March 5 2008
Local Business, local product
What is grown in northern Michigan is sold in northern Michigan
That is the driving force behind Charlevoix resident Eric Hahn’s new business, Cherry Capital Foods. Helping local growers and food processors distribute and sell product in the northwest Michigan area is the name of the game for Hahn, who’s endeavor began with a simple idea less than one year ago: “I was one man with a van and a plan;” Hahn said
Now he is one man with two vans, two employees, more to come and an even bigger plan. He is working with more than 100 growers, distributing to more than 160 customers and has no intention of slowing down. Keeping the economic impact of one of Michigan’s strongest resources – agriculture – local is his goal.
“We want to keep the money here in our local community,” he said.
Hahn’s experience in market distribution was gained largely during his time as a product representative for a company out of Detroit. He handled the northern Michigan accounts for the firm, selling products to restaurants, retailers and grocers. About four years ago, he started “dabbling” in local distribution, he said, acting as the go-between for growers and suppliers such as Friske’s Market and area restaurants. Doing the work on a “case-by-case basis,” Han said, he realized he was on to something.
“I could tell where the market demand structure was, who was willing to buy local, and how much of a market we had,” he said.
Then, last spring, about a month before asparagus season – an important time for many Michigan farmers – the company from Detroit Hahn was working with decided not to work with local asparagus growers. The decision put added strain on an already heavily-strained realm of industry in northern Michigan, and Hahn decided to take things into his own hands. In April 2006 he kicked off his businenss endeavor, trading his Volvo for a refrigerated van, and the rest is history. Cherry Capital Foods helps provide and maintain a market for asparagus, apples, cherries, corn and other locally grown products, as well as locally processed products such as syrup, apple sauce and wine. He has contracts with schools, hospitals, restaruants, grocers, retail markets and more, and plenty of promise of growth.
“Our projected growth is expected to double within the next year,” he said.
A national radio spot, which aired on National Public Radio in January, gave Hahn a major public relations boost –“My phone has been ringing off the hook since it aired,” he said of the feature on his business, available for listening on his website, www.cherrycapitalfoods.com - and contracts may begin to extend outside of the eight-county area he currently focuses on. A newly opened warehouse in Traverse City houses much of the product he helps distribute, and he plans to soon offer product sale from the location. Another personal goal, he said, is to help offer fresh food to customers.
“We are able to offer a fresher, more nutritional product,” he said, which has been a boost for his involvement in the school project Farm to School.
“This is a national project offered by the USDA,” Han explained, which offers funds to school districts that contract with local growers to offer such fresh, local products as part of their school meals.
While Hahn does not yet have a contract with Charlevoix Schools, he hopes to establish a relationship with them, and already works with Traverse City Catholic Schools, a number of colleges and some others in the northern Michigan area.
Giving the farmer an economic boost is another part of Hahn’s business. Providing Fair Market Value for products is something larger distributors are often unable or unwilling to do, giving less bang for the farmer’s buck than is necessary to maintain a strong agricultural industry. Offering Fair Market Value dollars instead of “pennies per pound” will help keep producers’ business healthy, and keep the product coming.
“We can then facilitate movement of the product from point A to point B, and get Michigan products out on the shelves,” he said, adding the recent contract with a vendor out of Chicago will help get Michigan product to southern Michigan and Illinois and further increase market demand.
“I already have producers who have expanded their operations to accommodate the increase this season. That speaks for the success,” he said.
While he had high hopes in the beginning, Hahn said he had no idea his business would grow so fast. The demand structure is “far greater than I anticipated on the onset,” he said, but he is seeing all the support he needs to continue. He’s received commitment from local chefs, grocers, retailers and other customers, and expects the growth to continue. Some plans for the future, he said, is to standardize the distribution packaging – using single measurements instead of bushels, pecks or barrels – and working with chefs to get some popular menu items which feature local product out on some shelves. For now maintaining partnerships is vital.
“Once you’ve got a fair amount of growers and chefs wiling to work together and all willing to help with the entire structure, you’re on your way. Those individuals (growers and retailers) deserve a lot of credit for helping to get this off the ground,” Hahn said.