The founders of Cherries & Grapes
didn't realize it at the time, but in all their years of traveling up north, sipping wine and apple cider, noshing on cherry pie and jam they were actually in research and development mode.
Often the souvenirs of their trips were from visits to wineries, orchards and stores selling Michigan-made food and drink.
Finally after a visit last year to Traverse City they started thinking there had to be a way to get the edible goods they loved without another long distance drive to the winery, mill or store.
"We all love our local Michigan products and all that stuff. We wanted it to get here faster," says Michael Mikhjian, senior architect and developer with MKNwebsolutions
and the IT guy/online presence behind the Cherries & Grapes online marketplace.
"We basically wanted to get it to us faster," he says with a laugh. "And now everyone gets it faster."
With "Up North" to any door in Michigan delivery in mind, they started Cherries & Grapes. The site sells dozens of products from five Michigan companies - four wineries and a toffee maker.
The early clients are personal favorites of the founders, who are silent partners in the venture.
"They're all big wine guys," Mikhjian says. "They travel up north. They love their wines, their Michigan specialties.
They tapped Mikhjian to be the IT guy and also because he shares in their love of Michigan wine and cider.
"We've all got the entrepreneurial mindset," he says. "Once we started talking about how to make more a marketplace for Michigan products it all kind of clicked real quick, that this was the way to go."
Michigan Cherries & Grapes is about profit and the bottom line in the end, but it's based on a philosophy of supporting Michigan and Michigan products with "pure ingredients."
"The product must be made in Michigan…if ingredients come from outside we don't sell it on the site," he says.
A visit to the website is also a virtual tour of the companies selling goods there. Pictures and stories of the wineries make you want to go up north.
"They've really gotten to know these guys over the years," says Mikhjian of his partners.
Shoppers at Cherries&Grapes.com
will find a typical cart system with products that come with descriptions, reviews and details such as harvest dates.There also is information and photos of each winery and business selling on the site along with virtual tours that may make you wish you were going there instead of ordering there.
"We know we can't travel and find our favorite things all the time," he says."This is the next best thing."
He says the online marketplace builds on a support of Michigan products that's becoming more mainstream.
"We see it as the deeper layer, the next level of craft wine and cider…bringing it to consumers through an online store…If they can't get to Cascade Winery or Burgdorf's, we bring it to them," Mikhjian says.
Besides being a sales portal for consumers Cherries & Grapes does all the work of running an online store for the businesses that join. Some have e-commerce systems set up, but they can be time-consuming to manage and aren't always easy to use or weave into small business operations.
"We make it as easy as possible for anyone to join….There are no commitments or uprfront costs. Try us out. See how it works," he says.
"It's very easy to use….The entire process its automated. It's almost too easy not to use it. Auto invoicing. Auto shipping. There's inventory management built in."
The number of clients may be few top start but at least two more are about to come online and Mikhjian says there's an upswing in social media markets and more orders coming from out of state.
"We just recently launched Facebook-embedded applications," that let vendors sell directly through the social media site, he says. "We don't want these small businesses to spend thousands of dollars to have someone run a site or to pay someone to run it….
The site is always being upgraded for ease of use and more features, he says. "The next platform will let people embed our site into theirs so they don't lose traffic," he says.
"Our local Michigan customer base is definitely growing. It is growing pretty quickly every month. We have a handful from out of state…It's opening up new doors for these guys….We're hoping we can help these guys expand and reach the entire U.S. at some point."
Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography