Winery thrives in Kentwood
Bob Bonga’s family-run wine-making business in Kentwood didn’t suffer as much as a lot of other small businesses did in the Great Recession, in his opinion.
“There’s an old saying: ‘In good times, people drink. And in bad times, they drink even more.’”
But it probably wasn’t more people drinking that helped Cascade Winery grow; it was the ability to increase production after the winery moved from 28th Street in Cascade Township to one of the First Companies light industrial properties on Broadmoor between 44th and 52nd streets.
Cascade Winery was founded by Bob and Rose Bonga in 2003, with their son, Roger, also involved in the business. Last year, with help from a few part-timers, they produced 2,500 cases, which represented an 11 percent growth in revenues. But in prior years, the winery’s growth has typically been more in the range of 15 to 20 percent growth.
“This past year is down a little bit — which is OK,” said Bonga, explaining that they made some major changes in the warehousing system and needed the time to work on that.
In 2009, the Bongas made the move to Kentwood from the winery’s original location in a retail-type location on the far eastern end of 28th Street in Cascade Township.
“Square footage costs a lot of money out there,” he said. “When I came out here, I got more than three times the space for the same amount of money. Production can really expand then.”
Bonga, who lives in Lowell, is a Kentwood booster now.
“Kentwood is a wonderful community, a good business community. The mayor and his office and everybody really put a lot of effort into helping us fit right in — great people,” he said.
Before he started his own business, Bonga worked many years for Amway, for the last dozen or more as a supervisor. He said his job survived all the “ups and downs” of American business over the last couple of decades, but as he got older, he got tired of worrying about the future of his job within a corporation.
“Sooner or later, they are going to tap on your shoulder. What are you going to do then? Nothing?” he said. “I was young at the time — still in my 40’s. I figured I could go out on my own and get something started.”
In central Michigan, wine grapes don’t grow well but there is an abundance of fruit, so Cascade Winery started out making fruit wines. “It’s easy to get into business and build the business with fruit wines,” Bonga said. “That’s a good chunk of our business yet.”
In fact, fruit wines were once about 80 percent of Cascade Winery’s production, according to Bonga, but that is changing. “Volume-wise, (fruit wine production) is not shrinking. It’s just that the grape side is growing, becoming a bigger percentage of it.”
Roger Bonga does most of the actual wine-making, while Bob focuses on buying the fruit and grapes and helps out in the initial processing of them, which is more labor intensive than other steps.
With an annual output of 2,000 to 2,500 cases, Cascade is considered a small winery, according to Bob. He said perhaps as many as 90 percent of Michigan wineries would be considered “small.”
The Bongas buy wine grapes in southwest Michigan. “I go down there and get many tons every fall now,” Bonga said. He supplements the Michigan wine grapes with some from California, although he is cutting back on grapes from out of state.
“But I need to keep some type of relationship with those growers there because if we have a terrible year here — which we’ve had in the past — I need to be able to quickly find a source of grapes to continue business,” he said.
Bonga does not reveal annual revenues at Cascade Winery, but he said he is satisfied with how the business is going. “We’re not heavily in debt,” he said. “I’m very conservative. … My bank offers me money but I prefer not to take it. Cash is king.”
Cascade Winery’s wines are in the “average” price range, according to Bonga, with the highest commanding about $16 a bottle and the lowest about $10. He described that range as “where the main market is.”
“I’m a good Dutchman,” he said. “I know value and I like to give value.”
The winery’s newest project is acquisition of a capper machine, which will put metal screw caps on some of its fruit wines. According to a report in the Washington Post last fall, metal screw caps are making inroads in the traditional cork industry, becoming increasingly common on fine wines over the last 10 years.
“It’s the most superior seal for a wine bottle,” said Bonga. He said studies have repeatedly shown that screw caps allow much less air to reach the wine, which causes oxidation. There is actually a shortage in the market of bottles designed to take screw caps, he said. “They’re in very high demand right now — it’s taken off.”
Cascade Winery has a tasting room plus a deli, and a dining room where pasta dinners are served on Friday nights. Recently, the Bongas also opened Jaden James Brewery, a microbrewery within the winery that produces several types of craft beer that is only available to the public on site.