Garden Fresh Gourmet Expands to All-Natural Ready Meals

Fast & Fresh: Local talent and technology create all-natural ready meals that don't taste like 'airline food'



Jack Aronson beamed at his guests, a gang of 20-something hipsters from Hong Kong who were gathered in a conference room in Ferndale to talk about importing Garden Fresh Gourmet’s line of all-natural, preservative-free cheeseburgers.

In a rumpled polo shirt and jeans, the burly Aronson shook hands all around and let a staffer take the meeting before dashing off, gushing about the machines that will enable his company — today the biggest fresh-salsa producer in North America — to preserve, package, and export the burgers and eventually a line of all-natural ready meals that can hold for about 40 days without losing their freshness.

By his side was George Vutetakis, formerly of the Inn Season Café, at which he was the founding chef and eventual owner. Vutetakis, dressed in a simple chef’s jacket, a thatch of white hair atop his slender vegan’s frame, is now Garden Fresh’s research-and-development guy. He’ll be in charge of developing the vegetarian and non-vegetarian ready meals, in addition to his role as spice master for the company’s line of salsas, dips, hummus, and tortilla chips.

“We have the best vegetarian guy in the country and one of the top meat guys in the country,” Aronson says, alluding to Vutetakis and local chef and charcutier Brian Polcyn (Forest Grill, Cinco Lagos), who’s a minority partner and product development guru on the meat end of the new venture.

Polcyn, who knew Aronson as a regular at his restaurants, asked him to look at his business plan for a charcutier (cutting, salting, curing) program he wanted to teach. Aronson mentioned the technology he had acquired that would preserve fresh single-serve burgers — sans preservatives and artificial coloring — so that they would taste as if they had just been grilled. That got Polcyn’s attention.

“Food equipment has changed so much, it’s mind boggling,” says Polcyn, 52. “I’m not an expert, but I’m applying my knowledge of food in the manufacturing arena.” He joined the company 18 months ago.

Vutetakis and Aronson met only last summer, when the former was checking out the produce at the Birmingham Farmers Market and the latter had stopped for a breather from a 20-mile bike ride. With his typical gusto, Aronson invited Vutetakis to visit the 60,000-square-foot facility that Garden Fresh Gourmet moved into six months ago.

“From there, the conversation started,” Vutetakis says. “Before you know it, I was doing some consulting. I’d been looking to do this for a long time.” Since selling Inn Season in 2002, Vutetakis has been shuffling between San Diego and his Birmingham home, dabbling in historic-home renovation, lecturing, teaching, and talking about his cookbook (Vegetarian Traditions). Joining Garden Fresh was another way of connecting with people’s palates.

“It says something about Jack, his vision,” Vutetakis says. “He brings people on board who would not otherwise do a lot of work together. This has been a great fit.”

Aronson jokes: “Our goal is to not ruin George’s reputation.”

The ready meals and burgers — meat and chicken — are a complement to the 100 products that have helped Garden Fresh Gourmet’s empire grow at a whopping rate of 10 percent a year — this year’s revenues are expected to be in the $110-million range.

Aronson, 58, plans to produce the ready meals in Ferndale, but where is still a question. He figures he’ll need 20,000 square feet. The burgers will be produced in Livonia, if all goes according to plan, under the aegis of the Great Stuffed Burger Co. He projects revenues to be in the $5-million range — and when the ready meals are in place, the combined sales may exceed Garden Fresh Gourmet’s revenues. The burger distribution will begin in July; the ready meals operation should be up and running in six months to a year, he says.

The talent is in place, along with the two HPP (high-pressure processing) machines that will enable Garden Fresh Gourmet to launch the shippable burgers and meals. HPP is a cold-water pressurizing process that cools down food quickly before it’s packaged, preserving nutrients and preventing the growth of pathogens, such as yeast, mold, and other bacteria. The food will hold for at least a month and loses none of its freshness upon reheating, Aronson says. Garden Fresh Gourmet, which Aronson founded with his wife, Annette, in 1997, has been using the HPP machines for its lines of hummus and dips.

There are only 100 HPP machines worldwide (manufactured in Tennessee), Aronson says, and he’s got two of them. His investment was around $10 million, plus another $6 million or so to build out the burger plant.

On the menu-planning side of things, Vutetakis, 55, is dreaming up ideas for packaged meals that will include a whole grain, an entrée (fish, meat, soup), and a vegetable — all free of preservatives. He’ll concoct gluten-free, low-sodium, low-fat, and dairy-free meals for hospitals, and at least one local medical-supply company is interested in shipping meals to diabetic patients. The HPP machines will allow the company to be nimble enough to make as many meals as needed, and different ones every day.

“We cool it down very quickly, and as a result, it stops the cooking process. This allows us to take a dish and preserve it in a way that is ideal, not just in taste but in nutrients,” he says. Vutetakis is thinking super foods like kale, veggie burgers “you could live on,” and such grains as amaranth and quinoa.

Polcyn is working on burgers stuffed with various cheeses, burgers with caramelized onions and bacon, and burgers with jalapeño and Monterey Jack. He plans to experiment with sausage and cured ham once he has perfected the cheeseburger.

“The single portions don’t taste like airline food,” Polcyn says. “You microwave it and it turns out incredibly good.”

As for the Chinese buyers, they’ll get a taste of the American heartland when they break into their HPP’d burgers back home. This may be one Detroit export they can really get behind.

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