.

“I was simply able to bring a little attention to that, but it’s really (VanVoorst and Miller),” she said. “They’re the ones who’ve looked out for those kids and created that program. I was just the messenger to help stock their shelves.

“I really don’t feel like (a citizen of the year),” she added. “All I really know is how much joy and satisfaction it gives me. All I can ever hope is that people know that my intention is good.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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