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Michigan food supply firm innovates, finds new markets amid coronavirus crisis

Matt Robinson found himself in late March with a warehouse full of fruit and vegetables that suddenly, due to COVID-19 and the statewide shutdown, would never reach a restaurant.

But the general manager of Frog Holler Produce in Ann Arbor came up with a few ideas, thinking there was nothing to lose by trying something new: “Why not spin the wheel, see what happens?”

The result is paying off, with Frog Holler now carving out a new niche and using its wholesale network to launch direct-to-consumer sales. Three weeks in, Robinson is rehiring staff and increasing sales. He already looks toward the future and considers making the change permanent. He can’t believe how far the business has come since its darkest days in March.

“It was heartbreaking for me to lay off people who’d been with me for years,” Robinson said. “But I was looking at expenses. There was no way that we’d have enough income to pay the light bill, let alone salaries.”

Frog Holler supplies a network of independent restaurants from Detroit to the West Michigan lakeshore. Founded in Ann Arbor about 40 years ago, it’s now a division of Van Eerden Foodservice in Grand Rapids, which supplies many larger chain operators. The statewide shutdown hit the sector hard.

In Michigan, the state’s 16,000 restaurants lost $491 million in sales from March 1-22, according to data from a survey by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Industry. Among respondents, 84 percent suffered losses. The average decline: 43 percent.

Several Frog Holler customers  were among the estimated 7,000 Michigan restaurants that tried to shift their business to carry-out. Even with some finding success, Frog Holler suddenly had orders coming in that it couldn’t cancel, and a vastly smaller wholesale market. Some produce was donated before it could rot. The rest was heading toward the trash.

“It was looking very, very bleak,” Robinson said.

But a few conversations in the last year while he consulted with a farm-share provider sparked an idea. 

Robinson calls it a whim when he made his first Facebook post, telling Ann Arbor area residents that Frog Holler would sell them boxes of fruit and vegetables for pickup. He thought $35 sounded like a fair price. And the first few purchases gave him hope that Frog Holler could ride out the pandemic upheaval.

Instead, three weeks later, Frog Holler is on a new — and still escalating — business path.

Between customers sharing photos of their purchases with friends and an article in the Ann Arbor News, sales exploded from 20-40 boxes per day to 185. The dollar volume in one day of drive-up sales mirrored pre-Coronavirus levels.

Interest in the boxes reached the point where, Robinson says, he had to set a cap. Cars were lined up in the parking lot and beyond, waiting for orders and stretching staff capacity to the limit.

“Literally, yesterday, I couldn’t tell you how many people rolled through,” he said. 

The new business model requires some fine-tuning, Robinson said. Online payments will be added to the Frog Holler website. The warehouse faces some reconfiguration, so the boxes can be packed more efficiently. So far, customers can’t order customized boxes.

But there’s also room for expansion, he added. Milk, eggs and other dairy products will be first. Maybe bread will be next. Robinson is reaching out to small area providers to gauge interest in supplying new product lines. One of his vendors may start selling meal kits, and those could eventually be added to the lineup. 

“We’re trying to find a way to do home deliveries,” he said. “There are so many things out there that can be done.”

One new option that will be tried by mid-April is an all-organic box. If it works, it’ll remain an option. If not, he’ll try something else. “There’s going to be a lot of trial and error.”

So far, Robinson said, he’s proud that he’s been able to bring about 20 employees back to work, or about two-thirds of Frog Holler workers. 

If he can deliver his vision, and forge partnerships with small farmers who are weighing how much to plant this season, more workers will get to come back - and those farmers will, like Frog Holler, find a new venue to sell their products. 

But the pain and loss in the community during Michigan’s shutdown is real. And Robinson knows that describing this time of creating new opportunities as exciting “sounds weird.”

“I don’t know how many businesses can say that now,” he said.


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