Exclusive Interview:The Pie-Tastically Fantastic World of Self-Made Businesswoman, creator & author of Detroit’s Sister Pie Powerhouse, LISA LUDWINSKI!

Exclusive Interview:The Pie-Tastically Fantastic World of Self-Made Businesswoman, creator & author of Detroit’s Sister Pie Powerhouse, LISA LUDWINSKI!

Sister Pie cookbook cover (photo courtesy of EE Berger)

I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t like pie’. I know some crazy people who aren’t huge fans of cake. But pie is one of those rare, universally loved foods.

Most people have a favorite pie and if you visit Sister Pie in Detroit, you’ll discover new flavors of pie, cookies and pastries you never knew existed.

You can also discover how creative, finely tuned, and in-sync local communities can become when they’re assembled and provided an outlet, such as the daily magic of Sister Pie.

This story is beyond pies. It delves into the heart of Detroitness, the importance of farms, the power of ideas and the oft unacknowledged tapestry of communities which make the USA a great chunk of the Global Village.

How did Sister Pie start?

Well, Lisa Ludwinski had an idea. She grew that idea with raw drive, talent, a flair for self-marketing and perseverance. The idea eventually sprouted into a business. The business attracted tens of thousands of customers whom became devoted fans and now the business is thriving and has become an undeniable force in the community. This led to Lisa writing one of the coolest cookbooks of all time and achieving international worldwide recognition in the process.

The business and the cookbook are called Sister Pie. The creator & author is Lisa Ludwinski and this is her story.

A TEMPLE OF PIE AND BAKED GOODS

Sister Pie (photo courtesy of Michelle & Chris Gerard)

Sister Pie is located on Kercheval Ave @ Parker St in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood, about three miles east of Downtown Detroit.

There is gloriously free street parking and the 950-square foot bakery is housed inside a circa 1925 corner wedge of building shaped like an inverted isosceles trapezoid. It gives Sister Pie a sort of ‘temple of pie and baked goods’ feeling.

Inside are beautifully presented pies with lattice weaves and decorative steam vents and an olfactory bouquet of brain-meltingly good smells.

They offer a range of edible works of art, including pies, cookies, pastries, breakfast and lunch. All those goodies can be enjoyed on-site at the single large family-style farmhouse table in the front of the shop, which is where Lisa and I are sitting right now.

The ambiance is cozy, quirky and inspiring. They also have double-stacked convection ovens here. These bad girls can fit 25 pies at a time, so you can bake up to 50 pies simultaneously!

I’m here visiting with Lisa because Sister Pie is all-around great and as a result, she has become one of Detroit’s de facto ambassadors. Plus, their cookie game is on point too, these are some good cookies!

Her cookbook, ‘Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit’, clocks in at 256 pages and features over 75 recipes.

It was published in October 2018 by Lorena Jones Books, an imprint of Ten Speed Press, which is a division of Penguin Random House.

The book is an incredibly fun and interactive read, featuring recipes, ingredients, tips, easy to follow instructions, and Lisa’s own unique brand of quirky humor.

What is readily apparent from reading the book is that the Sister Pie powerhouse are fearless experimenters. They are unafraid to experiment with combinations of from-scratch ingredients and modify or replace the recipes as needed.

Lisa herself is a fun blend of silly and business, hilarious and serious, extrovert and introvert, intermingled together like her nontraditional pie ingredients.

“I have a pit bull named Ruby Thursday. She got her name because I liked the name Ruby and I met her on a Thursday. Ruby is my girl!”

One of my biggest inspirations over the years have been my parents. They’ve given me probably too much support (laughs) I’m incredibly fortunate. Knowing they had my back allowed me to focus 100% of my time on business development and turn Sister Pie into a successful business.”

“They were so excited when I moved back home from Brooklyn. They gave me a place to stay, helped fund my existence, provided groceries, roof over my head. And growing up, they took their parental duty to the max and made it their mission give my sister Sarah and I good opportunities.”

“My Father Kurt runs the All America Plywood Company at John R & 7 Mile in Detroit. My grandfather started the business in 1967 and my dad took over in the late 1970’s. Growing up, it was a cool experience for me to visit him at the office, see him as a business owner and boss. He’s able to transform stress into creativity, which is very inspirational for me. I always know I can go to him for advice.”

My mom is amazing. She carted me from dance lessons to play rehearsals and everywhere in between as a kid. We grew up on her cooking, and my Aunt Mimi’s pumpkin pie.”

BIOGRAPHY: LISA LOUISE LUDWINSKI

Lisa & Sarah (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)

Born 1984, Lisa Louise Ludwinski, grew up in Milford, Michigan with her sister Sarah. She attended Mercy High School and graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts from Kalamazoo College.

Upon graduation, she moved to Brooklyn, NYC and lived there from 2006-2012. When not filming her hilarious Funny Side Up cooking show and landing acting gigs, she worked as a pastry cook at Momofuku Milk Bar and very briefly at Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

Lisa decided to move back home and grow her new idea for a business. She started Sister Pie in November 2012 at her parent’s house. The orders rolled in fast and in 2013 she enrolled in D:hive Build (now Build Institute) business class, joined FoodLab Detroit and by 2014 transitioned to the Hannan House commercial kitchen space in Midtown Detroit.

Lisa added her first employee, Toledo native Anji Barto and things were cooking as they moved to Detroit’s West Village, snapped up several wholesale accounts and won $50,000 from the Hatch Detroit small business contest.

To raise money for a brick-and-mortar shop, Lisa launched an Indiegogo campaign in February 2015. The goal was to raise $25,000. Lisa did a 24 hours dance marathon where she personally danced for 24 hours straight inside Paramita Sound record store. She started 9pm Friday and stopped 9pm Saturday night! The fundraiser was a huge success and they exceeded their goal by $1,000.

Finally, after a few years of grinding hard every single day, Lisa officially opened Sister Pie on April 24th, 2015.

MORE ABOUT LISA

Lisa & Ruby Thursday (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)

“I’m of Polish and German descent, with some English and Russian thrown in there.”

“I was part of a mime troop in high school (laughs)…it was a weird thing, but fun. I did it for two years and learned skits, choreography, and the challenge of entertaining while being constrained. Without the ability to talk, you learn to be expressive in other ways.”

“Going to Mercy High School was a big experience in my life. I was introduced to a culturally and racially diverse student body, which is something I hadn’t really experienced in Milford. There was an emphasis on exploring and opening up your mind to other people and everyone’s different experiences, which created a strong foundation for my ongoing interest in social justice and human rights.”

“I like dogs, I like to doodle-draw, and going to see interesting films. The Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA is one of my favorite places in the city. My favorite movie is Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, ‘Rear Window’. I also like being outside and exploring different outdoor challenges and trying new things.

“As the business has grown, I’ve become more introverted. For the past couple decades, I’ve spent a lot of time as a performance-crazed extrovert. I have a wacky sense of humor. In general though, I try to be an empathetic person, try to give with kindness, and definitely have a tendency to over-analyze.”

“One of my favorite authors is Zadie Smith. Her book ‘On Beauty’ is my favorite of hers. Also really enjoy essays by Rebecca Solnit. I listen to a wide variety of music and have always been very into classic soul. My go-to music in general is 80’s New Wave (New Order, Talking Heads, etc).”

SISTER PIE: DRAMATIC CRIMPS & LATTICE WEAVES

Sister Pie’s Apple Sage Gouda Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)

The reason Sister Pie sells out early every day is because each person is buying an average of 5 to 10 items. Yes, it’s that good. I ordered $60.00 worth of pie and pastries while here and the only regret I have is that I didn’t bring another $40.00 with me to buy more.

Sister Pie is run by 15 women, including myself. Everyone here has a lot of freedom, ownership, responsibilities and the business is now at a place where it can run without me needing to be here constantly.”

“The kitchen here is running 5am-6pm daily. We close for the holidays and take a two week break at the beginning of the year. We bake pies once daily, around 11 am or Noon. They sit overnight and are served the next day because pies need to rest for at least 4 hours.”

“My first employee, Anji Barto has been with us since May 2014. At the time she was doing some graphic design work for Germack. In April 2015, she became a full-timer and she’s been very involved in the growth of Sister Pie. We’ve been through a lot together.”

“Sister Pie is known for our nontraditional flavor combinations. We make these seasonally and there’s definitely something enticing about the unusual flavors. Again, I like a challenge and it’s challenging to pick a single base ingredient and see how you can layer it with other ingredients to make something different and unique.”

“We make our pie dough, the All-Butter Pie Dough, by hand every day communally. We use Plugra butter (high fat French butter) and unbleached all-purpose flour.”

“80% of Sister Pie pies begin with a blind-baked crust (ie: baked without filling). Pie crust is not hard to make, there’s just a lot of steps. You have to be thoughtful and work fast, especially so the butter doesn’t become completely homogeneous with the other ingredients. You want it to burst open when it hits the hot oven. It’s also possible to over-work the pie dough. It’s a hard balance because it takes a lot of muscle to sculpt the dough, roll it to a properly-sized circle and crimp it. I call our crimps ‘dramatic.’

“I love our Sister Pie-It Forward Program. We have these slips of paper and for $4.24 you can purchase one and put it on our refrigerator. Anyone who comes in can grab it and use it for a free slice of pie.”

Sister Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)

“Every now and then we like to dance in the kitchen. It’s a fun way to release energy!”

“One Monday night per month we have Sister Pie Townhall Meetings. These are private, employee-only get-together’s where we sit at the store table and talk, eat and drink. It’s an open forum, a chance to empty the suggestions box and give everyone a chance to speak honestly about whatever’s on their mind.”

“We also offer classes here. They’re put up for sale quarterly. We host classes all year long, conducting maybe 3-4 per month. There are about 8 students per class and we do them here at the bakery. Lindsey teaches the pie dough classes and I teach the hand pie classes.”

Wedding orders are hugely popular at Sister Pie. Especially during the warmer weather, we’re doing several wedding orders every weekend. If you or someone you know are interested in this, shoot us an email at weddings@sisterpie.com

“As a business, Sister Pie has a Triple Bottom Line. This is a focus on being mindful of people, planet, and profit in every decision we make.”

WHAT TO TRY AT SISTER PIE?

Ruby loves Sister Pie! (photo courtesy of Lisa Ludwinski)

Sister Pie offers an array of deliciousness. Most of their pies have a 9-inch diameter, except for the mini pies, hand pies and they make special 6-inch pies for the holidays.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Salted Maple Pie (“Considered to be our signature flavor, it has classic chess filling with Grade B maple syrup from Imlay City, Michigan”)
  • Chocolate Coconut Pie
  • Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Apple Sage Gouda Pie
  • Sweet Potato, Black Bean & Feta Hand Pie (“If there were a hand pie fan club, this is the hand pie they’d serve at their meetings.”)
  • Egg-on-Top Galettes
  • Honey Lemon Meringue Pie (“Cloud-like meringue, we use a kitchen torch to toast the meringue.”)
  • Rhubarb Rosemary Streusel Pie
  • Sister Salads
  • From Another Galaxy Brownies
  • Sour Cherry Bourbon Pie
  • Fennel Snickerdoodle Cookies
  • Savory Hand Pies
  • Peanut Butter Paprika Cookies
  • Toasted Marshmallow Pumpkin Pie
  • Sweet Beet Pie
  • Spranola (granola, honey, yogurt)
  • Blueberry Lemon Thyme Pie
  • Brandy Pecan Pie
  • They even do Paczki’s for Fat Tuesday! Maple coffee cream paczki, Grapefruit Hibiscus paczki, and the Pieraczki (pierogi-paczki hybrid)

THE IMPORTANCE OF FARMS

Michigan farmland (photo courtesy of Pure Michigan)

The State of Michigan has 10 million acres of farmland and over 50,000 farms.

Farms (and long-haul truckers) are the backbone of America, yet they are continually underrated and under-credited.  Businesses like Sister Pie help farms and farmers achieve more recognition of their importance.

Sister Pie works with dozens of farms and farmers! We try working with farms in Michigan, especially within the city of Detroit.

“Our offerings are based on seasonality. April to November are the main months for Michigan farmers.”

Guernsey Dairy

“We get fresh whipped cream delivered weekly from Guernsey Dairy. We use heavy cream in many of our recipes. It provides a richness and flavor. The fat affects the texture of filling. We whip it up daily for pie, it’s especially good with more tart pies, helps balance the tartness.”

“We get sweet potatoes from Farmer Norm, buckwheat flour from Hampshire Farms, Northern Spy apples from Erwin Orchards and Farmer Joe Jessup in South Haven, etc, the list goes on and on.”

“As a team, Sister Pie even does an apple-picking trip once per year.”

“In the beginning, we started going to Eastern Market in Detroit to see what was available. That in-person interaction deepened many of our relationships with farmers. Now, they will typically deliver directly to us or we will still meet them at Eastern Market and pick it up there.”

LISA ON WRITING HER COOKBOOK

Lisa @ Sister Pie (photo courtesy of EE Berger)

One thing I appreciate is that Lisa made her cookbook fun. Most cookbooks are not fun. They’re usually instructional textbooks devoid of personality.

Lisa’s cookbook is the opposite, laced with idiosyncratic texture and overflowing with humorous asides, which makes it a unique experience, much like visiting Sister Pie. My two favorite lines are: “When you’re not in a pie mood (as if!)” and also “Over the years, the cookie has evolved much like a story in a game of telephone”.

Lisa explains:

“How the cookbook happened is basically I wrote a book proposal, got some recipe taste-testers together and it took some time, but we eventually compiled over 75 recipes.”

“It was listed by the New York Times as the Best Cookbook of 2018. Since it was published a few months ago in October, we’ve sold around 30,000 cookbooks. Here at the Sister Pie store in Detroit, we’ve sold over 1,000 copies.”

“It’s been a huge hit with home bakers. The Pie Dough recipe, for example, is very accessible. It’s a good opportunity for home bakers to use it and exercise patience. When a recipe tells you to wait, just wait, it will pay off. Please take the proper time to follow the baking rules for best results. I know it’s tough! The part of patiently waiting is an area I still struggle the most with. But it’s worth it.”

My advice to fellow writers is to keep writing every single day. The whole process of getting the book published took me a full two years.”

“I even took a month off from the bakery to be a full-time writer. That may not seem like a lot, but believe me, taking an entire month off from your business is a huge deal. It’s a big gamble and one I was willing to take because I trusted my employees. During that time, I would write 6-8 hours per day. I worked on it at home, in various Detroit coffee shops and also Up North in the Torch Lake area.”

EE Berger took the photos and she did an incredible job bringing a fresh, unique perspective to our bakery and baked goods.”

RYAN’S ADVICE

  • When visiting Sister Pie, get there when they open.
  • Try everything.
  • Participate in the Sister Pie-It Forward Program.
  • Buy the cookbook. Read it and use it.
  • Be sure to check out Sister Pie’s Instagram. You’ll be Insta-hungry.

 

GET A JOB AT SISTER PIE

We typically hire about every six months or so. Overall, we have good employee retention. We hire via a sign posted on the door. More than half of our employees live within walking distance and we do tend to hire only Detroit residents.”

FUN FACT

Lisa is also a talented artist!

She drew the designs of Crimp Drama and What’s Shaking Sister Pie and also the cookie box labels.

FINAL THOUGHTS (FOR NOW) & UPCOMING DEVELOPMENTS

Lisa Ludwinski (photo courtesy of Sister Pie and Frame Hazel Park)

I give Lisa and her team a lot of credit for everything they’ve been able to do. It’s been a remarkable journey thusfar with many adventures yet to come. It will be interesting to continue following their development as visions of Sister Pie pies and cookies dance in our heads.

And remember that you can pre-order pies 48 hours in advance. They must be placed by 2pm two days in advance of pick-up. This is great for people who live far from the bakery.

One recent develop is that Esto’s Garage (1811 Parker Street, Detroit) will be opening next to Sister Pie. This Mexican-American casual eatery is run by Esteban Castro. I’ve known Esteban since he had a pop-up residency at Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. His guacamole is off the chain!

Maybe we will get to see a Sister Pie & Esto’s Garage collab at some point? A taco and pie night, perhaps? Maybe with some margaritas, too?

“Currently, we are entering our next phase as a business, and looking at a space we would rent in addition to this place, somewhere in the same general area.”

We’re looking to grow, get more kitchen space, add more classes, increase our Savory Food Program of sandwiches, soups, salads. Possibly even have some gluten-free pie crust.”

“One recommendation I have to everyone, especially you home bakers, is to start a Baking Club in your neighborhood. Get some friends together, pick a different cook book monthly, each of you make something out of it, then meet at each other’s houses to sample the creations. There are so many great cookbooks out there, but they’re rarely fully explored. This would be a good way to change that.”

CONTACT SISTER PIE

Sister Pie

8066 Kercheval Ave

Detroit, MI 48214

(313) 447-5550

Email:

hello@sisterpie.com

M-F 8am-4pm

Sat-Sun 9am-4pm

Homepage

http://sisterpie.com/

 

Buy the Sister Pie Cookbook here

https://www.amazon.com/Sister-Pie-Recipes-Stories-Big-Hearted/dp/0399579761

 

Instagram

https://www.instagram.com/sisterpiedetroit/?hl=en

 

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/SisterPie/

 

Yelp

https://www.yelp.com/biz/sister-pie-detroit-2

 

Lisa’s Youtube channel

https://www.youtube.com/user/lisaludwinski/videos

Exclusive Interview: Detroit entrepreneur, self-made millionaire and author DAVE ZILKO recounts the wild adventures of helping to turn Garden Fresh Salsa into hundreds of millions of dollars!

Exclusive Interview: Detroit entrepreneur, self-made millionaire and author DAVE ZILKO recounts the wild adventures of helping to turn Garden Fresh Salsa into hundreds of millions of dollars!

Embrace what makes you special.”-Dave Zilko

Most people have heard of Garden Fresh Salsa. What many people don’t know is how difficult it was for former vice chairman Dave Zilko and founder Jack Aronson to grow Garden Fresh from a bankrupt startup into a $231 million-dollar business.

I’m sitting at Fuel Leadership headquarters in Downtown Birmingham with Dave Zilko.

Dave is now CEO of Fuel and graciously invited me to talk with him about his life. I read his amazing tale ‘Irrational Persistence’ and was very impressed by his uncompromising perseverance and it’s an honor to be here.

Dave is a Detroit entrepreneur and business veteran who helped grow Michigan’s own Garden Fresh Salsa into the dominant # 1 fresh salsa brand in the world. All the odds, however you look at them, were stacked against Garden Fresh but they prevailed over seemingly impossible odds.

Reading Irrational Persistence is akin to taking an MBA course. It’s an honest account of real-world experience and it doesn’t get any more authentic than personal experience as told from an entrepreneurial fighter’s perspective.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, you should read this book. It should be required reading for all MBA programs as a real-world case study.

Business can be warfare. Entrepreneurial Warriors need to suit up for battle, while forging an advanced morality, so you’re not heartless or slimey in your dealings with others. Business is the Art of Aligning Compatible Relationships for Mutual Profit.

When Dave and Jack pooled their resources together, they were millions of dollars in debt.

However, they were talented, hardworking, had great products and assembled a great team and they were able to grow Garden Fresh into a $231 million-dollar company, which they eventually sold to Campbell’s in 2015.

The success of Dave Zilko will change your conception of what is possible if you’re a hardworking and persistent entrepreneur.

 

Biography

Dave Zilko is an enterprising Detroiter. He received his B.S. in Finance from Michigan State University, and his MBA in Marketing from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He’s an operating partner with Huron Capital and serves on various boards like Forgotten Harvest (USA’s largest food rescue organization), Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Enterprises charity arm Singing for Change, Grow Michigan venture fund, the WSU Ilitch School of Business and more.

Dave Zilko went thru hell to get where he is. In the early days, he was up to his eyeballs in student loan debt, selling marinades and life insurance and cracking hundreds of thousands of eggs by hand.

This is his tale.

“I was born and raised in Warren, Michigan, grew up at 11 ½ Mile Road and Van Dyke. I have wonderful parents and was the first one in my family to go to college. Worked my way through school. I used to be a bagger at Great Scott (now Kroger) for $2.14 an hour.”

In terms of money management, I’m self-taught. I saved money on my own because I really wanted to go to college. I had paper routes when I was 12.”

“Always been drawn to writing. I was even the editor of my high school newspaper. Putting my personal story on paper in book-form was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life because it’s tough knowing what to include and not include.”

“My ultimate goal with the book is to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand just how hard it was and how long it took to build a successful business. We struggled hard for over a decade to build the company.”

“After MSU, I spent a life-changing summer in France and fell in love with the food and wine culture there. Came home, did an internship at GM in Downtown Detroit. Then went to Washington, D.C. for grad school. I lived in Georgetown and had a great time.”

“After graduating, I decided to follow my passion and start a specialty food company called American Connoisseur, where I started making marinades. My first order was for 96 cases. Only problem was I had nowhere to make them.”

“So, I found a spot in Sylvan Lake, Michigan, a tiny medieval dungeon of an office, and got right to work. The good people at Discover credit card company soon discovered that I couldn’t qualify for a loan, so I asked my girlfriend to help me out. She thankfully did and yes, we’re married now.”

“After that I bought Mucky Duck Mustard Company. The owner, Michelle Marshall, was retiring and she owned a forklift, which we badly needed, so I bought the company from her with an $108,000 loan from my dad. Michelle originally started the company in the 1980’s at her house in Franklin, Michigan.”

“Mucky Duck is a British pub-style mustard, so eggs are an ingredient. For years, every day at 5 a.m., I had to personally break eggs for the mustard. I estimate that I’ve broken over 800,000 eggs over the years. Mucky Duck won the world championship of mustard one year and I still own the company.”

“11 years later, after my lost decade, I met world softball champ and Detroit entrepreneur Jack Aronson in 2002 at a food industry show at the Javits Center in NYC. Jack and I were both in debt, both Detroiters, both food lovers and we became friends immediately.”

Jack is an amazing individual. He’s an energetic dreamer and unrepentant softball fanatic and I’m proud to be his friend. Together, we made Garden Fresh Salsa internationally popular.”

 

 

Garden Fresh Salsa: You get what you pay for

Salsa originated centuries ago among the Incas and Aztecs. It wasn’t called “salsa” until 1571 and it wasn’t brought to the United States until 1916 when they started making it in New Orleans. Jack started Garden Fresh in 1997.

Fans of Garden Fresh Salsa say, “it’s worth it, it’s like you made it yourself.” Garden Fresh uses all-natural, high-quality ingredients which creates a memorable and almost addictive flavor profile.

In June 2015, Campbell’s bought Garden Fresh for $231 million dollars.

$231 million dollars is a lot of money. Picture 231 piles. Each pile has $1 million dollars. What’s harder to imagine is how incredibly difficult it is to generate that kind of money. Especially from an originally bankrupt startup making salsa in the unlikely city of Ferndale, Michigan, which, being a small Midwestern city, had zero salsa street cred.

Garden Fresh Salsa was launched by Jack Aronson in the back of his now-closed restaurant, Clubhouse Bar-B-Q (22016 Woodward, Ferndale, MI). Jack was making the salsa in 38-lb. batches inside 5-gallon buckets and had $4.6 million dollars in annual sales when he met Dave.

In 2002, when Jack formed a partnership with Dave, their goal was to get to $10 million dollars in ten years. Instead, Dave helped get them to $110 million dollars. Garden Fresh became the #1 brand of fresh salsa in the United States, making up 31% of all US salsa sales.

Then they became the largest brand of tortilla chips sold in deli’s, and after purchasing Inkster-based Basha Hommus in 2007, they became the 3rd largest hummus manufacturer in the US.

“Jack Started making the salsa at Clubhouse. One day, Jim Hiller of Hiller Markets showed up, he tried the salsa, loved it and started carrying it at his 6-store grocery chain. That’s how it got started.”

“When I joined Jack in 2002, we did everything together. Jack and I were strategically in sync. For the first 5-years, I was in the plant daily. Then gradually, I handled deals and traveling, while Jack handled operations, which was getting the products made and to market.”

Our absolute uncompromising commitment to high-quality helped create an almost legendary brand loyalty among customers. For instance, some analysts told us that we could save $213,000 per year by not hand-peeling the onions. We didn’t listen to them because we refused to compromise the integrity of our flavor profile.”

“Also, to this day, 75 tons of Garden Fresh salsa are made daily in 5-gallon buckets. Back in the old days, it took us 20 minutes to make 6 pints of salsa. Now, assembly lines make 6 pints every 9 seconds. That’s 1,500 pints of salsa every 10 minutes.”

 

 

Garden Fresh: Turning Points

“Bringing in a Creative Director to get the branding right was essential, as was the strategic pivot to become a full-service deli supplier. We bought a tortilla company, a hummus company, we did the Margaritaville deal, etc. We were on a roll.”

“Another huge turning point was the introduction of the High Pressure Processing (HPP) machines. HPP helped Garden Fresh become the world’s largest fresh salsa company.”

“Jack has always loved fresh, natural ingredients and hated preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. However, we had a big problem.”

“Garden Fresh had managed to get into Costco, which is an enormously difficult thing to do in and of itself, and within 18 months, we were the #1 salsa. Costco was our largest customer, they were buying $20 million dollars’ worth of product annually.”

“Problem was that our products were literally exploding on the selves at Costco. We had to make larger 48oz. Costco club format bottles of Garden Fresh salsa and we couldn’t keep the salsa fresh for a long period of time, so gases would build up and they would explode.”

“HPP changed everything. HPP machines apply 87,000 pounds of pressure to food, killing all bacteria, which makes the food last 5x’s longer. No preservatives are needed. HPP machines are developed by Avure in Columbus, Ohio and manufactured in Sweden.”

“The machines are not cheap. They’re $2 million dollars each. And they weigh 105,000 pounds each! You have to have at least a 6-inch thick concrete floor just to support them.”

“In order to get the machines, we had to secure an Industrial Revenue Bond. When I showed up to sign the documents, I found myself in an office, staring at a large conference table. On the table were 43 stacks of paper, each stack about 6-inches high. It was worth it because HPP’ing the salsa changed everything.”

 

Garden Fresh: Sold to Campbell’s for $231 Million Dollars

“It was not easy to sell Garden Fresh to Campbell’s because we had worked so hard building our company over the years. Myself, Jack, his wife Annette and their 5 kids worked there. Jack grew the company from nothing. We were very attached to Garden Fresh.”

“However, we felt we had taken the company as far as we could. Competing for shelf space with giants like Nestle and other Fortune 500 companies is wicked. For instance, recently, Nestle, the world’s largest food & drinks company, paid Starbucks $7.2 billion dollars to sell its coffee. These are monster companies with inconceivably vast resources.”

“Campbell’s secret internal name for the deal was ‘Project Diamond’. It took awhile to finalize the arrangement and close the deal but eventually we signed the 104-page purchase agreement and Campbell’s added Garden Fresh to their product portfolio.”

In business, you try to create the best products you can and gain market share. You also have to know when to hold and when to fold and due to uncontrollable market forces, it was the right time for us to exit.”

“After the deal, I did consulting for Garden Fresh for 6 months. Jack still consults with them on occasion.  Jack’s big focus now is his company Clean Planet Foods in Clinton Township. Jack and I remain great friends and we still talk at least 2-3 times per week.”

 

 

Fuel Leadership

“After Garden Fresh, I joined Fuel Leadership as CEO. Fuel is a video-centric digital media company and we’re bringing a fresh perspective to leadership development. We target millennial professions ages 18-34 and storytelling is our preferred method of communication.”

“How it works is we sit down with an individual for 45 minutes and film them as they tell us about their life and work. We distill the final interview down to 2 minutes. We’ve interviewed over 50 people so far, including AOL co-founder Steve Case and clothing designer John Varvatos.”

“We’re also working on Fuel U. We’re reinventing the university newsletter model to make it more relevant, interesting and easily digestible for busy people. Launching this Fall, four University of Michigan Ross business students will make an UM specific newsletter at Fuel.”

 

Huron Capital

Located in the beautiful art deco Guardian Building in Downtown Detroit, Huron Capital is a private equity company. They have a “buy-and-build” investment model and have raised over $1.7 billion dollars by investing in 130+ companies through 6 private equity funds.

“Huron has a diverse portfolio. I’m an Operating Partner, which means I don’t have a formal association. They buy companies and they send me food deals and I analyze the deals for them.”

“For example, in 2011, they bought Brooklyn-based Victoria Pasta Sauce and I joined the board. They fixed up the company and sold it in 2016.”

“Huron Capital is a class act, both personally and professionally. I met Jim Mahoney, one of their senior partners. He introduced me to the founding partners and that’s how I came onboard.”

 

 

Dave’s Final Thoughts

Sometimes you have to be irrationally persistent to be successful in business.”

95 out of 100 new businesses fail. So, by definition, starting a new business is not rational, since it only has a 5% chance of succeeding. If you believe in it, you must persist. If you can make it to the 10-Year Mark, you’re doing good.”

“Fresh salsa was an emerging market at the time and we had the best flavor profile by far. Garden Fresh went from $4mil to over $100mil in a decade.”

“I look for the holy grail of American capitalism: emerging markets that are not yet saturated. My advice to you is look for the holy grail and build that company with strategic layers that your competitors can’t match.”

“I’m also a huge fan of higher education. The most valuable thing I got out of MSU was my social development skills. Being immersed in a university environment took me out of my shy protective shell. During my grad school years at George Washington, they had the Harvard Case Study format, where they presented cases that we had to solve. It was there that I truly learned how to trust my strategic instincts.”

“During my summer in France, I came to enjoy European “stealth service” at restaurants, where they don’t interrupt you. The European approach to food is fundamentally different than ours. Americans are optimistic by nature, Europeans are more pessimistic because their countries are older and more experienced. They think tomorrow will be worse than today, so they live more in the moment than we do. Americans are gradually becoming more European though, especially millennials.”

“My wife and I love Chardonnay, good conversation and good food. We also love Michigan. The Traverse City area is especially beautiful.”

“Never thought in my lifetime that Detroit would be where it’s at right now. I’m absolutely thrilled. Detroit was in decline for 50 years, now it’s coming back strong. During my travels, I’ve really cultivated a deep appreciation for the Detroit ethos, people, beauty, low cost of living and all of the amazing resources we have here.”

“I have a passion for business. I love food. I am driven largely by the intellectual stimulation of trying to create value. I love the art of business. There is definitely an underappreciated art to good business practices.

“Part of me is achievement-oriented, I need to be busy and creating value, so I don’t know if I’ll ever fully retire.”

“Whatever you do, in both your personal and professional life, commit to a standard and never deviate from it. It’s better to have clearly defined values and stick to them, rather than compromise your own personal integrity.”

Daily Fuel

https://dailyfuel.com/

 

Irrational Persistence

https://www.amazon.com/Irrational-Persistence-Secrets-Bankrupt-Business/dp/1119240085

 

Huron Capital profile

https://www.huroncapital.com/member/david-zilko/

 

Dave Zilko (circa 1992)