2021 Taste Makers: Matt Robinson Is the Guy in Charge at Frog Holler Produce

Plus, our web-exclusive interview with Nicole Ryan, co-founder of sustainable restaurant Sylvan Table
frog holler produce Matt-Robinson
Matt Robinson likes his dishes topped with farm-fresh ingredients, like this Jolly Pumpkin pizza garnished with leafy greens sourced from Frog Holler Produce. // Photograph by Justin Milhouse

one of Matt Robinson’s favorite tasks as general manager of Frog Holler Produce — a role he has now held for 20 years — is to fulfill unusual requests from the many chefs who buy from the Ann Arbor-based wholesaler. One time
a chef needed 10 pounds of red seedless grapes, then out of season. Robinson drove 2 1/2 hours to an orchard that found some in its cooler. On another occasion, a caterer called, asking for bananas still on the stalk. It took three days, but Robinson finally located a supplier, only to have the buyer say he was just testing whether Robinson could find them. But what Robinson is most proud of is the business’ reputation. 

When the national steakhouse Ruth’s Chris was preparing to open in Ann Arbor in 2015, the chef called a number of colleagues in the area, asking for the name of the best produce supplier. Three chefs said they used and loved Frog Holler; the fourth was bound by contract to another vendor. 

The wholesaler currently sells to the best restaurants everywhere from Saugatuck and Toledo to Flint, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Ann Arbor. (One new Detroit client is Oak & Reel, the recent addition to the city’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, helmed by two-Michelin-Star chef Jared Gadbaw.) “We prioritize local businesses, as we want to support the community,” says Robinson of Frog Holler, which was founded in the ’70s by restaurant food purchaser Rick Peshkin and is now owned by Van Eerden Foodservice in Grand Rapids. Much of the company’s produce — think corn, tomatoes, cabbage, pickles, and cucumbers — is purchased daily from local growers at the Detroit Produce Terminal. Given Michigan’s limited growing season, Frog Holler also sources product directly from other growing regions. 

Given that 98 percent of the business is servicing restaurants, Robinson says, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the operation. “Prior to COVID, we never had a down year,” says Robinson, who has spent nearly his whole life in the business, starting with a job in high school unloading produce trucks in Flint. Early in the pandemic, Frog Holler donated all the food in its warehouse to various charities. 

To help growers, Robinson and his team then started a consumer delivery/carryout program of boxed fresh vegetables that has since ended. “Now all our staff is back working and we’re looking at the future again,” he says. “I would like us to be the produce company that other companies compare themselves to. We need to be the best because that is what our customers deserve.” —Jennifer Conlin

This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition. And learn more about this year’s Taste Makers here

Web Exclusive!: Nicole Ryan of Sylvan Table Walks the Walk on Sustainability

The new restaurant invites diners to enjoy home-grown ingredients in a unique setting
Sylvan Table
Sylvan Table’s dining area is housed in a restored 300-year-old barn. // Photograph by Laszlo Regos Photography

Nicole Ryan and her husband, Tim, opened their sustainable restaurant concept, Sylvan Table, on June 1. Located on 5 acres of land just east of Sylvan Lake, the property boasts vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and beehives as well as a restored 300-year-old barn that serves as the restaurant’s primary dining area. We talked with Ryan about the concept.

Hour Detroit: Sylvan Table’s menu is focused on local, sustainable ingredients. Why is sustainability important to you?

Nicole Ryan: My son goes to school at MSU, he’s a horticulture major…so I started getting into it, and I realized that everything we do out there affects the environment. So I thought, you know what, if we’re gonna do this, let’s try to be sustainable. Back in the day, everyone had a garden — now no one does. They worry about their lawn looking pretty, but they don’t care where their food comes from. I want to make it so that everyone who comes here knows where their food comes from, and it’s not coming from miles and miles away.

The barn was originally in Maine. How did you stumble upon it?

When we decided we were going to get a barn, I Googled antique barns for sale, and there was a gentleman…Don Polaski from Antique Barn Co. They find barns around the United States, and they want to give them a second life. We found the one we thought would be right. It happened to be from Thorndike, Maine. When we walked in the barn, you could see the potential.

What are some of your favorite dishes at Sylvan Table?

We have a trout that we do on the grill, and they put lemon, herbs, and garlic on the inside. We do a spatchcocked chicken in a wood-fired pizza oven…under a brick, and it just has some seasoned salt, pepper, some fresh herbs and lemon, and it’s served with some string beans that have been blistered in a cast iron pan. Our menu changes; not all the time, but we’ll add things as they’re getting to peak in the season out in the garden and at our partner farms. —Lauren Wethington

Sylvan Table, 1819 Inverness St., Sylvan Lake; 248-369-3360; sylvantable.com