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Food For Thought

Would diners in metro Grand Rapids be more inclined to order fresh asparagus knowing it was grown 45 miles away as opposed to South America?
 
Jim Osterhaven hopes so.

The same is true for heirloom tomatoes from St. Joseph, fresh eggs from Martin and gourmet seafood spreads from Elk Rapids.

Osterhaven, president of Superior Foods Co., is positioning his Kentwood business to offer fruits, vegetables and omelets with something akin to a “made in Michigan" seal of approval to local restaurant patrons.

“We were local before local was cool," Osterhaven says. “People are turning on to the fact that if I am sending my dollars to a grower in Texas, the money stays in Texas.

"But when you buy produce from a local farmer, when he goes out to eat, he’s eating in my restaurant. The dollars recirculate here."

Myriad businesses are boarding the eat local bandwagon, part of a regional campaign launched by Local First of Grand Rapids to get people to eat food produced locally. Benefits are two-fold: participants support local businesses and reduce energy costs required to import food from long distances. Local First was established several years ago to keep money and jobs in Michigan by encouraging people to buy Michigan-made products.

Local First officials say 73 percent of what we spend on locally-produced food stays in the community; a theme Superior wants to drive home.

“A sales pitch we use a lot is if you can partner with someone locally, the money stays here," says Ted Corson, Superior’s food services sales manager.
 
A Growing Market
Locally grown foods represented a $5 billion market in the U.S. in 2007, up from $4 billion in 2002, according to market research firm Packaged Facts of New York. It projects the market to hit $7 billion by 2011.
 
Anecdotally, Osterhaven estimates use of locally grown food in West Michigan has spiked at least three-fold since 2006. “The recession in Michigan has been going on for about eight years and it really has taken root that people should support local businesses," he says.

Restaurants that tout their use of locally-grown produce include Noto’s Old World Italian Dining on 28th Street SE and restaurants in Gilmore Partnership, such as those at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids.

Essence Restaurant Group, which operates Bistro Bella Vita and Green Well Gastro Pub, has been buying locally for several years.

Bistro Bella Vita, which opened in 1997 on Grandville Avenue SW, has been at the forefront of the buy local movement and has on its website a video showing how food goes from field to plate.

“It is really intrinsic to everything we do,’’ says James Berg, managing partner with Essence Restaurant Group. “It is not a fad or phase. Our good, core customers know this is part of who we are and they feel good knowing money they spend is staying local.’’

For instance, Essence Restaurant Group gets its in-season produce from Ingraberg Farms LLC near Rockford, ensuring freshness and premium flavor compared with produce trucked in from California.

“Now the emphasis is on local, working with area farmers for produce, cheeses, meats and specialty items,’’ Berg says. “Every year it becomes easier and easier.’’

Superior recently upped its Local First commitment by opening a $1.5 million addition for produce and dairy at its facility on Broadmoor Avenue SE. “With this addition, we want to use as much local food as possible as it comes in and out of season," Osterhaven says. “It plays to our strength of being a fresh food supplier. We are local and can buy from smaller, local producers, whether its cooking oils from  Zeeland or specialty cheeses made in Lakeview."

Other companies are following suit.  Hanson Logistics is investing $2 million to build a warehouse for long-term storage of Michigan-grown blueberries in St. Joseph County.
 
“We are committed to Michigan growers and intend to support this industry with best-of-class freezing, storage and distribution services," Hanson Logistics President Andrew Janson says.
 
Local focus
With Michigan’s economy still reeling from the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, working in cooperation with local businesses is integral to economic survival whether you’re producing refrigerators or the food that goes in them.
 
“We are trying to partner with as many local people as we can," Osterhaven says.

Superior, which has been in business for more than 75 years, established itself as a key player wholesale food distributor in the seafood and meat business, providing products clients ranging from restaurants to college cafeterias. Sales in 2008 were about $60 million for the family-run business, which has a full-time workforce of between 100 and 125 employees.
 
While the business formula has been successful, Osterhaven says it is time to branch out into dairy and produce, especially given the proximity of farmers to Superior’s facilities south of Grand Rapids.
 
Broad-line suppliers have an 80 percent share of the market; but it is the remaining 20 percent Superior wants to capture.

“Broad-line suppliers sell absolutely everything but are not a specialist at anything," Osterhaven says. “We sell everything on the plate, but we don’t sell the plate or the silverware. Broad-liners do a lot of things good, but they don’t do any one thing great."

Filling pantries and shelves with specialty items not offered by broad-line suppliers usually means working with a half-dozen or so specialty companies, which means multiple deliveries.

Osterhaven wants to put all those specialty items on one truck – bearing the Superior Foods Co. logo.
 
“How do we grow without losing our identity as a specialty company?" Osterhaven asks. “We got into seafood and did meats 20 years ago. We are adding lines to enhance our image."

Superior already is working with nearly two dozen suppliers of seasonal foods, including dried beans, cherries, fresh herbs, corn, asparagus, yellow and zucchini squash, potatoes and tomatoes.

Teaming up with local farmers is a symbiotic relationship, Corson says, because “if they plant so many acres of product, they have to have some place to go. We need to let them know there is a market." 

He cites Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City as a good example of such a relationship; it supplies cherries grown in the Traverse City region to local restaurants. “They take that product from the field to the chef," Corson explains.
 
Eventually, Superior hopes to be the conduit for most of these items to reach clients ranging from college dorms to five-star restaurants.

“We’re already sending sushi and hummus to dorms," Osterhaven says.  “We are trying to raise that profile; we are not just meat and seafood guys."
 
Lessons learned
The current recession is on everyone’s minds, but the food sector has weathered other storms, notably a crisis in the transportation industry that saw many independent trucking firms fold.

As such, Osterhaven saw the value in contracting with local growers for items that traditionally came from other states or from other countries.

"There are efficiencies in eliminating multiple deliveries," Osterhaven says. “Get it all on one truck rather than dealing with five or six separate deliveries. All of this pre-supposes we can be competitive and the quality is there."

Osterhaven says he believes Superior may have the edge over competitors because of its size.

“We are big enough to efficiently deliver supplies but small enough that it doesn’t take an Act of Congress to get something done," Osterhaven says. “We are kind of in the middle -- a specialty company to bring goods to market."

Superior does not plan to bite off more than it can chew, nor does it have designs on competing with the big retailers.

“I’m not going to be able to break into dairy and produce on a retail level," Osterhaven says.  “There are not a lot of independent grocers like there was 50 years ago. So the dairy and produce divisions are geared more towards restaurants and the food service industry."

Customers will know the difference in the taste and quality alone, he says, noting that produce coming out of California may be as much as two to three weeks old by the time it reaches your table.

One challenge, he says, is to provide fresh produce during the off-season. Osterhaven says a successful model in Canada in which hydroponic growers provide a steady supply of fresh produce to regional customers is worth exploring locally.

Supporting restaurants and grocers carrying local products will have long-term benefits that will ripple through the community like stones tossed into a northern Michigan trout pond.

"The farmer who is able to sell his tomatoes here will have money to spend on his kids’ braces," Osterhaven says. “We’re all in this together."



Former Home & Garden Editor for The Grand Rapids Press, John Hogan is a journalist with more than two decades of professional experience covering everything from homicides to hostas.

Photos:

Jim Osterhaven, president of Superior Foods Co (2)

The Greenwell Pub, 924 Cherry Street

Fresh produce, Fulton Street Farmers Market


Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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