Made Here, Eaten Everywhere

When people think of Michigan-made food products, they usually think of the iconic brands, items unique to the Mitten that are a staple of nearly every household's pantry. Vernors ginger ale, Faygo pop, Better Made Potato Chips, Sanders' milk chocolate fudge and Bumpy Cake - these are the brands we most readily identify as "ours."  This would lead one to think that these much-beloved Michigan brands represent our largest food processors, products that are most likely to have national recognition. It's a natural assumption to make. It'd also be wrong.

Much as we adore our "Red Pop" and the potato chips that promise to be the best (or at least "better"), good luck trying to find these products outside of the state. Still, Michigan is not without its nationally-distributed brands, many based in our very own southeastern pinky of the Mitten. You may not have heard of them or even knew they were manufactured locally, but chances are you've eaten them.

Take Becharas Brothers Coffee Co., for instance. While it was technically started in Chicago in 1914, these coffee roasters and distributors, now based in their Highland Park location, launched here in 1923. President Nick Becharas says the second branch and eventual move to Michigan was a response to immigrant migration and retaining their cultural identity by supporting and working with other Greek-owned businesses.

"There was a major migration of Greeks moving to the Detroit area and with that, the opening of Greek-owned and -operated restaurants that needed a great cup of coffee," he explains.

Becharas Brothers is Detroit's last institutional coffee manufacturer, and since they are an institutional supplier it's likely you've had their coffee and never known it. They now distribute to 12 different states and their products can be found in "hundreds of thousands" of restaurants and offices throughout the country. They were previously one of the primary suppliers of coffee to the United States Armed Forces (from 1954 until 2002), and have since deepened their position as a supplier to office coffee services and vending industries.

Some of the many local restaurants that carry Becharas products include National Coney Island, American Coney Island, Telway Hamburgers, and the Elias Brothers Big Boy Restaurants. If you're a Becharas Brothers devotee, you can also buy your own to brew at home at Sparrow Market in Ann Arbor, Market Square in Birmingham, or, of course, online.

One locally-manufactured food product you've surely heard of but probably didn't know was based in Madison Heights is Kars Nuts. Founded in 1933, Kars Nuts began when Susan Karpe roasted peanuts in her home across from Tiger Stadium and sold them to baseball fans. As the operation expanded, Kars remained in Michigan chiefly because of the founder's "strong local family ties, loyal consumers, dedicated employees and [being in a] centralized location for national distribution," explains John Koskovich, marketing manager for Kars.

Kars Nuts are now widely available in all 50 states plus Mexico and Canada and can be found in "all three club stores [Sam's Club,], most of the top 100 grocery chains, convenience store chains, specialty/travel/airport stores, and dollar stores," says Koskovich. Their popular Sweet 'n Salty Mix® alone sells more than 150 million packages annually and is branded as "America's Favorite Trail Mix Snack."

Better known and nationally noteworthy is Ferndale-based Garden Fresh Salsa. Jack and Annette Aronson started the company 13 years ago in the back of their Ferndale restaurant, and now have a primary plant in Ferndale, a hummus plant in Inkster, a distribution center in Taylor, and a tortilla chip plant in Grand Rapids.

Garden Fresh Salsa is the number one fresh salsa in North America and is distributed throughout most of the United States and across Canada. It can also be found in Puerto Rico and, surprisingly, on the Korean peninsula.  According to Michael Griffin, creative director of Garden Fresh Salsa, the company will launch European distribution in 2011.

Garden Fresh products, including their number-one-selling "Jack's Special" salsa and their increasingly popular hummus, are available in tens of thousands of retail locations across the U.S. and are carried by every major supermarket chain, with gross sales approaching $90 million in 2010. Jack and Annette chose to remain based in Ferndale because they both grew up there and are very involved with the community, supporting organizations such as the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Club of South Oakland County, and the Children's Hospital (among others).

Smaller local products are finding their way into the national marketplace as well. The Troy-based McClure's Pickles (which also has a second branch in Brooklyn, New York) started in 2006 with little operating capital. Brothers Bob and Joe McClure tapped family members to get started, including the parents they learned their pickle-making trade from. Joe explains that they chose Michigan for its location, proximity to family, and low operating costs. The Michigan location, where most of the product line is made, has a much larger manufacturing space than their New York facility.  

In barely five years, McClure's Pickles has gone from a small family business making pickles from their great grandmother Lala's recipe to one of Southeastern Michigan's most celebrated food exports, garnering coverage in the New York Times, Bon Appetit, House and Garden, and Martha Stewart Living.

Their product lines - which include a variety of pickles, relishes, mustard, and their transcendentally spicy Bloody Mary Mix can be found in 20 states in about 200 retail outlets nationwide. They can be found in stores in California, and are carried by nearly all the Whole Foods locations on the East Coast and Midwest. McClure's is also distributed through Williams-Sonoma, which is in 45 of the 50 states and Canada. For a special treat, check out Rosie O'Grady's in Ferndale for their special deep-fried McClure's pickles, or have a life-enhancing McClure's Bloody Mary at Slows Bar BQ in Detroit.

It is indeed surprising to see the number of local food manufacturers that distribute nationally, from huge operations like Kellogg's (based in Battle Creek), Midas Foods (sauces, fillings, mixes and desserts) in Oak Park, and Chelsea's "Jiffy" Mix to smaller companies that are fast becoming Michigan success stories, such as Flatout Bread based in Saline, named "America's Healthiest Food" in 2009 by Health Magazine. There is also the country-wide success of Auburn Hills- based Elena's Pasta & Sauces, which brings a taste of Italy to metro Detroit with their vast selection of homemade pastas, sauces and oils (found in department stores and specialty markets), Whitmore Lake-based Al Dente Pasta with its medley of fettucine and linguini varieties, and, needless to say, the mail order popularity of Zingerman's (Oprah is a huge fan).

Sure, Michigan ex-pats may crave Slows' mac & cheese, Koegel's hotdogs or fresh-squeezed apple cider from the local mill, but these Mitten-made products reassure them that there's always a little taste of home... even if they're 2,000 miles away.

Nicole Rupersburg is also a yummy Michigan-made product. A freelance writer, her main gig is writing Her previous article for Metromode was Metro Detroit's Pit Masters.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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