The Big Dipper

Salsa Success at Garden Fresh Gourmet
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Photographs by Joshua Kristal

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.

 
So how did you break out?

Jack: Jim Hiller was actually the one who set the spark. He stopped in the Hot Zone one day and said, ‘I love this stuff. I want to sell it [in Hiller’s Markets].’ So we closed the [restaurant] dining room, got a Department of Agriculture license, and started selling to supermarkets. I went and knocked on doors. I picked up about 70 stores fairly quickly.

Annette: He’s a good talker, and the product sells itself. The combination of those two things, I knew we had a hit. People were raving about it.

Artichoke and garlic was a bold beginning. What came next?

Jack: Wild Mild. And then I made Screaming Hot [then] Thick & Chunky.

What about Jack’s Special, the one we see everywhere?

Jack: Jack’s Special was a lark. I used to use double and triple cilantro when I made salsa for myself. So I said, ‘I’m going to do this with all this cilantro and call it Jack’s Special.’ It’s our No. 1 [selling salsa] in North America.

You’ve invented some unlikely hits like Mango Peach and Chipotle Garlic salsa, and some pretty wild dips. What’s the process?

Jack: I get some ideas while I’m lying in bed … believe it or not.

Annette: He’ll wake up in the morning, and he’ll have had a dream. He’ll say, ‘I had a dream about a certain flavor of salsa or dip.’ He’ll come in the [test] kitchen and do it the next day. ‘I got an idea!’ I’ve heard that 200 times, at least.

Jack: I had a dream one night about [how to create] the cream cheese-and-salsa dip that I’d been working on for, oh God, probably a year. It turned out to be one of my best dips ever.

Did you have any memorable failures along the way?

Jack: We’ve had our fair share of disasters. … During the holidays, I thought, ‘I’m going to do this great Thanksgiving, fall, comfort-food salsa — pumpkin salsa. And I’m going to go with some cloves and some allspice and everything that we think about, pumpkin pie, everything we think about at that time of year.’ It was — horrid. Probably one of the worst things I ever tasted. There was no fixing it. That was a bad dream, a nightmare.

How much trial and error is typical?

Jack: I spend hours on end in [the test kitchen]. I’ve done about 200 recipes in the past six months. … If we don’t feel it’s the best product on the market, we don’t want to launch it. We don’t want to be a commodity product. We don’t sell 99-cent chip dips.

Your process must have surprised those big shooters in New York who spend millions on food research and development.

Jack: They wanted to know how we get so many products to market so quickly, because it takes them a year and a half. They wanted to know about product development and how many people were on the team. We said, ‘Jack.’ They looked at each other and sat there for a little bit like they couldn’t comprehend there was one person in the department. What I always say, ‘I don’t have to argue with anybody.’

Back to the beginning, how did you supply 70 stores, virtually overnight?

Jack: We moved from the restaurant to an old video store on Woodward Heights.

Annette: I thought we were nuts. It was just so hard. It was so physical. Nothing was automated. Everything was done by hand. I made the salsa [in five-gallon buckets] and Jack sold it. We had, like, 10 employees. … Every day, I’d be crying at 9 o’clock at night because we’d been there since 5 [in the morning]. For real. It was a lot of hard work getting to where we’re at right now.

When did you know Garden Fresh was big time?

Jack: Probably Meijers. I didn’t have to go out and drive a truck anymore. When we picked up Meijers, that’s when we realized we were going to build a building over here [near Nine Mile and Hilton]. … [But even] when we built this plant in 2002, it was a lot bigger than what we needed. I remember getting here and saying, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to be able to afford it?’ Now, of course, we bought the rest of this property.

 
In the early days, I understand you had some trouble with the IRS that turned out to be a blessing.

Jack: I actually had an IRS audit [for the restaurant] and the guy from the Treasury Department gave me [the late IRS division chief] Tony Latella’s number and told me not to tell anyone he gave it to me. Tony came in and we just hit it off. He wouldn’t let me pay him. … We got through the audit, and he said, ‘I’ll stop doing my [consulting business] and for a small percentage of the business, I’ll come in there.’ And he did, [as CFO]. … He brought a lot of structure from the IRS. So a lot of things I did, moving quickly, the entrepreneur thing, he was the grounding unit.

Things changed dramatically, too, in 1999, when you swept the awards at America’s largest spicy-food show. What was the reaction?

Jack: I think they were actually insulted. The salsa capital of the world used to be New Mexico, Colorado, California. I mean, that is the mecca of salsa. Detroit? Ferndale? Unheard of. I think the rest of the industry was [saying], ‘Who are these guys from Ferndale, Michigan?’ Since then, we’ve won 300 awards, national and international.

Beyond the awards, how did word about Garden Fresh spread? You’ve never done print or TV advertising.

Jack: We’re big into

. We wanted to get in people’s mouths.

Like those people at the supermarket with food on trays?

Jack: That’s how we advertise. That’s where we spend our money. We’re the biggest supplier [of salsa] to Costco nationwide. We spent $1 million at Costco last year on demos. Ten percent of what we make we spend on demos.

You’re also making salsa, dips, and chips for some other very big names.

Jack: Whole Foods has us doing 25 private labels. And [Jimmy Buffett’s] Margaritaville Foods.

From day one, your mantra has been ‘all natural.’

Jack: We buy fresh [ingredients]. We wash it. We clean it. But we don’t add any preservatives or additives or chemicals of any kind.

That presents some obvious challenges with food safety.

Jack: We went through the school of hard knocks. We had to make our product as clean and cold as possible. … You’re allowed by the FDA to have 200 parts per million of bacteria on your equipment. Your kitchen table probably has 100,000. I won’t let production start unless we have zero.

Still, when you were first shipping all-natural salsa, storeowners must have been skeptical.

Jack: I was told I couldn’t do it. I had a six-week shelf life. I was told all retailers wanted four months. But we thought, ‘It’s because your stuff doesn’t sell. If you get something good in there, you’re going to turn it.’ If you can’t sell something in four months, you shouldn’t even have it on the shelves.

And now you’re filling shelves with all kinds of products. You bought Michigan’s largest hummus company in 2006 and then a Grand Rapids chip operation in 2007. How’s it going?

Jack: We’re the No. 1 [all-natural] salsa company in North America — twice as big as No. 2. We’re the No. 8 dip company. We’re the No. 7 hummus company. We’re the No. 7 chip company. That’s what I’m really proudest of. Because no other major company, all these billion-dollar companies, nobody has that lineup.

Sales are projected to hit $90 million this year, and you’ve recently hired some experienced executives. Yet you’re still very hands-on around here.

Jack: I spend most of my time in the test kitchen. That’s my contribution.

Annette: I have at least 30 managers. I don’t really have to be here, but I enjoy it. So I kind of oversee production, each production department. Like this week, I worked in guacamole, stuffing the cups, putting the lids on, palleting, dating, anything, just to keep the crew going because we’re kind of short on  people this week.

Looking ahead, you know more conference-room buyout offers are in your future. Have you thought about what you’ll do?

Jack: We’ve had offers to move to different parts of the country and all these incentives … from communities [in Michigan] that wanted us to move. [But] I grew up in Ferndale and they’ve been great.

Annette: We don’t want to move anyplace else. We have a nucleus of employees. If it weren’t for the employees, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. We feel like we owe it to the people who have stood by us.

Jack: It’s like a big extended family. At the end of the day, there’s no backstabbing going on here. It’s amazing what we’ve put together with a family atmosphere here. That’s the reason I love coming in.

 

TECH-MEX

Ask Jack Aronson about the next big thing for Garden Fresh Gourmet, and he points to a mammoth stainless-steel machine in one of his frigid Ferndale production buildings. It whirs and hisses as a conveyor slides salsa-packed plastic tubs inside, where water sloshes, then shoots.

This $3.5-million contraption is the latest in high-pressure processing (HPP).

Aronson says the process can extend the shelf life of refrigerated salsa by up to 100 days. In short, it’s a game-changer. In his own words, Aronson describes the logic behind buying the machine, and how it works.

“We want to keep stuff fresh and all-natural and give people the shelf life and the quality, and that’s why we invested [in it]. Six companies in the U.S. have these machines, and we’re the only privately owned company that has one.

“The plastic container has to have food in it and it has to be sealed. The machine puts 87,000 pounds of cold-water pressure on the outside of the container and it won’t crush it because it’s equal on all sides. [The] pressure is equal to seven oceans deep. If all the pressure were on top, it would flatten a submarine like a piece of paper. But because the pressure is equal on all sides, it’s pushing everywhere. It can’t blow out.

“It kills mold, yeast, bacteria, and every pathogen known to man. It does not affect enzymes and vitamins.

So [it] gives you the safest, all-natural fresh food to eat. It gives you the same results as heat pasteurization, but with cold water. And it doesn’t denigrate your product like heat pasteurization. If you make a spinach dip and you boil it at 180 degrees for 11 minutes, it’s not such a good spinach dip anymore.

GIVING BACK

When Jack Aronson isn’t tossing ingredients around the Garden Fresh Gourmet test kitchen or racing around the production floor, odds are he’s plotting new ways to support local charities.

“That’s a big reason I didn’t want to sell the company,” he says. “The No. 1 one reason was the employees and the second was charity work. That’s probably the most fulfilling thing.”
While Aronson and his wife, Annette, often write checks for worthy causes, such as cancer research at the University of Michigan Hospitals, they’ve demonstrated a terrific imagination for funding larger efforts by leveraging the popularity of their products. In early 2010, for example, they funneled $100,000 to the Salvation Army Bed & Bread Club by donating all the profits from a limited-edition salsa that honored then-retiring radio host Dick Purtan.

A similar strategy has been used to keep donations flowing to Children’s Hospital of Michigan, which also turned to the Aronsons a few years ago when they needed help with a big-ticket project. “I was giving money there … every month, off our sales from tortilla chips and Costco salsa,” Jack says. “We asked them what more we could do, and they said, ‘We’re the only top-10 children’s hospital in the United States that doesn’t have a healing garden, and research has shown that children heal faster and can get out of the hospital sooner if they can get outdoors.” The Aronsons found a way to make the $250,000 project happen. “It took us a couple years to pay for it,” Jack says.

Another favorite charity, the Boys and Girls Club of South Oakland County, receives a monthly portion of pita-chip profits and food donations.

The group is so grateful for the help that it actually found a way to give back to Garden Fresh, which no longer has enough space for a full managers’ meeting. “We took them on a tour of the building and they asked if they could have a meeting here,” says Sally Owen, the club’s vice president of development. “We put them in the teen room,” she adds with a laugh. “And so now they love to go to the teen room because on their breaks they’re playing pingpong and shooting pool.

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