July 2, 2015

Fruit, vegetables part of product-driven philosophy at Eden Foods

Eden Foods started out 46 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with University of Michigan friends founding a small co-op so they could source natural foods.

They believed in a then-fledgling idea that eating a diet of whole grain and seasonal local plant foods that hadn’t been nutrient-depleted and chemically altered was better for you. Since there wasn’t much like that available, they ordered from distant sources and traveled country roads seeking farmers who would grow using organic methods.

Eden Organic“It was a group of what people might describe as hippies trying to get good food for themselves and their families,” said Demian Potter, vice president of sales for the privately held company and son of founder, president and CEO Michael Potter.

At 41, Demian can remember that the food his family was eating then didn’t always look like what the other children at school were bringing for lunch.

“A lot of the other kids didn’t have sprouts on their sandwiches,” he jokes. “People were less apt to trade with me.”

Except for the size of the company and the fact that they’re now producing and distributing products all over the world, not much has changed. The oldest natural and organic food company in North America and the largest independent manufacturer of dry grocery organic items, Eden Foods remains rooted in Michigan – just a few miles from where it first opened as a health foods store and, later, a deli.

Today, the company’s roster of food and beverage products includes items such as beans, tomatoes, sauerkraut fruit, dried fruit, juices, sauces, concentrates and a specialty line of fruit butters, including an award-winning grape butter.

Company representatives still comb back roads and visit the approximately 300 farmers in the network of growers they have producing for them all over the United States and Canada, multiple times a year. They import what they need to from elsewhere around the world – quinoa from the Andes Mountains, tea and other natural foods from Japan, for example.

But the core values haven’t changed.

“It’s never been market driven,” said Jon Solomon, vice president and managing director for purchasing and operations. “It’s been product driven, and the philosophy of the company to sell really good-quality, clean food.

“It’s still that philosophy.”

And while Eden may have been the odd man out with its commitment to organic and natural back in the 1970s, it’s not today.

“We’ve been a leader and a trendsetter,” Solomon said. “We’re in a good niche right now.”

In the early years, Eden Foods had a very specific niche.

“I would say that our customer base started out as kind of the dyed-in-the-wool natural food people that were shopping at the small food co-ops and had buying clubs and were buying 25-pound bags of beans so they could get good-quality products,” Solomon said. “Now, our customer base has grown into the mass market. Our products are in Whole Foods stores and other large chains, so it’s become more available to people in the United States.

“We’re selling all around the world – South America, we’re in Japan, China, Singapore, Australia.”

As the company’s distribution has grown, so has awareness of its brand. And Eden doesn’t do private label.

“The brand is getting good, strong recognition worldwide,” Solomon said. “They’re looking for Eden-brand products.”

Eden Network

Today, about 90 percent of what Eden produces and sells is certified organic. The company prepares 75 percent of what it packages and processes at its headquarters in Clinton, Michigan, where it built a 70,000-square-foot warehouse addition following LEED standards in 2008. It operates a second warehouse in California. While Eden has its own trucking operations, it also utilizes rail.

At the Clinton location, Eden produces fresh-milled whole grain flours, gomasio sesame salts, vinegars, soy sauces, roasted nuts and seeds, unrefined vegetable oils, packaged snacks and more. Its popular Edensoy soy milk, which it’s been making since 1983, is produced nearby at an affiliate company Eden founded to bring its manufacture from Japan to Michigan.

Along the way, opportunities for other locations presented themselves and the company took them. Take its bean cannery. In the late 1980s, Eden contracted with a company in Indiana to can its organic beans.

“We wanted an organic canned bean because there wasn’t one on the market,” Solomon said. “By about 1991, ’92, it was becoming evident this company was going bankrupt … so we found out they were for sale and we bought it.”

Canned beans have now surpassed Edensoy as the company’s flagship product, and open-and-eat items like canned rice and beans and chili introduced in recent years continue to gain traction.

The story of how Eden came to operate a pasta factory in Detroit is similar.

“We found a company in Detroit to make whole grain noodles for us using organic flour,” Solomon said.

When the owners wanted to sell, Eden didn’t want to lose its processor and so became the new owner.

“We’re not trying to make acquisitions,” Solomon said. “We’re not trying to buy companies. It’s always been the food and the products.”

Eden first got into organic apples when it connected with a group of northern Michigan growers who wanted to adopt organic growing practices at the same time the company was interested in converting its apple products to organic.

“They reached out to us and we provided them a market,” Solomon said.

When some cherry growers were switching to organic, the company didn’t have any cherry products yet and saw it as a cue to make cherry juice.

“That morphed into cherry butter and dried cherries,” Solomon said. “Sometimes we’re looking for a product and sometimes the growers reach out to us.

“We’re kind of flexible in that way. I guess the strength of a small company can often be its flexibility.”

Pinto bean grower Pete Creguer is a Michigan farmer who began supplying Eden Foods about 20 years ago. A high cancer rate in Sanilac County, where his farm is located, and losing too many family members to the disease, prompted Creguer to adopt certified organic practices 26 years ago. Today, all of his beans – between 70 and 80 acres’ worth – go to Eden.

“It certainly has helped us out on our farm,” he said. “As demand has grown, prices have increased.”

Creguer is also impressed with the company’s overall operating practices.

“They certainly have more of a vision besides good food,” said Creguer, who also has an organic fertilizer business. “They’re very environmentally friendly.”

Best Practices

Eden has followed specific standards across its operations since the beginning. For one, Demian Potter said, it was instrumental in helping write the first third-party certification standards.

Eden continues to focus on American-grown produce, its purchasing department developing personal connections with its food sources, one by one.

“It’s more difficult,” Potter said. “There’s another way to do this and that is to go to a commodities broker that brings in product and take their word for it.”

Solomon said Eden was a leader in bringing the Tetra Pack aseptic low-acid food production to the United States – the “paper can” that makes it possible for processed liquid food to last unrefrigerated for up to 12 months without preservatives.

“Our soy milk factory was, I think, one of the first at the time, largest low-acid food production facilities in the U.S.,” Solomon said. “You’re not utilizing the refrigeration from the processor to the warehouse to the store shelves. There’s an incredible amount of energy savings with that.”

The company employs a BPA-free oleoresin c-enamel can lining in its products.

“We worked with Ball Canning for a couple of years and we worked with the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor,” he said. “We did a lot of research, a lot of trials, and saw that it was a much better food contact surface than what the rest of the industry is using.

“We’ve used that for 17 years, approximately. People don’t want that chemical in their foods.”

Poised for Growth

Potter said the company is well-positioned to continue growing. Last year, Eden purchased equipment for a newly created separate packaging room. Besides being able to better manage the climate and potential allergens, the move accommodated growing demand for its pocket snack line and made it possible to automate some packing that was previously done by hand.

After leasing for many years, Eden just bought a new facility for its California warehouse that Potter said is in a better location for trucking. When property next door to its Michigan headquarters went for sale, they bought it.

“We don’t have a plan for it, but we acquired it,” Potter said.

And he doesn’t see the consumer focus on eating better and wanting to know what’s in the food they buy going away any time soon.

“There have never been more people interested in nourishing food and transparency of what is in their food,” Potter said. “We did it before it was cool.”

— By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer