Behind the Curtain: Distributors and wholesalers driving Michigan’s food and beverage economy

They keep the shelves at your grocery store stocked with food, deliver the kegs that keep the beer taps flowing, and help local restaurants and caterers feed armies of foodies. Yet food and beverage distributors often go overlooked. This month, the TCBN spotlights just a few of these unsung heroes of the culinary scene – including three prominent food distributors and four players in the state’s competitive beverage industry – to provide a clearer look at how the food and drink economy in Michigan really works.

THE FOOD DISTRIBUTORS

Cherry Capital Foods

Headquarters: Traverse City

The company: Cherry Capital Foods dates back to 2007 and in its 15 years has become a trusted food hub for Traverse City area farmers, producers and foragers who wish to expand the reach of their products. For the most part, Cherry Capital Foods focuses on working with producers that offer unique, locally sourced products. The company then acts as a link to to get producers’ goods into restaurants, grocery stores, schools and more. Cherry Capital Foods is also a subsidiary of Tamarack Holdings, which owns other food-related entities like Food For Thought, a curated brand of more than 100 artisanal preserves, hot sauces, salsas and other similar products; and Earthy Delights, a supplier of wild-harvested and hard-to-find specialty ingredients.

Service radius: While many food distributors have sprawling territories that touch multiple states, Cherry Capital Foods is a locally rooted company with a like philosophy. Dedicated to ensuring maximum freshness of all the products it distributes – as well as to minimizing the amount of food miles necessary to get products to their final destination – Cherry Capital Foods continues to focus largely on a concentrated service radius. Early on, the business only serviced the 100-mile radius around Traverse City. These days, the company is able to service most of the state, thanks in part to a second facility in Lansing.

Product lines carried: Cherry Capital Foods offers a variety of different product categories, including but not limited to: fresh, seasonal produce from local farms; grass-fed and pasture-raised beef, pork, poultry, and other protein; wild and specialty goods, including wild mushrooms, truffles, fine vinegars, and culinary oils; milk, cheese, butter, cream, and other farm-fresh dairy products; fresh fruits, dried fruits and frozen fruits; and free-range chicken eggs. The company’s long list of local vendors includes farms like Duerksen Turkey Farm in Mancelona, Idyll Farms in Northport, Second Spring Farm in Cedar, and many others. Sometimes Cherry Capital Foods goes beyond farms. Last year, the business teamed up with Beards Brewery in Petoskey to help expand the reach of the brewery’s Michigan Hop Water, a line of hop-infused sparkling water.

By the numbers: Cherry Capital Foods has a few dozen employees across its two locations and keeps a fleet of six refrigerated trucks on the road five days a week during the peak summer season.

Carmela Foods

Headquarters: Fraser

The company: The story of Carmela Foods began in 1992, with just one employee, one product, one truck and one customer. The employee was founder/CEO Tony Tocco, Jr., the product was Colavita extra virgin olive oil, the truck was Tony’s own personal vehicle, and the customer was a fruit market in metro Detroit. Tocco named the business after his mother, who had inspired his childhood love for cooking by whipping up daily authentic Italian feasts for him and his five older siblings. Thirty years later, Carmela is one of the most prominent food distributors in the state of Michigan, with a strong reputation for sourcing quality specialty food brands from around the world. Carmela touts its extensive product catalog as “the best food, wine, and proteins from six continents.”

Service radius: You’ve probably spotted a Carmela Foods truck in Traverse City on occasion. That’s because Carmela, while still based in the metro Detroit area, has a sprawling service territory that includes the entirety of the state of Michigan, plus much of northern Ohio. The company serves food stores, restaurants, resorts and hotels, country clubs and golf courses and wineries.

Product lines carried: Carmela is a distributor of a variety of brands that most consumers would probably recognize from grocery store shelves – particularly those in and around the Italian food niche. That list includes the pasta brand Barilla, Rao’s Homemade pasta sauces, Dei Fratelli pizza sauce, San Marzano tomatoes and more. Other key partners include the Detroit-based Fairway Packing Co. for premium meat, the Illinois-based Supreme Lobster for premium seafood, and the Canton-based Chef Source for gourmet specialty food items.

By the numbers: Carmela Foods serves its Michigan and Ohio accounts from a sprawling 70,000-square-foot warehouse in Fraser. A team of five food buyers and 20 salespeople manages the company’s extensive catalog and growing client list. Speaking of that catalog, Carmela’s product selection now spans more than 15,000 items, with new lines and brands added each year as industry trends evolve and new brands expand into the Midwest.

Lipari Foods

Headquarters: Warren

The company: Lipari Foods launched in 1963 when founder Jim Lipari decided to start a food distribution company in the Detroit area out of his 1959 Chevy station wagon. Nearly 60 years later, the company reaches far beyond the boundaries of metro Detroit – and even far beyond the state lines of Michigan. Indeed, self-described now as a regional full-line deli, bakery, packaging, and grocery distributor, Lipari has a reach that spans more than half of the United States.

Service radius: Most of the U.S. that lies east of the Mississippi River falls into Lipari’s territory, which spans 27 states – including all of the Midwest and the whole East Coast including New England.

Product lines carried: Lipari’s product catalog includes product lines in more than half a dozen broad categories, including deli, bakery, dairy, meat and seafood, food service and packaging. The extensive selection includes everything from recognizable deli brands like Applegate Naturals to Lipari’s own proprietary brands, such as Dairy Fresh, Yoder’s, Amish Wedding, Dobrova, Jim’s Cheese and more.

By the numbers: All told, Lipari’s product catalog spans more than 31,000 unique items – around 24,000 of which are regularly stocked. The company has 9,000-plus customer accounts scattered throughout its 27-state territory, and serves those accounts with a workforce of more than 2,000 employees and a network of 55 depots. Those depots collectively encompass more than 500,000 square feet of combined warehouse space.

THE BEVERAGE DISTRIBUTORS

H. Cox & Son

Headquarters: Traverse City

The company: H. Cox & Son was founded in 1933 by businessman Herman Cox with the goal of distributing beer to businesses throughout a seven-county northern Michigan territory. Like so many other startups, the business began as a modest home-bound operation, with Herman running his distribution channels out of a small garage. In 1934, his son Clinton H. Cox came on board and the business moved from the garage to a brand-new warehouse on Eighth Street. Herman passed away in 1947, but H. Cox & Son has retained its family roots, with Clinton’s two sons – Chuck Cox and John Cox – joining in 1953, and with Chuck’s son-in-law, Mark Ribel, taking the reins in 1981. In 2012, Mark’s two sons – Mark Ribel II and Ryan Ribel – purchased the company from their father, becoming the fifth generation to take the baton in the long-running family business.

Service radius: H. Cox & Son continues to offer its beverage wholesaling services to accounts throughout a seven-county territory, including Antrim, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Wexford and Missaukee. In addition to its own territory, H. Cox & Son is part of the AllPoints Network, described as a group of 21 distributors forming a single network that spans the state of Michigan.

Product lines carried: H. Cox & Son is the local distributor of Anheuser-Busch beers – a portfolio that includes popular brands like Bud Light, Budweiser, Busch Light, Michelob Ultra, Kona, Shock Top, Stella Artois, and Rolling Rock. The Anheuser-Busch connection also means H. Cox & Son distributes for breweries ensconced in Brewers Collective, which includes craft brewing holdings such as Goose Island, Breckenridge Brewery and Elysian. In addition, thanks in part to a 1994 acquisition of the Traverse City beer and wine distributor Ameel Distributing Co., H. Cox & Son is diversified beyond beer, with offerings in wine, soda, cider, seltzers, mixed spirit drinks and non-alcoholic beverages.

By the numbers: H. Cox & Son has more than 60 full-time employees, services more than 540 retail accounts statewide, and operates a fleet of 15 delivery trucks.

Great Lakes Wine & Spirits

Location: Highland Park

The company: The roots of Great Lakes Wine & Spirits date back to 1935, when an entrepreneur named J. Lewis Cooper, Sr. opened the Cooper Miner Grocery Store in Pontiac. In the 1940s, the business started distributing wine. Then, in 1978, Syd Ross, a long-time sales and management employee with the J. Lewis Cooper Company, left the business and launched a Detroit-based enterprise focused exclusively on wine distribution called General Wine. Over the years, both companies thrived, expanding their distribution scope and reach significantly. In 2007 Ross and Lewis Cooper III merged their two companies, and Great Lakes Wine & Spirits was born. Today, it is the largest alcohol beverage wholesaler in the state of Michigan.

Service radius: Great Lakes Wine & Spirits today services all 83 Michigan counties. Though the business remains based in the Detroit area, it operates facilities throughout the state, including northern Michigan depots in both Traverse City and Gaylord. “We’re local everywhere” is one of the company’s slogans.

Product lines carried: True to its roots as a wine distributor, Great Lakes Wine & Spirits offers what it calls the most comprehensive selection of wines in the Michigan market. That list includes more than 6,000 unique products, including wines from nearly every major wine-producing region in the world. Several northern Michigan wineries are among the brands distributed by Great Lakes, including Mawby, Traverse Bay Winery, Chateau Grand Traverse and Hawthorne. The company says that its employees receive continuous wine training to be able to act as reliable resource in helping clients navigate the wine world. Great Lakes Wine & Spirits also touts a selection of 3,000 spirits, hundreds of beers and mixers like Angostura bitters.

By the numbers: According to the Great Lakes Wine & Spirits website, the company currently serves approximately 10,000 customers throughout the state of Michigan. The business is able to manage the scope of that clientele by having more than 800 employees spread across facilities in seven Michigan cities. Also crucial to the size and reach of the business? A 24-hour-per-day operations schedule, including overnight warehouse crews.

Griffin Beverage Company

Headquarters: West Branch

The company: Griffin Beverage Company got its start in 1967 as a partnership between husband-and-wife team Bob Griffin Sr. and Nancy Griffin and a fellow beverage industry maven named Richard Templeton. At the time, the business was split between two locations, with the Griffins running operations in West Branch and Templeton taking the helm at a Traverse City bottling facility. Distribution was just part of the game back then, with the Griffins selling beer and wine from brands like Anheuser-Busch to the West Branch area. But the bottling operation was arguably the company’s core, with the plant in Traverse City producing soft drinks like Coca Cola and Crush. The business moved more into the distribution and wholesale side of things over time, acquiring other companies that expanded its service territory into the Upper Peninsula and down toward the southern part of the state. In 1978, the Griffins and Templeton dissolved their partnership. Griffin Beverage has not had a direct presence in the Traverse City area since, though it continues to serve the area as a distributor.

Service radius: Despite the fact that it no longer has a northwest Lower Michigan location, Griffin Beverage continues to manage a service area that covers most of the northern part of the state, including Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet counties. In total, the company serves 43 of Michigan’s 83 counties, covering 27,273 square miles. Much of that territory falls in the Upper Peninsula, where Griffin operates two warehouses: one in Marquette and one in St. Ignace.

Product lines carried: Griffin Beverage has a selection that includes a variety of Michigan brands in both beer (Founders, Bell’s, North Peak, Jolly Pumpkin, Great Lakes Brewing) and wine (Black Star Farms, Mackinaw Trails Winery, Chateau Grand Traverse), along with some of the most prominent non-alcoholic drink brands currently on the market (Lacroix, Faygo, Nestle).

By the numbers: Across five warehouses (in addition to West Branch, Marquette, and St. Ignace, the business has a footprint in both Alpena and Saginaw), Griffin Beverage employs approximately 210 people and owns a fleet of 45 route trucks. One hundred and twenty of those employees work out of the West Branch location, which services the northern Michigan region.

Alliance Beverage Distributing

Headquarters: Grand Rapids

The company: The legend of Alliance Beverage Distributing is that the business’s founder, a Chicagoan by the name of Larry Gary, had two ideas for the type of business he should open when he moved to Grand Rapids. One idea was a bowling alley. The second idea was a beer distribution company. Gary opted for the latter and the business – then known as Kent Beverage – was born. In 2013, Kent Beverage merged with another Michigan beer distributor, called B&B Beer, and the businesses (fittingly) changed their name to Alliance Beverage Distributing.

Service radius: Alliance distributes to the entire western half of Lower Michigan.

Product lines carried: Alliance is a distributor of choice for a long list of Michigan craft breweries, including Founders, Bell’s, Right Brain, New Holland, Petoskey, Beards, Atwater, Arbor, Blackrocks, Brewery Vivant and Earthen Ales. The company also distributes wine from a lengthy list of wineries from all around the world, including local winemakers like Chateau Chantal, Chateau Grand Traverse and Leelanau Cellars.

By the numbers: According to the Alliance website, the company currently has more than 450 team members in Michigan, servicing more than 5,000 accounts throughout the western part of the state. The business addresses the needs of that sizable clientele thanks in part to a geographically diversified structure, including three distribution facilities and six sales offices spread throughout the communities Alliance serves. One of those sales offices can be found right here in Traverse City.

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