Monday, May 12, 2008

Formal Launch

Traverse City Record-Eagle

Feeding the demand for local goods

Business features only Michigan-made products


TRAVERSE CITY -- There's a reason Eric Hahn's food company on U.S. 31 near Chum's Corner looks sort of like a cross between a warehouse and a grocery store.

It's a little of both.

Hahn opened Cherry Capital Foods, a business featuring only local and Michigan-made produce, meats and other food products, to the public two weeks ago. He hopes to expand on the region's rapidly growing demand for local and fresh foods, a trend that's helped his local food distribution business take off over the past year.

"I started dabbling with the local growers and moving some of their products ... I saw the potential in that and it started gradually getting bigger," Hahn said. "Pretty soon I was inundated with business from all over northern Michigan."

Hahn is working with around 150 local farmers and growers, distributing their products to more than 200 area restaurants, schools and retailers. He also sells locally made products likes salsas, honey and sauces and other products made at businesses like Food for Thought in Benzie County and Brownwood Farms in Antrim County.

There's been a concerted effort in the region to get local farm products into area restaurants and school food service operations through organizations like the Michigan Land Use Institute. The goal is to keep local farms profitable to help sustain the region's agricultural heritage, while maintaining high food quality.

But the distribution end -- getting food from farms to restaurants, school kitchens and retailers -- has been a stumbling block for local food programs across the country, said Diane Connors of the Michigan Land Use Institute, who works on its "Taste the Local Difference" program. Hahn's efforts are filling that gap, she said.

"He's providing a much-needed bridge in the community that's been the missing link all across the country," Connors said.

Hahn spent more than 20 years in the restaurant business, much of it at Stafford's Perry Hotel in Petoskey, and worked in fresh produce sales for a Detroit-based distributor. He started his new business in early 2007 as a one-person operation, and was approached last August with expansion plans by other investors.

He's now got five employees to help him run the distribution operation and his new retail store, where an open house will be held May 19 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Richard Zenner has grown hydroponic tomatoes and other produce at his farm in Kingsley for 18 years. Hahn bought up to 500 pounds a week of his fresh tomatoes last season, Zenner said.

"It's a good thing, and you're getting a fair price for it," Zenner said. "He's got the contacts to get it out from there."

Hahn is hopeful his new outlet will bring even more of northern Michigan's home-grown goodness to the dinner tables and food pantries of area residents, as well as generate more revenue for local farmers.

"It's a new market ... it's a new strategy," Hahn said. "We're bringing a customer base to them we've never had before."

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