American Spoon has been doing local food for 30 years and is better than ever

The jarred goodness that American Spoon Foods delivers around the country could be made anywhere; a warm-weather headquarters on the West Coast, a towering office in a dense East Coast city or in a happening downtown in some southern locale.

With quality and style--and national and international awards--American Spoon Foods stands tall among nationally-known purveyors of gourmet foods like Dean & Deluca, Harry & David, or Williams & Sonoma.

Even though American Spoon's reach is far and wide and its success substantial, it wouldn't make its foods--blueberry preserves, apple cider grilling sauce, even gelato--anywhere other than Michigan, specifically northern Michigan, says president, co-founder and nature lover Justin Rashid.

Northern Michigan has a climate, horticulture, geography and history that combine to make some outstandingly good fruits--some would say unrivaled--fruits, he says.

It's what Northern California is to vineyards, what Florida sun is to oranges and what Idahoan soil is to potatoes.

And it all originates in a 15,000-square-foot production house about a mile and a half outside Petoskey, not far from the fields, fruit trees and berry patches Rashid romped in as a child.

What comes out of the production house is sent out around the world to homes, restaurants and stores. American Spoon Foods has its own stores and a cafe too; all of them with a homespun feel in Michigan resort towns. The locations are part of American Spoon's business plan to reach tourists, who taste Michigan-made gourmet foods and take them back home.

About 45 to 50 full-time employees, not including the regular stable of 100 or so farmers and pickers, wash, peel, chop, freeze, boil, cook, jar, whatever it takes to turn what came from local lands into food products and send it out. The number of employees doubles each year during the fourth quarter to keep up with catalog and gift orders.

"The thing that inspired our business is really the place we are, what we call the Northern Fruitlands. I use that term because people don't realize that the variety of fruits that grow in our area is really phenomenal. I don't think we could be anywhere other than Michigan. That's because of the fruits. The Leelanau Peninsula has so many wonderful orchards. We have a natural environment for wild fruits," he says.

Rashid, 60, is a CEO who still forages in the fields. It's a keystone of the business and a kinship with his childhood that was guided by a mom and dad who lived in Detroit and had a farm up north where Rashid would entertain himself with nature for three months every summer. When his mother, Margaret, died in January at age 92, she left Wildwood Valley for Rashid and his family to care for and enjoy as they have for so many generations.

Rashid regularly spends time out there. His wife, Kate Marshall (you might know her as the former mayor of Petoskey) is there, too, and sometimes the children and grandchildren and friends and family come to stay awhile.

"She's not quite as crazy as I am in terms of the amount of time we like to spend in the woods," Rashid says, laughing.

It's that deep connection, that love and fondness for what Northwest Michigan puts forth that has kept American Spoon Foods right where it started in 1982.

"We've had many opportunities to get really big, which we have not taken advantage of. We have had many opportunities to sell out, which we have not taken advantage of. We decided we want to preserve what nature makes perfect and we want to do that here and stay true to that."

American Spoon--and almost always Rashid personally--works with about 100 Northern Michigan farmers, or pickers, and pays them higher than market prices for their work. It's seen as a way to preserve Michigan's farms by putting its bounty into preserves, relishes, dressings, salsas and other tasty mixtures.

"We buy from pickers in the state, thousands of pounds of blueberries, thimbleberries," he says. "We have wonderful state and national forests. We have these wonderful elderberries right here around Petoskey."

A prickly, hard to pick fruit like the thimbleberry--it takes an hour to pick just one pound--becomes magic in American Spoon's hands; their thimbleberry jam won the 2012 Good Food Award for best preserve. American Spoon's whole seed mustard is a finalist for a sofi Award for outstanding condiment, from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

A new culinary director was hired about a year ago, and relocated his family from San Francisco to Petoskey to create menus, event and recipes that cater to local foodies, visitors and American Spoon blog and Facebook followers. The company is looking to hire new employees.

The American Spoon Foods store and cafe in Petoskey's historic Gaslight District is undergoing renovations and will reopen May 1 with a new bar, banquette and menu.

American Spoon Foods has stores in Charlevoix, Traverse City, Harbor Springs, Saugatuck and Williamsburg at Grand Traverse Resort.

"We have these wonderful destination resort towns that have been key to our success. These destination resort towns have brought these customers to our door. In many cases they've been customers who go back home and want to buy more of our products," says Rashid.

Rashid is a concoction of entrepreneur, horticulturalist, naturalist, foodie and an ambassador--if not salesman--for northern Michigan and the Michigan farming and artisan food culture. To hear him talk about his walks into the fields to pick and taste his finds feels something like a picture-perfect commercial that looks too good to be true. Wandering through lush fields, tasting nature's bounty, dreaming of the possibilities that end up on tables across the land. But it is Rashid's reality.

"We all know about cherries, and we're the cherry capital of the world," he says. "Not as many people know about the apples, the pears, the apricots that grow here, and that are remarkable for their flavor. I don't think our business could have existed anywhere else in the world. The Lake Michigan effect on the western side of the state makes a special climate that people don't understand."

It's the lake effect, he says, that cools down warm winds, keeping trees and plants very happy. If the first warm winds of each year weren't cooled down, the fruit trees would be tricked into coming to life, and budding and blossoming early, only to be killed off by an early frost.

He has passed on the knowledge and love of nature to his three children, all three of them creative in their own fields. Son, Noah, is helping lead American Spoon Foods.

Rashid savors the interest in farming and local foods that he sees coming from the next generation.

"You see more young people in agriculture who have gone back to producing heirloom varieties and artisanal qualities," he says.

Foraging, cooking with what's in season, it's all come around since Rashid started so many years ago.

"People kind of looked at me sideways. 'Why do you go out in the woods and pick berries?' Now there are so many people who appreciate it. The local food movement is huge now. Back then people said, 'We have the most sophisticated food systems in the world. We can get peaches from Chili in the middle of winter. Why do we need to preserve fruits?' It's because of the character of the fruits and the flavors. It's great to see so many people changing their thinking, especially young people," he says.

Rashid was young, in his late twenties, when he and New York chef Larry Forgione were introduced by a mutual friend from northern Michigan, an aspiring dancer living in New York City and working at Forgione's restaurant.

"We were too young to know what we were really getting into," Rashid says.

It was Forgione's search for a divine morel mushroom, not fruits, that led to the founding of American Spoon Foods. Forgione is still a shareholder.

"Larry knew (their friend) was from Michigan, and he said, 'When you go back there in the summer could you find me someone who can pick me some morel mushrooms?'"

The mushrooms he got, were "better than what I can get in France," Forgione said at the time.

"He said, 'What else do you have?' I said, 'What else do I have, my gosh, let me show you!'"

Rashid showed Forgione wild blackberries, leeks and more.

"We developed quite a friendship because of our mutual interest in things that grew here in Michigan."

When Forgione decided to come see things for himself, Rashid took him on a drive.

"He was amazed by this water we kept following. He couldn't believe how much water. I said, "Larry, that's one of the Great Lakes."

Next he wanted to know "what all those trees in a row were."

"I told him this is one of the premier fruit growing regions in the world. The very next thing he said to me was, 'Can you make jam?' I said, 'I bet I can, my mother made jam.'"

It was made in a downtown Petoskey candy store for years until the demand and volumes outgrew the shop.

At age 60, Rashid is still very involved in the company but his 32-year-old son, Noah, "is more my boss than I am his."

And in keeping with the strong family ties, Rashid describes his wife's influence on the business.

"My wife is very involved. She works in the stores and she's always been my muse. If she liked it, I always knew it was good," he says.

She loves Northern Michigan as he does, and they wouldn't live anywhere else.

"Northern Michigan is the kind of place that just gets in your blood, that's it."

Kim North Shine is a freelance writer based in Michigan.

Portrait of Justin Rashid by Brian Confer

All other photos courtesy of American Spoon Foods
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