Garden Fresh Gourmet makes award-winning fresh salsas and dips and chips in a state-of-the-art facility in Ferndale. Owner Jack Aronson, his wife, Annette, and a dedicated staff have grown what began in a few hundred square feet of space in a restaurant dining room into a multimillion-dollar business, still dedicated to great taste without sacrificing quality.
Metro Times: You've done so many things: a restaurant, a hot sauce store, bottled your salsas, dips, chips and now Mediterranean foods. How did it all start? I assume that you've been cooking forever.
Jack Aronson: I have. I always loved hot sauces for flavor. I don't just eat habañero sauce straight, but I love it for flavor on food. So in my restaurant, Clubhouse Barbecue, that used to be on Woodward in Ferndale [since closed], I sold hot sauces that I bought at Rafal Spice in Eastern Market and put 20 different kinds of them on every table. Pretty soon people wanted to buy them, so I started stocking them. All of a sudden, I had 100 different ones. I went to the Fiery Food Show in Albuquerque, N.M., the biggest show in the world for the hot-and-spicy industry. When I was there it occurred to me that nobody was making fresh salsa in Detroit. Everything had four or five preservatives. It lasted four or five months, but it didn't taste any good. When I got home, I started making fresh salsa and selling it in my restaurant and at my hot sauce store, The Hot Zone in Royal Oak [also since closed]. One day Jim Hiller from Hiller's Shopping Center Markets came in and said that he'd never had a good fresh salsa in any of his markets and that he wanted to start selling ours. So I went and got an agriculture license and started making salsa for Hiller's and began selling to other markets. Soon we were selling to 70 local stores.
The next year I went back to the fiery food show and entered my salsa and won I swept mild, medium and hot, from little Ferndale, Michigan. The next thing you know, Lipari Foods picks us up. They distribute to about 400 delis in the area. Now we are making several varieties. As of last week we have won 107 awards. Last year we went to Fort Worth, Texas, for a contest there. It was a blind taste test judged by Texas chefs at J.T. Garcia's restaurant, put on by Chile Pepper magazine. It's like the Academy Awards of the hot-and-spicy industry. Garden Fresh won the award for third place in the mild category. I went up there to accept the award they told me to stay up there. We proceeded to win second place and first place in mild with our different products. For medium, third place, second place and first place. For hot, third place, second place and first place. We also swept the dip category and the two entries we put in the chip category won. It won't happen again in a million years.
MT: You are a hero to a lot of cooks, chefs, foodies and chowhounds. You love to cook, but you followed your dream and it turned it into a real business, making you the envy of a lot of people. Some of us cook and give the food away. You cook and sell it.
Aronson: I was lucky. I had the restaurant. Without the restaurant, I probably wouldn't have done it. I didn't have the financing back then. I had a good carryout business already, so I closed the dining room. I took a gamble. I was just hoping to pay the electric bills. We had four kids. It was risky, but we had passion. I did demos at Rocky Peanut Company and on Flower Day at Eastern Market. I spent thousands of dollars giving out free samples, getting our products into peoples' mouths. We went to Chicago one time with a thousand pints of salsa to give away. People thought I was crazy, but we believed in our products. Now that we are making it, we are trying to give back to the community. Our pet project is Children's Hospital in Detroit. We are putting in a one-acre children's garden. It is the only Children's Hospital in America that does not have a healing garden outside. Some of the proceeds from the sales of our chips go to the hospital every month for the music room. Besides having my kids working for me, that is the most gratifying thing that my wife and I do.
MT: How large is your market area?
Aronson: We are in some 38 or 40 states and in Canada now, the first all-natural fresh salsa to become a national brand.
MT: How do you balance your love of food and cooking with running a business that requires so much of your time?
Aronson: I have professional managers in-house that enable me to do the things that I love, to pursue the passion. I still make sales calls. Who better to sell the products I love than me? I want to show the buyers my passion, my commitment. I still cook. I am always experimenting, trying to come up with new ideas.
MT: Have you had any mentors?
Aronson: One thing about the food business is that people are pretty generous with sharing their expertise. My palate has been my mentor. I know how food should taste and I am lucky to have the ability to translate that to the plate.
For more information, visit the company's Web site at gardenfreshsalsa.com.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com
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