Cherry Capital Foods has been meeting consumer demand for the past nine years by bringing transparency and local food sourcing to a new level. Because the products it sources are its No. 1 priority, the company also spends a great deal of time building a strong food-centered community. “We are a traditional, broad-line distributor in that we handle anything that grows or is produced in the state of Michigan,” CEO Evan Smith adds. “What makes us unique is that we pick up directly from the farmer and only deliver within the state.”
The Traverse City, Mich.-based distributor was established in 2007 and considers itself ahead of the curve in terms of transparency, local sourcing and delivering healthy products to market. Cherry Capital Foods set its roots down in Michigan in part because of the diverse agriculture there and also because its partners are deeply involved in the communities. “The area is agriculturally diverse in that we have so many different growing regions and soils left behind from the glaciers,” Smith explains. “We have always had a tendency to eat seasonally here. We weathered the recession better than most communities because we are a tourist destination. Traverse City has all those things coming together for it and our partners do really important work here in the community.”
Cherry Capital Foods started distributing to restaurants, as they were the early adopters of sourcing locally and are flexible with menus and pricing to adjust to seasonality. Since then, the company has expanded to distributing to grocery stores and institutions. “The real goal or end game is to get the food where people shop,” Smith adds. “It’s a long process and complicated system, but we have had good success in Michigan.”
An Open Book
Cherry Capital Foods’ mission is to help its customers and farmers figure out how to source local food and provide it to the marketplace. The company also helps its customers educate their diners about where the products used in their meal came from and educate shoppers about which farms they are buying from. “We maintain the farm or processor’s identity all the way through,” Smith says. “When you get a product from Cherry Capital Foods, you know the name of the farm, farmer or facility that produces the product. That – along with our dedication to food safety – is what really makes us unique.”
The company uses a barcoding system that allows it to store information on and track every product that enters the warehouse. The information from the barcode includes all the traditional information like the product name, for example, but it also includes more details, such as the name of the farm it came from. That information appears on each invoice.
Cherry Capital Foods shares a space with the Grand Traverse Regional Foodshed Alliance, creating an innovative food hub for entrepreneurs making value-added products. Cherry Capital Foods operates in 48,000 square feet and the remaining 12,000 square feet of the building is leased. “The hub allows these start-up or stage-two companies to put their money not into infrastructure or trucks, but into production equipment and people,” Smith explains. “The whole concept of the food hub is really taking hold around the country. We are seeing them develop similar, unique models everywhere in the United States.”
Although Cherry Capital Foods makes the space available to these start-ups, Smith explains they are not obligated to choose the company as their distributor. “We make the space available and they don’t have to choose us as their distributor or store their product with us, but we can make it pretty convenient,” he adds. “Why wouldn’t you use someone who is right next door with a huge cooler instead of buying your own?
“A food hub is a way to be collaborative while maintaining independence and choose to have long-term relationships that are transparent and collaborative rather than competitive and secretive.”
The Redheads, producers of organic hummus and dressing sauces based in Lake Leelanau, Mich., plans to move into one of the shared spaces Cherry Capital Foods leases to the Grand Traverse Foodshed Alliance for value-added production. By leasing the space, Smith expects an even deeper connection between the two companies as The Redheads will have access to its loading docks, freezer and cooler capacity, as well as an even shorter value chain.
“What began as a simple exercise of discussion whether there was a fit for us to provide distribution for The Redheads has turned into a much deeper and collaborative partnership,” Smith says. “The shared values and understanding of appropriate markets have allowed us to provide longer shelf life and fresher product with shorter delivery times.”
The food hub puts Cherry Capital Foods on the frontlines of entrepreneurs coming up with the latest products and creates a community around food. “We find out who has the great new chocolate or sriracha, and we might be able to find out where their supplier is or what farm they are getting their pepper from,” Smith says. “It creates a network that plugs you into emerging trends and innovative things.”
As Cherry Capital Foods looks to the future, one of its main goals is to keep the farming industry in Michigan thriving by making it an attractive career choice. “That’s about jobs and keeping farmland in production. It’s also about farmland succession plans,” Smith says. “We have an aging farming population and a lot of land changing hands that we want to make sure stays in farming.”
The company helps by offering small and start-up farmers advice and access to markets they might not otherwise have. “For example, a beginning farmer might not have adequate acreage to supply enough red pepper to do much more than a farmers’ market,” Smith explains. “If we combine three or four start-up farmers’ red peppers, there’s enough to go into a hospital or school. The goal is to provide access to markets that the smaller guys wouldn’t have.”
Cherry Capital Foods is also stimulating the economy by encouraging farming. It might not directly encourage students to get into agriculture, but helping a farmer plant more acreage results in their need to hire help. And that help can come from their own family or a neighbor. “The nice thing about agriculture is that these jobs don’t require advanced college degrees,” Smith says. “People with good mechanical skills who are willing to work hard and have a little bit of creativity can be successful. We are making the region more attractive and increasing the viability of the farms. We are seeing more start-up farms and more kids coming back to their family farm.”