Food entrepreneurs are ready to leave the nest
Former Downtown Market incubator tenant Nutcase Vegan Meats opens production facility after steady growth.
A couple’s 4-year-old food business is expanding into a permanent facility that will eventually allow it to produce 20,000 pounds of plant-based meat alternative products per day.
The Business Journal featured Nutcase Vegan Meats, founded in 2015 by husband-and-wife co-owners Andrew Maternowski and Monica Randles, in 2017. At the time, they were renting incubator kitchen space at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. SW.
The business, which started in the couple’s kitchen under cottage law and quickly outgrew that space, now also has outgrown the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen. The couple recently stopped seeking new retail buyers because they could not produce enough to meet demand until they scaled up.
“We just totally maxed out that space,” Maternowski said.
In its first full year, 2016, Nutcase did $38,000 in sales, followed by $66,000 in 2017 and $110,000 in 2018. In the first four months of 2019, they already closed on $55,000 in sales and expect to draw in $200,000 to $250,000 by year’s end.
The business now has four to five employees, counting its owners — although Maternowski and Randles still are not drawing salaries but instead are relying on their income from working part time as physicians. He is an internal medicine specialist at Spectrum Health, and she is a pediatrician at Cherry Health.
Maternowski said they were able to produce only about 600 pounds per week at the market, given its limited freezer space that it was sharing with other startups. Last summer, Nutcase received a 2,500-pound, two-pallet order from a supermarket chain located in Ohio and Illinois, running out of freezer space and forcing it to rent overflow space while assembling the order over the course of three weeks.
Randles and Maternowski have been looking for a permanent home over the past couple of years and after coming up short on finding a place to lease, they pulled the trigger and bought a building at 463 44th St. SE in Wyoming.
The 9,800-square-foot facility was the former Spartan Central Kitchen, a SpartanNash food processing facility that closed in November when the company moved those operations to Indiana. Randles and Maternowski bought the building from Scott Wierda, of Grand Rapids’ Jade Pig Ventures, for an undisclosed amount.
They have been busy cleaning the facility, upgrading the infrastructure — working with contractors Seaman’s Mechanical and Kalsbeek Plumbing in Grand Rapids — and preparing for a health inspection, which they passed on April 26.
Nutcase is now producing in the facility organic vegan meats that are free of dairy, gluten, soy, corn and GMOs. It will start doing 600 pounds a day, but the couple is expecting to ramp up production that could produce 20,000 pounds per day if necessary.
In addition to the vegan chorizo, hot Italian sausage, breakfast sausage and nutty burger products the business sold in 2017, it has since rolled out a sweet Italian sausage and a 1-pound precooked “nutty loaf,” similar to a meatloaf, which contains an herb, onion and roast pepper blend.
Nutcase products are in about 70 stores nationwide, including the Pete’s Fresh Markets and Heinen’s chains, as well as standalone stores in New York, Colorado, Texas and more. Randles currently is in talks with several more retailers.
Additionally, it supplies products for use in the menus of about 10 restaurants/cafés, including Cascade Country Club in Cascade Township; Field & Fire Café, Social Kitchen, Noble Restaurant and Danzon Cubano in Grand Rapids; Sawall Health Foods Deli in Kalamazoo; Rebel Pies in Muskegon; Dig Café in Frankenmuth; The Sweet Beet in Granby, Connecticut; and Field to Fork in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
This year, Maternowski and Randles plan to debut a vegan jerky and are working on other meat alternatives.
Randles said they had a booth at VegFest by VegMichigan — an annual vegan taste fest, health and environmental expo — in Novi on April 28, and some restaurants showed interest in their products to use in recipes.
“Veg-o-Rama (from Ypsilanti) came around, and they were very interested. Andrew’s been working on some iterations and (owner Prafulla Kharkar) said to send some down,” she said.
Maternowski added: “When I do demos in Chicago at Pete’s Market, a couple of the chefs down there have come to me and said, ‘It’d be great if you could have like a gyro meat or a kebab for our restaurant. So, we’re going to work on that. We’ve been pretty consumed with the move. Our R&D division has been on hold for a while.”
Randles and Maternowski said the move has them “a little worn out,” but they are excited for the growth they’re about to experience.
“The move has been an amazing push to get it done, but the three of us got it done. Genevieve (Miskell, executive chef for Nutcase) is not here, but she has been awesome, too,” Maternowski said.