The Big Dipper
Salsa Success at Garden Fresh Gourmet
Photographs by Joshua Kristal
(page 1 of 4)
Officially, the meeting last summer in New York’s gleaming 45-story Westin Hotel at Times Square never happened. Even now, Jack Aronson, founder and president of Ferndale-based Garden Fresh Gourmet, won’t confirm who was on the other side of the conference table other than “lawyers, CPAs, the whole nine yards” representing one of the world’s largest food-and-beverage companies. Why the secrecy?
“We were offered more money than I ever thought in a million years we were worth,” Aronson says. He leans back in his chair, at once amused, and uncomfortable. “It was under $100 million. Let’s just say that. More money than I could ever do anything with.”
It was, on every level, an astonishing moment. Aronson, a Ferndale High School graduate with no formal kitchen training — but with savant-like food skills — hadn’t dreamed of riches when he whipped up his first batch of salsa in a five-gallon pail in 1997. He was just the struggling owner of Clubhouse Barbeque on Woodward, a regular guy who liked spicy food, but blanched at supermarket salsas — “chemistry projects” loaded with preservatives. Yet here he was, 11 years later, atop an all-natural snack-food empire that stretched from coast to coast. Garden Fresh Gourmet products were in 20 percent of America’s food stores, and the company commanded 85 percent of the Midwest salsa market. At age 56, Aronson had hit the jackpot.
But high above Manhattan’s streets, as the “Ivy-League” suits presented him with a chance to cash out, a funny thing happened. “I was feeling dread as the numbers were going up,” Aronson recalls. “I started feeling gloom. I had seller’s remorse before I sold.” His no-nonsense wife and company matriarch, Annette, saw the sign instantly: “Jack’s head was down. When Jack’s head is down and he’s not engaged in a conversation with 12 people, he’s not feeling good.” She knew what had to be done. Moments later, as negotiations started “going downhill,” Annette abruptly stood up. “I had my coat on, purse on my shoulder. I said, ‘Thank you very much, and adios.’ ”
Team Garden Fresh followed her out the door and spilled onto 43rd Street. “It was one of the best days of my life,” Jack says, a wide grin spreading beneath his thick mustache. “We got out there, and I felt like a kid who just got out of school for the summer.” So did Annette.
“Everyone was slapping high-fives. We were looking at each other like, ‘Oh my word!’ We couldn’t believe it. We were just elated to have our company the way it was when we left to go to New York City.”
So you literally walked away from tens of millions of dollars — and partied?
Annette: It’s not about the money for us.
Jack: At the end of the day, we wouldn’t live our lives any differently.
But with that kind of cash, it would be fun to try.
Jack: The No. 1 reason we didn’t sell was our employees.
Annette: [The buyer] planned on moving the plant to another state, so all these people would be without jobs. I could not feel good about making all this money from the sale for us and leave 300 people without a job in Michigan. I couldn’t do it. For real. I could not do that and feel good about myself for the rest of my life.
A few years ago, Garden Fresh was metro Detroit’s best-kept secret. Now, billion-dollar companies are throwing money at you. How on earth did all of this happen?
Jack: I got lucky because my first recipe connected with the general public and it had a great shelf life. Artichoke garlic was the first. … I started out putting it in cups and selling it in the front of the restaurant, and at a little hot-sauce business we had in Royal Oak called the Hot Zone. Pretty soon, it was outselling all the bottled salsa we carried.
Was it big money right away?
Jack: Couple hundred bucks a week, enough to cover utility bills and stuff.