Lifestyle switch spawns nutty idea for food maker Nutcase
Vegan meat company makes plant-based sausages, burgers out of the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen.
As a longtime physician, Dr. Monica Randles considered herself a healthy person. But when she began experiencing backaches and severe stiffness, she started looking for triggers in her diet.
After reading a book called “Clean,” by Dr. Alejandro Junger, an Eastern medicine specialist, cardiologist, and head of an integrative medicine program in New York, Randles decided to stop eating foods that might be causing inflammation, such as dairy, coffee and refined sugar.
Around the same time, her husband, Dr. Andrew Maternowski, and daughter, Isabel, watched a documentary called “Food Inc.,” which investigates factory farming and the food industry. They saw the film as a convincing case for cutting meat from their diet.
“Isabel, our 10-year-old at the time, said, ‘Let’s go vegetarian for a month,’ as a trial,” Maternowski said.
Randles, a pediatric doctor at Cherry Health, saw no harm in trying it, too.
“We all went vegetarian for a month,” she said. “Andrew was like, ‘OK I did it. I’m going to stick with it.’”
“I just felt better after that month,” Maternowski said.
“Even our son, Nicholas, who was 12, got into it,” Randles said. “And Andrew put his culinary brain into vegan meals.”
Maternowski, an internal medicine specialist at Spectrum Health, had long been adept at making homemade sausages with meats and spice blends.
“I come from a very heavy butchering family; I have one Polish grandfather, Boleslaw Maternowski in South Bend, and one French Canadian grandfather, Omer Gallant in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and they were both butchers,” he said.
In 2010, Maternowski and Randles began developing and testing recipes for a vegan sausage product they could sell. In 2014, they formed an LCC, Nutcase Vegan Meats.
“In the book (“Clean”), we were reading about tree nuts, walnuts, brown rice, quinoa. We thought, ‘We can play around with this.’ We thought, ‘What is sausage but ground meat and seasoning?’” Randles said.
At first, they tried using a gluten base, but it “tasted terrible,” Maternowski said.
Then they switched to nuts, learning the difference between sweet and fatty varieties, and blending ingredients — such as rice, walnuts, hazelnuts, flax seed, hemp seed and quinoa — until they had developed the right flavor profile.
Though they started product development from home, the couple quickly needed more space and access to professional-grade equipment. Now, they rent storage, freezer and refrigerator space at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, 435 Ionia Ave. SW, where they produce up to three 100-pound batches of product per week.
At first, Randles and Maternowski planned to sell one flavor — and only vegan sausage.
After consulting Susan Cronenwett, a designer who owns Alsi Creations LLC and helped with Nutcase’s packaging, label development and marketing, the couple determined the plan wouldn’t work.
“(Susan) has a lot of experience with food. She’s done labels for Whole Foods and for animal product sausages,” Maternowski said. “She said, ‘You can’t just have one flavor.’”
Guru Hari Singh Khalsa, vice president of product development at Almetta Foods LLC and Maternowski’s brother, offered another insight.
“He was the one who said, ‘You have to have a burger; you can’t just do sausages.’ He pushed us,” Maternowski said.
Nutcase now sells Vegan Chorizo, Hot Italian Sausage, Breakfast Sausage and Nutty Burger products on its website, nutcasevegan.com, and distributes to more than 15 specialty stores in Michigan and Wisconsin. Another flavor, Sweet Italian Sausage, is in the development stage.
The company also sells its products to Cascade Country Club, Field and Fire Café, and Rocket Pies in Grand Rapids; Sawall Health Foods Deli in Kalamazoo; and Field to Fork in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, for use on their menus.
Zeeland-based Creative Dining Services, which caters to colleges and universities, and Google of Ann Arbor also buy Nutcase products.
In its first year, Nutcase did $38,000 in sales, and this year is projected to do $80,000.
Maternowski and Randles each work about a 50/50 split between their medical practices and the business. They have an executive chef, Genevieve Miskell, and seven other part-time employees, including their two teenagers.
“We work to subsidize a ‘third teenager,’ which is what we call this business,” Randles said.
Looking to the future, the couple said they hope to lease a commercial kitchen for two years and then build a manufacturing and distribution center that will allow them to scale the operation upward. They have their eye on markets like California, Washington and Oregon, where the demand for vegan products is strong.
Randles said owning this business appeals to her because it allows her to help people.
“The big thing about medicine and marketing our product is our product can help more people be healthy in the long run than we can ever do as clinicians,” she said. “If you really want to help people, you go into medicine, but sausage can help people, too.
“You’re not giving up medicine, because it’s a noble profession. We’re not going into business just to make money; it’s to help people.”
Maternowski agreed, calling the business a “serious endeavor.”
“Nutrition is so important. Something we’ve learned since starting the company is that we weren’t really taught in medical school how much nutrition is related to the long-term health of your body.
“What foods are good for your body? There’s so much science now documenting how important food is to your body and to preventing long-term disease.
“Feeding our family has become something bigger. It’s got momentum.”