Michigan-made Ambassador: Achatz Pie Co.
Within a two minutes, three minutes tops, of meeting Wendy Achatz, she is talking about other businesses, not her own.
This is supposed to be a story about Achatz Pie Co
., how its pies - and later soups, jams and more - took the giant leap from family recipes made in a home kitchen and small-town restaurant to hundreds of stores in at least a dozen states.
It's supposed to be the story of how founders, Wendy and Dave, she 48, he, 61, launched the business 19 years ago, the year the youngest of their five children was born. And it's supposed to be a story of how Achatz has grown to eight pie shops, selling 80 flavors (sweet and savory), while constantly developing new products made without artificial ingredients, nearly all of them coming from Michigan farmers and food producers.
But Wendy Achatz, a dyed-in-the-wool fan of anything homegrown, organic, fresh, real and, hopefully, by-hand, can't help but promote the up-and-comers, the ones who are where the Achatzes were 19 years ago, when they took pies made in their Armada home to festivals, fairs, farmers markets - sometimes trading pies for fresh fruits or veggies to feed their kids (or go into the next batch of pie filling).
"It's mind blowing to think about it. We were just trying to keep our head above water...
"My husband and I are a good team. We balance each other," Wendy says, remembering their days of loading the kids in a high-top van, taking them shopping and filling two or more carts to feed the family and make their pies.
But instead of talking about her company's year-and-a-half-old headquarters and new bakehouse in Chesterfield or her 160 employees, Wendy is doling out compliments about an "amazing woman" who grows the tea we are about to drink.
Achatz is all about promoting Michigan-made products, and with Achatz Pies being in three - soon to be four - regions of Whole Foods markets
, she is in a position to be one of our most enthusiastic ambassadors.
Her first shout-out to a Michigan-made product - one of the many cottage businesses that have turned to Achatz to learn how it's done - goes to Light of Day Organic Teas
in Traverse City.
Wendy, wearing a white lab coat while on a tea break from the bakehouse (and working on her birthday), shares the tea-grower's story, explaining how she respects the company for putting out a different kind of organic product. She uses it as an example of how relaxed cottage industry laws have made it easier for made-at-home foods to get to customers.
Wendy says she's seeing more and more new foodies on the block, taking a nugget of an idea and polishing it into a gem of a entrepreneurial endeavor. "Michigan has made it easier for these businesses…," she says. "The state of Michigan wanted to give people the tools to be successful and it seems to be working."
By coincidence, a rep from the Michigan State University Product Center
is on the Achatz -rhymes with rackets - premises today, offering free assistance to the company as it perfects distribution and other business practices to keep up with faraway demands for foods that have a short shelf life due to lack of preservatives.
Wendy quickly recommends that other businesses look into the assistance offered by the MSU Product Center. This and more plentiful small business advice is clearly making it easier for business launches, she explains.
"Before I would get a lot of calls and email, asking how to do something, or what was okay, saying they'd been told no, that they were getting flack from some city office or the state.
"One thing I always say is if they tell you no, you need to ask what do I need to do," she says. "If they don't tell you and still say no grab 'em by the collar and and say 'if you're going to tell me no then you need to tell me what I need to do'."
The state has made the process easier so there's a lot less of that now.
Wendy says the move to the newer, bigger space is both a blessing and a curse.
"Armada was so quaint. One employee was just saying how she misses the apple path." Another employee, she explains, liked to refresh herself during the workday by going out to chop wood.
The new HQ is more urban, but necessary for a company that had $8 million in sales last year and expects to hit $10 million this year. Wendy and Dave chose the location because it was about 15 minutes from home and she could ride her bike on back trails that lead to work.
Wendy says she misses the old Armada headquarters, but, she adds, motioning to the field of tall grass and wildflowers across the street from new headquarters, which is part of a light industrial park, "we have this little bit of country here."
"We needed to move from our little orchard to a bigger bakehouse. We had to," she sighs. "But we're still making our pies the same way.
Insiders tip: the new location, where there's also a store in the 20,000 square-foot building that was formerly an artificial joint manufacturer, sells samples of pies not yet on the market, the ones that come from weekly research and development team meetings. Pina colada and Neapolitan were among this week's experimental samples
While the new HQ and bakehouse may be a corporatized version of their little Armada kitchen, they still honor the recipes of Dave's aunt and parents, all of them fond of a farm life where they grew up drinking milk from cows out back and eating eggs from their own chicken coup. They respect and relish what comes from the land.
"I truly hope anyone out there with a passion for food, to make a good quality product can have the same success."
In metro Detroit, Achatz Pies can be found in 100 grocery stores, 30 of which are Whole Foods. Other outlets include Hiller's Markets
, Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace
, Papa Joe's Gourmet Market
& Catering and, in the first store that took a chance on Achatz, Long Lake Market
in Bloomfield Hills.
Achatz is hiring and will be part of the groundbreaking May 14th
of the new Whole Foods Market in Midtown Detroit.
Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.
All Photos by David Lewinski