A Web of Food and Bev: Michael ‘Chet’ Chetcuti’s Farm + Ferment expands its profile

For years, the assumption has been that northern Michigan’s booming industry of wineries and craft breweries would eventually oversaturate.

When asked about how close the region might be to that breaking point, though, Michael “Chet” Chetcuti has a unique perspective.

“I don’t even think we’re close,” Chetcuti said. “I don’t even think we’re scratching the surface.”

Chetcuti would know a thing or two about those industries. While his background is rooted in automotive manufacturing, the Northport-based Chetcuti has also become one of Michigan’s most notable food and beverage mavens. Currently, he and his business partners own a group of southeast Michigan Italian eateries called Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina, the Ypsilanti-based Arbor Brewing Company, the Michigan Hop Alliance, and Baia Estate Vineyards in Leelanau County.

Those businesses, packaged under a brand called Farm + Ferment, form the basis for an increasingly innovative presence in Michigan dining, wine and beer.

For Chetcuti, the road to get to that point was hardly a conventional one. Before his portfolio involved making wine and selling hops to breweries around the Midwest, the businessman’s core job was supplying parts to automakers all over the world.

By the late ’90s, Chetcuti was working with American Expedition Vehicles, a company that specializes in aftermarket parts, accessories and upgrades for Jeep Wrangler vehicles. By 2006, he and his partners had bought a stake in the company; Chetcuti is still a co-owner of American Expedition Vehicles.

Even as Chetcuti was building up his business presence in the automotive world, the seeds for Farm + Ferment had already been planted.

“My partners and I are big food and wine lovers,” said Chetcuti whose first dally into the food and wine business was in about 1998, when he and his partners purchased local legend Cloverleaf Fine Wine in metro Detroit.

“That was our first stab at getting into specialty wine and beer,” he said, “but we also always had it in the back of our heads that we really, really wanted to be on the maker side of beer and wine.”

That dream led to the interconnected web of food and drink businesses that Chetcuti and his business partners own today. Baia Estate Vineyards, for instance, produces Italian-style wines aimed first and foremost at the patrons of Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina.

Running the vineyard in Leelanau also got the team thinking about growing hops, which led to a partnership with Brian Tennis, the founder of the Michigan Hop Alliance. Finally, the relationship with Tennis hooked Chetcuti and company up with the founders of Arbor Brewing, bringing the group firmly into the beer scene.

These days, Chetcuti has business interests all over the Michigan map: Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina boasts locations in Royal Oak, Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, Franklin and Plymouth. Arbor Brewing Company has a downtown Plymouth taproom, in addition to its Ypsilanti brewery location. The Michigan Hop Alliance hop field is located in Omena. And Baia Estate has 70 acres of vineyards on Leelanau Peninsula, along with a tasting room in Northport.

Those business interests have been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, however. Since COVID-19 hit the United States last March, few states have seen stricter or longer-lasting restrictions of bars and restaurants than Michigan – restrictions that also apply to breweries and wineries.

“It’s had tremendous impact,” Chetcuti said of the pandemic. “It’s the roughest storm that (my business partners and I) have ever weathered.”

Though he had survived other downturns, such as 2008’s Great Recession, Chetcuti says COVID has “really pressured our systems to the max.”

He attributes the successful navigation of the 2020 challenge to his business partners.

“We’ve got a very strong team, and they were on this thing before anybody, before any shutdowns,” he said.

In January, Chetcuti says that the team was already planning what was going to happen as far as worst case scenarios were concerned and how they could restructure the business.

“My hat’s off to them, because they weathered it better than anybody I know – and we’re still working on it now,” he said. “We’re still re-engineering the business and reinventing ourselves, trying to find new income streams.”

For Food + Ferment, the key during the pandemic has been staying ahead of the curve. Chetcuti says the business closed its dining rooms and tasting rooms, voluntarily, 48 hours before the March 16 press conference where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first executive order to close dine-in services at restaurants and bars.

When most restaurants were reeling from the news and scrambling to prepare their businesses for closure, the Food + Ferment team had already pivoted, Chetcuti says.

“Within 72 hours of (Whitmer) closing restaurants, 100% of our operation was touchless curbside pickup,” Chetcuti said. “That worked out really well for us. I think the customers and the employees appreciated the fact that we shut down before anybody shut down.”

The pandemic still forced some difficult decisions for the Food + Ferment team, such as the choice to close the downtown Ann Arbor location of Arbor Brewing Company when the lease expired in June. For the most part, though, Chetcuti remains bullish about where the Food + Ferment brands stand right now – and about what the future might hold for Michigan’s food and beverage scene.

In particular, he’s adamant that northern Michigan’s status as a budding wine region, far from reaching an oversaturation point, is just starting to flower. It’s still not uncommon to see a packed winery on a summer or fall weekend in Leelanau or Grand Traverse counties, which Chetcuti takes as a sign that there’s room for more of these types of businesses.

“It’s really just coming into focus,” Chetcuti said of northern Michigan wine country. “Years ago, I remember being aware of the Michigan wine industry and not really wanting anything to do with it, because the products at the time weren’t all that great. Today, the competition is unbelievable the amount of people making great product is pretty amazing, compared to where we were 30 years ago. I only see that dialing in and getting better and better.”

Chetcuti credits the improvement of Michigan’s wine industry to a similar kind of maturation process that the wine has to go through in the bottle. Twenty or 30 years ago, he says many winemakers in northern Michigan and throughout the state were trying to grow wine grapes that simply weren’t well-suited to the climate. Lackluster fruit led to lackluster wine.

Now, he thinks wine growers have developed an understanding of which grapes thrive in northern Michigan’s unique climate, which is driving better fruit and better wine. That maturation is the reason Chetcuti believes that northern Michigan is only just “scratching the surface” as a wine region.

“Just compare us to the long history of other wine regions in the United States,” Chetcuti said. “I think we’re in the infancy of the whole thing. I think we’ve got a long way to go before we’re going to be overrun with tasting rooms, or restaurants, or fine dining that’s paired with the local products that are produced up here, whether it’s beer, wine, or farm-to-table produce.”

As for beer, Chetcuti says that “craft beer is its own animal.”

“Michigan is huge into craft beer right now and where the saturation point is, it’s tough to say,” he said. “With craft beer, things seem to ebb and flow. We hit a point where we’ve got enough, we don’t need more, then there’s some consolidation.”

The new breweries popping up have prompted a look at state-grown hops, he said.

“You see a region like Michigan, where people have been making beers for years and years, and now (the brewers) are saying, ‘You know what, I want to make this beer with a Michigan hop,’ because a Michigan centennial hop is different than a West Coast centennial hop,” he said. “You’re starting to see that type of niche and specialty, and it’s really great for the consumer because the brewers are constantly ratcheting up the quality.”

That search for niche, specialty and innovation, Chetcuti says, is driving the whole food and beverage industry in Michigan and will likely help stave off stagnation or saturation for years to come. In northern Michigan, he points to unique, outdoor-centric business models like The Little Fleet, Farm Club and Hop Lot Brewing Co. as indicators of where things might be going – especially in light of how the pandemic has put indoor dining on the back burner.

As for Food + Ferment businesses, Chetcuti says the goal is typically to balance innovation with staying on top of trends. On the one hand, he says that Baia Estate’s focus on Italian varietals is unique from most other northern Michigan wineries, simply because many Italian grapes got the reputation for not growing well in Leelanau or Old Mission climates.

Because of Food + Ferment’s ownership of the Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina brand, Baia Estate has tried testing out Italian grape varietals “that maybe haven’t grown in northern Michigan before, but have been grown in similar regions around the world.”

Last fall, for instance, the winery bottled a Lambrusco, a fruit-forward sparkling red wine that Chetcuti says is “a favorite in Italy, especially with pizza,” but which is a rarity in Michigan.

At the same time, Arbor Brewing Company has been closely monitoring and keeping up with the craft beer trends, from experimenting with sours (a specialty niche that has hit a surge of popularity in recent years) to creating Trail Lyte, a low-calorie, low-alcohol raspberry ale that fits in within a recent market trend toward lower-ABV beers.

On top of everything else, Chetcuti was recently appointed to the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, where he represents restaurants that hold Class C liquor licenses and serve Michigan wine, beer or spirits.

“It’s a real honor,” Chetcuti said of the appointment. “We meet regularly, and the basic mission of our committee is to make sure people know about how great Michigan craft beverages are … and hopefully get people to buy them.”