Could one of these metro Detroit food startups be the next Garden Fresh?

When Jack and Annette Aronson started Garden Fresh Salsa in Ferndale in 1997, Jack Aronson says he was told that no large-scale supermarket would want all-natural salsa because it didn’t have a long enough shelf life.
 
But Garden Fresh turned out to have a remarkable shelf life of its own. Having introduced their salsa and hummus into retailers around the country, the Aronsons sold Garden Fresh to the Campbell Soup Company in June for $231 million. It’s the end of a remarkable success story for the Aronsons, one that Jack Aronson attributes to listening to consumers’ growing demands for knowing the origins and nutritional value of their food.
 
“Our biggest success was that we had a brand promise,” he says. “If you bought something from Garden Fresh, it was going to be really, really good. And we stayed true to that throughout our entire existence.”
 
Given the number of food entrepreneurs in metro Detroit, the sale raises the question: who might be next to follow in Garden Fresh’s footsteps? Metromode took a look at three booming metro-area food businesses who have similar potential to scale their operations – and who are already following Aronson’s advice about keeping things healthy, natural and close to home.
 
Banza
 
Like anyone who loves both food and a healthy diet, Detroiter Brian Rudolph knew the pain of trying to reconcile pasta’s high carb count with the rabid desire to scarf down bowls of it. So he came up with his own solution: chickpea pasta, which Rudolph started churning out in his own kitchen.
 
“It was more a hobby than it was intended to be a business, but at some point it clicked for me that I'm not the only one who would want a better pasta,” Rudolph says.
 
Brian Rudolph, co-founder of BanzaRudolph started the pasta company Banza in 2014, bringing onboard his brother Scott, who had previous experience in investment banking and entrepreneurship. Rudolph says Banza’s goal is to revolutionize the pasta industry in the same way Chobani, Rudolph’s guiding star, revolutionized the yogurt business.
 
“Chobani changed yogurt,” he says. “By introducing their product in the right way and at an approachable price, they made Greek yogurt, a more nutritious option, the new standard.”
 
Only a year after introducing Banza to the retail market, the Rudolphs’ chickpea noodles are already in 2,000 stores nationwide. That’s thanks in part to Banza’s appearance on CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup,” a “Shark Tank”-style competition reality TV show for the food industry. Banza won an investment from celebrity chef Joe Bastianich on the show, but Rudolph is hardly resting on his laurels.
 
“To Scott and I, fulfillment is building a business that's built to last,” he says. “It's creating products that positively impact millions of lives. At this stage of the business, that is what we're interested in.”
 
Blake’s Hard Cider
 
One of the metro area’s hottest young food businesses actually spun out of another business that’s been around for 70 years. Since 1946, Blake’s Orchard has made its name on apples, with orchards in Almont and Armada, where it also has a cider mill. But the Blake family had never ventured into producing the alcoholic version of their signature product until 2013. That’s when Andrew Blake, son of Blake’s Orchard co-owner Paul Blake and nephew of co-owner Pete Blake, proposed that the family business take a chance on the hard cider he’d been brewing on the side during his college years.
 
Since Blake’s Hard Cider launched in 2013, the brand has grown quickly. Sales and marketing director David Blake says the company did $1 million in wholesale business last year. Its products are currently distributed throughout Michigan and will launch this year in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Carolina.

Image via Blake's Hard Cider Facebook page
 
Blake says his family’s preexisting business has helped to drive Blake’s Hard Cider's rapid growth, but the brand also has a couple of other differentiating factors. One is its marketing, which emphasizes a humorous masculinity to counter the common wisdom that hard cider is a feminine drink. The other, perhaps most important, is that the Blakes don’t just make the cider; they make everything that goes into it.
 
“There’s a lot of craft breweries and cideries that are around, but there aren’t many that really do everything on the farm,” Blake says. “We grow all our apples on the farm. We try to use as many ingredients as we have on the farm in the cider.”
 
Blake expresses confidence that the company can use those unique traits to command the regional market for hard cider.
 
“Right now, I don’t think you can say there’s an established hard cider company in the Midwest that is familiar to everybody,” he says. “I think there’s room in that category for someone to be the leader in it, and that’s where we want to be.”
 
The Brinery
 
David Klingenberger’s fermented-foods business, the Brinery, did $600,000 in sales last year. That’s an impressive figure compared to the $40,000 worth of sauerkraut Klingenberger sold when he started the Brinery in 2010, and even more impressive considering that he started the Ann Arbor-based business with less than $1,000 to his name. But Klingenberger says traditional capital wasn’t nearly as important to getting his business off the ground as what he calls “social capital.” Klingenberger never attended college and spent several years of his young adulthood working on Chelsea’s Tantre Farm. Through that experience he says he immersed himself in relationships with local “hand-to-mouth businesses.”
 
David Klingenberger, founder and owner of the Brinery“I had built up a community base, and it was a really smooth transition to start building up our business around the local food community of Ann Arbor,” he says.
 
Klingenberger’s product line has since expanded to include pickles, tempeh, and hot sauce. Distribution has also increased dramatically since Klingenberger’s early days of selling primarily at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and Detroit's Eastern Market. Brinery products are now available in retail locations in five states, and Klingenberger recently signed a deal that will put his wares in all 48 stores in Whole Foods’ Midwest district.
 
While completing Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program in Detroit, Klingenberger’s been thinking a lot about the Brinery’s future. He says consumer trends toward natural foods make him confident in his goals to be grossing $9 million a year within five years and $30-$40 million a year within 10 years.
 
“It’s not sexy anymore to eat factory food like it was in the ‘50s,” Klingenberger says. “People are looking for more authentic, traditional food. When companies like Campbell buy companies like Garden Fresh, that’s what they’re looking to do, to strengthen their position a little better.”

Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.
 
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
 
Photos by Dave Lewinski.
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