Garden Fresh Does Deli Right

If you want a glimpse into the future of food, a good place to start is Garden Fresh Gourmet in Ferndale.

That is where you will find President Jack Aronson and Director of Research and Development George Vutetakis experimenting with super foods, creating hummus recipes that include ingredients such as kale, quinoa, protein-packed sweet potato and antioxidant-rich turmeric. Vutetakis, a well-known vegetarian chef, is boosting the company’s reputation for vegan and other meatless options.

On the flip side, it also is where you will find Aronson’s babies, two high-pressure processing machines (HPP) that dramatically extend the shelf life of his dips, salsas and hummus products. These systems, the only two in Michigan, take what might be a two-week product and allow it to stay fresh without using preservatives, additives or flavor-inhibiting heat pasteurization for up to five weeks. Thanks to these HPP machines, Garden Fresh is going big into meat.

Aronson’s HPP investment created a revolution of sorts. It allowed Garden Fresh Gourmet to grow rapidly, expanding from a guy making salsa with a bucket in the back of his restaurant to a $100 million food giant. It also has given the family-owned company the expertise to expand into other products, such as its soon-to-launch stuffed protein subsidiary. These products will include meatballs as well as chicken, turkey and beef burgers filled with a specialty blend of cheese Aronson created himself. At this point, Garden Fresh is less of a salsa maker; it is a deli-supply company.

Aronson’s slavish devotion to all-natural products, his determination to keep Garden Fresh hyper local and his desire to help others is what will keep this unique “Only in America” company squarely situated in Metro Detroit -“ for life. At one time, Aronson considered offers to sell the business to the likes of Pepsi and Nestle. These days, he says he won’t even take their calls. Garden Fresh will be the Aronson family’s baby forever.

“Back then, we were growing so fast, it felt like such a chore. It was a little frustrating. The growth was astronomical. To go from selling 20 pints a week to a $100 million company -“ it’s very difficult. We built as we went. But we grew so fast we were always chasing the infrastructure,” Aronson said. “Then I said one day, ‘We have things that money cannot buy.’ I have five children working here. They all have purpose. They’re all involved in our charities. Those are things we want to continue. That made up our mind. We now say we’re not for sale and we don’t want to hear an offer.”

If Aronson sounds like a satisfied man and business owner, it is because he feels fulfilled by the work he is doing at Garden Fresh. The 15-year-old company employs about 423 workers -“ all in Michigan. Garden Fresh has its headquarters in Ferndale, where its salsa and hummus are created. There is a new test kitchen just a few blocks away, which also will house his new baby, a food-business incubator called The Seed. The company has a chip plant in Grand Rapids, where the corn is mashed in traditional ways using volcanic rock. There is a dip-processing plant in Inkster, a part of which he plans on leasing for free to one of his favorite charities, Forgotten Harvest. And the final piece of his Michigan empire is the distribution center in Taylor.

But don’t call it an empire in front of Aronson. He swats away any attempt to call him a business magnate or a mentor. He laughs at the idea of being a local celebrity, despite his reputation as a softball player and foodie extraordinaire. All in all, Aronson would rather be known as the guy who does such a good barbecue for his employees that newbies sometimes think he is the caterer, not the guy who signs the paychecks. He’s prouder of the fact that his wife, Annette, still writes out each worker’s birthday card than the fact that he is recognized as a world leader in fresh, all-natural food preparation.

That is what makes Garden Fresh such an All-American success story, argues Dave Zilko, the company’s president and ying to Arson’s yang. Zilko pretty much handles the sales and strategy side of the business while Aronson does the operations. Together since 2002, the duo has grown Garden Fresh from a company worth $4.6 million to one that topped $100 million in 2012. Add in the potential of the Great American Stuffed Burger Co., a soon-to-be-launched subsidiary that will sell cheese-filled burgers and the like, and Garden Fresh has the potential to add another $15 million in sales out of the gate. That could go as high as $60 million by Great American’s third year in business, Zilko said.

Founder Jack Aronson would bring along his homemade chips to his salsa tastings, hoping to spur sales. His potential customers liked the chips so much that Garden Fresh began making them as a separate product. Photo by Rosh Sillars

Here’s what Zilko says he likes about his friend: Aronson is a guy with no college degree. He didn’t attend Le Cordon Bleu or any other cooking school. He is a graduate of Ferndale High School and a largely self-taught chef. Yet here’s a man whose palate is so refined, so well-honed that he can smell preservatives coming off a bag of store-bought bread. He can tell when the onions or other ingredients in his hallmark salsa have sat too long.

“He’s figured out here in Ferndale Michigan how to ship 1 million units of product each week. He doesn’t get enough credit for that. He has no formal training, no formal business education. Yet Jack gets the product out,” Zilko says. “And he hasn’t compromised a thing.”

Where it all began
So how did this humble man get his start? It was back at the Clubhouse BBQ restaurant, a simple brick building with green awnings at 8 Mile and Woodward Avenue. There, Aronson made his first batch of salsa, mixing it up just as he liked it. It had fresh onions, tomatoes, garlic and plenty of cilantro. He served it with home-made chips, and something in the universe clicked. People loved the salsa and began asking for more. He later opened a salsa store in Royal Oak, the Hot Zone, where Jim Hiller of Hiller’s Market tried his wares for the first time.

In 1988, Jack and Annette Aronson register their restaurant, ClubHouse Bar-B-Q, with the state of Michigan.

One order followed another as local grocers picked up Garden Fresh for their shelves. Aronson lists their names with reverence: Jim Hiller, Nino Salvaggio, Tom Violante, Rocky Russo. These grocers encouraged Aronson, told him what was working and what they wanted in their stores. Russo, for example, urged Aronson to bag up his chips and sell those as well. At Nino Salvaggio’s, the salsa demonstration wowed them so much that they called Aronson back in from the parking lot where he was on his way home to place an order.

“The salsa was supplemental back then. It was to help pay the restaurant’s electric bill,” Aronson says. “I was told that an all-natural salsa wouldn’t get out of the state. That people wouldn’t buy a salsa from someone in Michigan. -¦ I just thought I would end up a regional player.”

Once the salsa picked up a distribution company to partner with, Garden Fresh quickly grew from being sold in 80 stores to more than 2,000 locations. That is when Aronson said he realized he would be able to make a living from this business. He had five kids to feed and a restaurant that wasn’t going gangbusters. So he threw himself entirely into the food-manufacturing business, adding a hummus company and chip plant along the way. And he always kept his feet firmly planted in Ferndale, the city he loved.

In 1997, the Aronsons move from the restaurant business to making salsa manufacturing their full-time jobs.

“They have been so supportive in our growth. There’s a great sense of pride for Annette and I to do this in our hometown,” Aronson said. “We were told you couldn’t become the largest manufacturer (of salsa) in the world right here in Ferndale. But they made it happen. The city helped us get our first, then our second and then our third building here.”

Aronson got his first taste of cooking as a child, learning the best recipes from his mother and her best friend. When he was still in high school, he started working at a local cafeteria. There, the women on staff took him on as a project, feeding him and showing him the basics of good food. Aronson said his love of food has been a blessing and a curse because he’s been on a diet ever since he was in the third grade.

His unique palate also has played into Garden Fresh’s success. Because he abhors preservatives, he has always strived for fresh, all-natural food. There have been times when he has tried to automate or change his salsa-making methods. For example, he once tried to ditch the bucket the salsas are mixed in for huge, 50-gallon tanks in order to reduce the costs of processing. That failed because Aronson felt the food sat too long, and that long exposure to air affected the flavors. Another time, he decided that peeling and processing all of the onions by hand was too expensive. Aronson found someone who could provide onions ready to use -“ but those flavors also negatively affected how the salsa came out.

It just so happened that the rest of the country jumped on the fresh, all-natural bandwagon at about the same time. That is part of the reason why Garden Fresh has the No. 1 fresh salsa in the United States and Canada, dominating its market and then some. The company also has the No.1 tortilla chip in the deli aisle. And its hummus is No. 3, but it also has the potential to take over its category soon enough. And, chances are if you buy a private-label fresh salsa or hummus, you’re eating Garden Fresh because the company dominates there as well.

“My biggest success in our company is that I’ve been fortunate enough to make what the American public likes,” Aronson said. “That’s how ‘Jack’s Special’ got started. I would make the salsa and then set some aside for myself. I’d triple the cilantro because that was a flavor that I liked. Cilantro is a love/hate thing. Some people adore its taste; others think it tastes like soap. But ‘Jack’s Special’ is now a huge seller for us.”

He ended up in the dip business for basically the same reason. Aronson didn’t like what was on the market, and he knew he could deliver something tastier.

In 2006, the company’s annual sales rise to $30 million. Garden Fresh starts to produce hummus using roasted chick peas that are double whipped for the dip’s creamy texture.

“We roast our own chick peas. I bought roasters when we bought (Basha) basically for its hummus plant. I went to the Middle East and learned the traditional method for making hummus there. That’s why ours is so creamy compared with the others on the market,” Aronson said. “We did the same thing with the chips. We knew we didn’t want to make them with corn flour and water like everyone else. We have volcanic stones to crush the corn, which is the traditional way to do it. Those stones have to be honed by hand, and we have two employees on staff that takes care of them.”

Are these methods more expensive? Does it make the processing of his foods more complicated than they really need to be? You betcha. But Aronson knows that is why his foods are leaders in their categories, why other companies want to buy his and why customers are so loyal.

“We really have a lot of pride. We have a brand promise to our customers and we take that very, very seriously. We want them to buy a product that they know will be terrific,” Aronson said. “We’ve won more than 500 foods of excellent awards, nationally and internationally. There’s the reason. I always wanted to be the best salsa out there. I never tried to be the biggest; the consumer did that.”

The high-pressure processing breakthrough
Aronson came up with the high-pressure processing method that way as well. He loved the taste of fresh salsa, but he knew what was already on the market was a downgrade from what he wanted to sell. Cooking the salsa took away from its flavors, he believed. So when he heard about the HPP machines, he was hooked. It took him a while to convince Zilko to buy in, literally. After all, Zilko recalls, the guy wanted to buy $4 million machines and the company was only making $4 million annually at the time. These days, Zilko calls HPP “the future of all natural,” and you know he believes it.

“Jack really was a visionary on this,” Zilko says. “To me, this is the future of manufacturing. It is space-age pasteurization.”

Every container of Garden Fresh salsa goes through its high-pressure pasteurization machines.

It made the product last longer on the shelves, and that shelf time also allowed Garden Fresh to ship its products anywhere it wanted to, including internationally. HPP kills off food-borne pathogens including mold, bacteria and yeast. Jarred salsa used to have the advantage because of its shelf life; HPP leveled the playing field.

“I’m pretty picky. And that will always be our approach,” Aronson says. “Our onions are washed, peeled and processed on a palate and on the truck in less than an hour. That’s part of our success. That’s why our product tastes the way it does and lasts so long.”

Aronson also has a unique head for business. When Kroger asked him to come up with a salsa and cream cheese combination, he struggled to find the right recipe. He tried at least a dozen times to find the answer, but yet the two key parts just didn’t taste good to him. Finally, while trying to fall asleep one night, he came across the answer. Sure enough, the next day the product came out perfectly. Now, it’s another one of Garden Fresh’s best sellers. Aronson readily admits he gets some of his best ideas while in bed or sleeping.

A machine that caught his eye for a split second is how Aronson came across his great stuffed protein plan. It was 2011, and Aronson was traveling, once again. He had promised Annette that he would start slowing down by age 60 -“ an age he turns this summer -“ but fate had another plan in mind. Hamburgers are a hugely popular product, and having a unique product like a ready-to-eat stuffed burger could be significantly lucrative for the company. Plus, Aronson liked the challenge of it.

“It’s funny how you make a decision. I’m in Germany looking at equipment. I’m looking at equipment for a salsa and hummus business. Companies from all over the world were there; there were 11 halls. And a machine catches my eye. It’s a machine, a big extruder that puts cheese inside of meat. And I looked at it and I see the whole process in my head in 30 seconds,” Aronson says.

In 2008, Garden Fresh purchases its first high-pressure processing machine, a cold-water pressurizing process that cools down food quickly before it’s packaged.

“I know I can grill that burger and steam it and put it in a package and HPP it. And people would have unprocessed food at home at their fingertips with a 60-day shelf life. I did this because of the HPP process,” Aronson says. “You can feed your child this in seconds. So you can do that already with a hotdog? Well, this is product without any preservatives. And it is the safest food in the world. And it will taste spectacular.”

The Great American Stuffed Burger Co. project, which will launch later this year, will be worth an estimated $15 to $20 million out of the gate, Zilko says. Within three years, it could top $60 million. That’s pretty impressive for an individually wrapped burger.

So why not freeze it? Aronson almost shudders at the idea. He and business partner chef Brian Polcyn agree firmly on one thing: There is 50 percent degradation on frozen product. Then there was the cheese issue. To stuff the burgers, meatballs and other proteins with cheese, Aronson has to be able to satisfy the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the right internal temperature on the cheese. To Aronson, the experimentation was the best part.

“There were other high-melt cheeses that would perform. But they had 15 ingredients you couldn’t pronounce. So I made my own. I blended different cheese that hold up in high temperatures. After numerous trials, we finally got it perfect. We went from 15 ingredients down to five,” Aronson says.

Valuing people, community and success
His desire to do things the right way played into his decision a few years back to step away from offers to buy out the company. Maybe it was being stubborn. Maybe it was his pride. Whatever it was, Aronson says he has no regrets these days.

“I don’t know if it was an ego thing, really. We would say we’re not for sale, but we’ll listen to an offer. Five years in a row, we were approached by the top 10 food companies worldwide, big ones, to purchase us. But you know it became a distraction. After awhile, we had to look in a mirror. We really feel we have something money cannot buy,” Aronson says. “We’ve got a great workforce; but one of the companies said it would move it out to Virginia. If we sold the company, we would lose the culture or things that we do for the community. And that was one of the things that really hit home when we were thinking about it.”

Jack Aronson started making the nearly two dozen varieties of salsa that Garden Fresh sells to meet the demands of its customers. His personal favorite, Jack’s Special, met his rigourous requirements of having triple the cilantro and an unusually high amount of garlic in the mix. It is now one of the company’s top sellers.

And when you hear how Aronson personally describes the people he works with -“ the guys on the line who started from the bottom and are now managers, or his mother’s best friend who still works with Garden Fresh -“ then you understand why he found it hard to sell.

“You don’t realize stuff sometimes before it’s gone. I got seller’s remorse before I sold and that’s the best time to get it. I’m glad because I would have been really devastated when I didn’t own this company the next day. The money isn’t important. Granted, we got a tremendous offer. But what do you do? Give (your employees) a severance and then they don’t have a job a year later?” Aronson says.

Giving back to his employees, the community and local charities is Aronson’s way of recognizing those who have helped him in the past and what they continue to do for his family now.

“We’ve been very fortunate. I feel very, very blessed to be able to do this. We do love to come to work here. We love the people we work with. They work hard for us,” Aronson says. “That is part of the reason we wanted to start The Seed. It makes you feel so good to help other people out. I cannot wait. I wish that was all I had to do.”

Hopefully, those up-and-coming food companies Aronson, Zilko and other Garden Fresh staffers will mentor will stay in Metro Detroit. Building on Southeast Michigan’s reputation for good food and good people is pretty much what Aronson hopes his legacy will be.

“Detroit gets kicked around a lot. But we have such great people here. I say this and I’ve been all over the world: I love being here,” Aronson says. “We could be real bitter with what we’ve been through over the years. I think it’s made us stronger. It certainly hasn’t ruined our human resolve.”

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Karen Dybis
Karen is an editor and writer for Corp! Magazine. She graduated from the University of Michigan and has worked at The Mackinac Island Town Crier, The Kalamazoo Gazette, The (Adrian) Daily Telegram and The Oakland Press. Karen was a Detroit News business writer with stints in retail, workplace issues and personal finance. Dybis also was a blogger on Time magazine's "Assignment: Detroit" project. She is author of four Michigan history books, including "Secret Detroit" and "The Witch of Delray."