John Coram, who along with Wade LaFever owns Johnny Secreto Foods, shows off the Rockford firm's spaghetti sauce on the shelves at Meijer. Courtesy Johnny Secreto Foods
Last May, one of the first jars of Johnny Secreto spaghetti sauce was sold at a farmers market in Michigan. Starting then and all the way into November, John Coram and Wade LaFever took their pasta and barbecue sauces to farmers markets all over the state — to at least 10 venues a week — working virtually every day trying to sell the Rockford start-up’s products.
Today, Johnny Secreto Old-World Spaghetti Sauce is on a high-visibility end-cap shelf at Meijer stores all over Michigan.
“It’s been incredible,” said Coram, who co-owns Johnny Secreto Foods with LaFever. “Not in my wildest dreams” did he figure they’d get premium shelf space in Meijer this soon, he said.
“It wasn’t part of the business plan, let’s just say,” he added.
Johnny Secreto Foods is one of two dozen small businesses with grocery products on Meijer end caps this year, part of a Made in Michigan initiative launched by Meijer stores with Michigan State University a year ago.
“Meijer is committed to supporting Michigan businesses, and the Made in Michigan initiative is a great opportunity to highlight some fantastic small businesses throughout the state,” said Meijer board co-chair Doug Meijer. “The response we received from our customers last year about this initiative was overwhelming, which is why we decided to further invest and expand this selection into all our Michigan stores.”
Meijer launched the Made in Michigan initiative in January 2012 with the Michigan State University Product Center for Food-Ag-Bio. The goal was to help strengthen the state’s economy by supporting Michigan small businesses. The initial offering of 49 grocery items, including marinara sauce, blueberry butter and gluten-free baking mixes, resulted in an estimated economic impact of $400,000.
This year’s lineup of 55 Michigan-made grocery products will be more visible in all of the 102 Meijer stores in Michigan. Items including barbecue sauces, cherry butter, salsas, guacamole and kettle chips are expected to have an estimated economic impact of $900,000 statewide, according to Matt Birbeck, High Impact Venture Action Team project manager at the MSU Product Center.
“It’s been a fantastic opportunity for all Michigan businesses to have this local section at Meijer. Many of them see amazing results,” Birbeck said. “Now that it’s in every Michigan Meijer store, everybody gets to see and taste the diversity of this great state.”
Meijer worked with the MSU Product Center and its HI-VAT initiative to expand the program and ensure all the suppliers had the right food protocols and supply chain procedures. The items are expected to remain on the shelves for a year, and will have an opportunity to branch out chain-wide. Of the initial items featured in 33 Meijer stores last year, a few are under consideration to be part of the retailer’s regular offerings.
Coram, 52, had been in sales and marketing all his life and had been working at Valley City Sign since the 1990s. The Rockford resident left the company as a result of the Great Recession.
“I reinvented myself with starting a business,” he said. “I always had a love for cooking. That’s how this whole thing got started.”
Coram and LaFever started out making the products themselves.
“We were making it ourselves for a while, but it’s just not economically feasible for me to sit in a licensed (commercial) kitchen and try to do these small batches. I could never have filled the Meijer order by doing that,” said Coram.
So they contracted with Food For Thought, a co-packer in Empire known for a variety of organic and Fair Trade foods, to make and pack their products. In addition to the pasta and barbecue sauces, Johnny Secreto also markets four types of spice blends.
Johnny Secreto was Coram’s great-uncle, who was born in Italy and came to America around 1902. The company employs two others: Coram’s wife, Mary Ellen, and their daughter, Elyce, who also happens to be LaFever’s wife.
Mary Ellen Coram played a key role in financing the new business and is a professional microbiologist, which was helpful as they learned the fine points of commercial food processing.
A year ago, experts from MSU began working with Coram and LaFever on commercial food-processing techniques to help them ensure their product was processed properly.
The MSU help was “an incredible resource and it really didn’t cost us anything. For a start-up, that speaks volumes,” said Coram. “Michigan State has been in the forefront of this Made in Michigan entrepreneurial spirit,” he added.
Coram has succeeded in getting Johnny Secreto products into other grocery stores in Michigan, including in the Detroit region, but the Meijer deal is the big one so far.
“This has been an incredible adventure this past year, going from working all those farmers markets and now here we are in the largest retailer in Michigan.”
A spokesperson for Meijer said a handful of the 49 products that were on the Made In Michigan store displays last year are now in the process of being “mainstreamed onto Meijer shelves within regular grocery categories.” The entrepreneurs at Johnny Secreto Foods are hoping they go mainstream at Meijer, too.
The Made in Michigan products being promoted at Meijer in 2013 involve Michigan fruits, berries and vegetables in various processed forms, plus chips, pretzels and even soft drinks from Wild Bill’s Root Beer in Williamsburg. Scoville Farms in Grand Rapids has its sweet habanero sauce in the collection, and TCB Processing in Bangor contributed its zesty asparagus guacamole. Morano Foods in Norton Shores got the nod for its spaghetti sauce and four-cheese pasta sauce, and Wee Bee Jammin’ in Manistee is marketing two of its jam products.
The MSU Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources was established in the spring of 2003 with funds from the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and MSU Extension to improve economic opportunities in the Michigan agriculture, food and natural resource sectors.