Detroit's hottest exports (Hint: they're not just cars and watches)

McClure's Pickles

The Detroit-Hamtramck border along St. Aubin Street is an established center of automotive manufacturing, but these days the fastest growing company along that stretch isn't making car axles, engines, or other automobile components -- it's making pickles.

In a blue-sided building that once housed the warranty and diagnostic center of manufacturing giant American Axle, employees of McClure's Pickles process and pickle cucumbers, producing about 5,000 jars per day that will be shipped to grocery stores around the country.

"There used to be a car wash where our cooler is now," says Joe McClure, co-founder and co-owner of McClure's Pickles, as he walks through his pickle factory. The company began leasing the 18,000-square-foot building in early 2012, spending $300,000 to build it out for its production needs.
Joe McClureWhile American Axle demolished nearly two million square feet of factory space in Detroit and Hamtramck and eliminated 300 local jobs over the last year (read about it here), McClure's has grown its production and increased its workforce to 22 full-time employees at its Detroit facility, providing them with healthcare, benefits, and vacation time. (McClure's also employs a small marketing and sales team in Brooklyn.)

In a single year, production has increased by between 1,500 and 2,000 jars per day.

"Last year, we had a Japanese automotive efficiency expert come in and flip our whole production upside down," says McClure. "It paid for itself on day two of the new setup. If I could have done it two years ago, I would have. We're just meeting demand. We could probably make 6,000 jars per day and be selling them all."

The company uses as much local produce as possible, sourcing everything in its jars from Michigan (except for the garlic, which comes from California) between July and October.

Since Joe and his brother Bob launched the company in 2006, McClure's Pickles has become something of a household name. Today, McClure's products (several varieties of pickles, relish, and bloody Mary mix that are all made in Detroit, plus three flavors of potato chips that are made outside of Cleveland) can be found in a few thousand stores around the country, including every Whole Foods market, hundreds of Kroger stores, and virtually every independent gourmet food retailer in Southeast Michigan and Brooklyn.

The company's nationwide presence is remarkable considering that less than 10 years ago, making pickles was nothing more than an annual McClure family tradition.

"We made pickles as kids growing up using our grandma's recipe. We'd make about 60 jars a year to give to friends and family," says Joe McClure. "In 2006, a strong food movement was popping up, so we made a big batch. By 2007, we found ourselves renting space in Troy and buying used production equipment on eBay. By 2008, we started getting in a few gourmet stores and doing our own deliveries with a truck.

"When we were starting up, we used to go to every little farmers market around Detroit to build the brand. That was our storefront before we got into stores. Now that we're in stores, we're still at Eastern Market every Saturday and at the Brooklyn Flea every Saturday and Sunday."

Joe McClure occasionally still makes personal deliveries of smaller orders to places like Valentine Vodka in Ferndale.

The collaborative environment between food producers in Detroit is a big plus for the McClure brothers, who talk shop with and learn from their peers at Valentine Vodka, Garden Fresh Salsa, and Atwater Brewing.

"One of the good things about Detroit is that the people are willing to help each other out. I don't think you get that in Brooklyn."
The young company is still in growth mode. In September, McClure's will replace its used equipment with custom-made, more efficient machinery. It's also in the process of getting bonded so it can bottle pre-mixed bloody Marys. Atwater Brewing and McClure's are currently collaborating to produce a canned michelada (a combination of beer, lime juice, spices, and peppers).

In the long term, Joe says he would like to acquire a separate warehouse in the area so McClure's can separate its production work from shipping and receiving. The company is working to increase its capacity in order to do contract manufacturing for other food companies.

VernDale Products

In an area hidden between a residential neighborhood and the CSX railroad trunkline on Detroit's west side, an old creamery is being rehabilitated into a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. Inside, workers are building new walls, pouring new floors, and calibrating shiny new chrome equipment from Europe. The 82,000-square-foot manufacturing facility is a $20 million capital investment of VernDale Products, a company you've probably never heard of, though you've likely tasted the fruits -- well, powders -- of its labor.

"If you're eating premium milk chocolate, our powder is probably in it," says Dale Johnson, second generation owner of VernDale Products, a company his parents founded in 1958 that produces drum-rolled powdered whole milk.
Dale Johnson
VernDale currently employs 45 people at its plant on Lyndon Street, but plans to add another dozen people to run its new facility on Weaver Street, which will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week when it opens in September.

VernDale's workers were involved early on as the company planned for expansion. A VernDale driver helped the company's leadership identify the site of the new facility when he remembered the location of an old dairy that used to be on one of his delivery routes.

"We involved hourly employees in the equipment layout," says Fred Kreger, VernDale's general manager. "Our electrician, who is originally from Yugoslavia, helped us solve issues between the European electrical system [for which VernDale's specialized equipment is designed] and the American system in our new facility."

"We're utilizing 50 years of experience to design this plant to do what we do more efficiently," says Johnson.
VernDale is the only manufacturer of its kind in the U.S., supplying about a dozen premium milk chocolate makers (mostly on the East and West coasts and in Chicago) with the powdered whole milk that goes into their products.

Many of their clients consider VernDale's product their "secret ingredient," says Johson.

"This process is unlike anything else that's available in the U.S.," he says in reference to VernDale's unique drum drying process. "About 30 percent of all the whole milk powder in the United States originates in our Detroit facilities."

Every day, farm-fresh milk from a 150-mile "milk shed" that extends into Michigan's thumb region arrives at VernDale's plant on tanker trucks. Next, it is dehydrated through a reverse osmosis process, then roller drum-dried into milk powder. Finally, the milk powder is packaged into 50-pound sacks and shipped around the country to producers of premium milk chocolate.
According to Johnson, opening a second facility in Detroit just made good business sense.

"We explored other locations, including one Up North. When it came down to it, this building had a good infrastructure and Detroit has a good labor force. We're not exactly Dan Gilbert, but organizations like the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and city government have been extremely helpful."

Matthew Lewis is Model D's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Support for this series on food and agriculture in Southeast Michigan is provided in part by the Detroit Food and Agriculture Network. See other stories in this series here.
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Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.