Food Service & Agriculture and Real Estate

Heeren Bros. plans $22M produce facility

October 8, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Heeren Bros. Facility
A rendering of Heeren Bros.' 170,000-square-foot facility in Alpine Township near the area's fruit-growing region. Courtesy Heeren Bros.

Heeren Bros. Inc., a Grand Rapids firm since 1933 and one of the biggest produce businesses in Michigan, has announced plans to build a $22 million, state-of-the-art facility in Alpine Township.

The largest family-owned wholesaler, marketer and distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables in the state, Heeren plans to break ground this month on its new 170,000-square-foot facility at 1055 Seven Mile Road. The structure, which will be built to LEED green-building standards, will be home to the firm's corporate headquarters and warehouse and distribution center, as well as an apple storage and packing facility with new apple grading and packing lines.

Heeren currently operates two apple-packing and storage facilities and a warehouse distribution center in West Michigan. Its base now is three facilities on Hall Street in Grand Rapids, but the new facility will allow it to consolidate its operations into a single structure in the heart of the region's apple-growing country. The move to the new location should be completed in August 2013 in time for the start of apple-packing season. The Hall Street property will be put up for sale, according to Heeren CEO Hal Roy.

Through its subsidiaries and joint ventures, Heeren manages more than 1,500 acres of orchards, represents more than 75 family-owned apple farms, and packs and sells more than 20 percent of all apples grown in Michigan. It has a fleet of 21 tractor-trailer rigs and 10 straight trucks that bring fruit and vegetables from the southern states and Mexico when produce is not in season in Michigan.

"We are incredibly pleased to expand and upgrade our operations and capabilities in West Michigan," said Roy. "The property in Alpine Township will allow us to consolidate operations while adding new technology designed to make us more labor efficient, become better compliant with the new food safety standards and allow us to be a better steward of our natural resources."

The new facility is being designed by Dixon Architecture and the construction will be managed by First Companies, both West Michigan-based companies. The Heeren facility will feature:

  • Storage capacity that is expanded by 19 percent, including 15 controlled-atmosphere rooms.
  • Expanded processing capabilities, featuring multiple state-of-the-art apple packing and grading lines with color- and defect-sorting, as well as presort capabilities.
  • Energy-saving refrigeration equipment and other energy-conscious features that will allow Heeren to pursue LEED certification.
  • Better compliance with food safety regulations and initiatives, including SQF 2000 and the Bio-Terrorism Act of 2002, which also pertains to food safety, in general.

The business began in 1933 when brothers John and Elmer Heeren began a produce trucking business, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables from the South to sell in Grand Rapids. Over the next 30 years, they expanded their operations, selling and distributing produce, purchasing land and building an apple-packing and storage plant.

The second generation of Heerens joined their fathers in 1962 as the business continued to grow, adding new facilities and expanding capabilities. The third generation stepped into leadership roles in the late 1990s as their fathers prepared to retire.

In the mid-2000s, Heeren launched a series of subsidiaries and joint ventures — including All Fresh GPS, Ridgeking Apple Packing and Storage and Gourmet Specialty of Michigan — in a move to expand its product offerings and geographic reach.

In December 2006, Heeren acquired rival J.A. Besteman Co., creating the largest family-owned, full-line produce distributor in Michigan. Besteman was located nearby on Hall Street and its facility is now part of the Heeren complex there. The neighborhood was the city's designated terminal market area since the 1960s, where farmers brought their produce to sell to packers and grocery stores, according to Roy. The city's terminal market originally was closer to downtown Grand Rapids, where the U.S. 131 S-curve is today.

The acquisition of Besteman allowed Heeren to expand its distribution footprint throughout the Midwest and add national, regional and small independent grocers to its retail customer list. Roy said Heeren sells its produce throughout the entire Lower Peninsula and the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula, plus northwest Ohio and much of northern Indiana.

In August 2011, Ridgeking joined forces with Michigan-based Applewood Orchards to create All Fresh GPS, which focuses exclusively on the marketing of Michigan apples. Today, the fourth generation of Heerens have roles in the growing company.

Roy, who has been CEO of Heeren since 2003, said the severe frost in late April that killed prematurely opened fruit blossoms "devastated the fruit crops in Michigan," with the apple crop down to about 15 percent of a normal year. The cherry crop was virtually wiped out.

Roy said there have been some price increases for apples this year, due to the shortage. Heeren Bros. is looking forward to a much better year next year, he noted.

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