Going With the Flow: Tamarack shifts gears, continues growth
The word “pivot” has been thrown around a lot lately as businesses look to shift the way they and/or their employees function. That can mean people working from home, businesses offering curbside or delivery service or even changing what they do – think restaurants becoming small grocers or distilleries offering hand sanitizer.
For Tamarack Holdings, pivoting has meant changing the way its three core divisions do business. Earthy Delights has become an e-commerce site focused on home cooks, Food For Thought is crafting new products and flavors and Cherry Capital Foods has moved from primarily serving the restaurant industry to grocery stores.
Overseeing these changes are owner JT “Chip” Hoagland, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Wendy Becker, and Mike Lahti, who took on the position of managing director in April.
What Lahti found in his new job was a team that was committed to its business, however and whatever that business morphed into.
“Nobody expected a pandemic,” he said. “We have people with different skills and experience. We’ve been able to shift gears.”
Shifting gears is something Lahti is familiar with. Lahti spent a year in the construction industry after seven years at Black Star Farms as general manager and director of operations.
“I had the pleasure of working with Don Coe (the former co-owner of Black Star Farms) for seven years,” Lahti said.
After leaving the financial industry downstate, he found working at Black Star Farms to be a great experience, but he wanted to keep exploring industries. So he went to work with Old Mission Windows.
“The construction industry gave me a different perspective, an opportunity to see how somebody else did things,” he said.
While he enjoyed his time there, he found he missed the food industry and jumped at the opportunity to work for Tamarack.
“I saw this as a chance of a lifetime,” Lahti said.
Of course, that was before the pandemic brought the economy, particularly the restaurant industry, to nearly a complete halt. Nevertheless, Lahti says he is happy and gratified to be onboard.
“The human spirit is resilient, and our people are very resilient,” Lahti said, adding that his team has a can-do attitude no matter what this happens to be. “Next year, if 90% of business is retail, that’s where we’re going to be.”
Hoagland said he was looking for a leader who could think ahead, which became of paramount importance as the coronavirus hit. He cited the recommendation of his friend and Lahti’s former employer Don Coe.
“What will the new normal be and how can we tap into those opportunities? Mike will provide the kind of creativity and flexibility we will need to continue to grow and succeed,” he said.
Lahti said working with smaller customers and helping them – whether restaurants or retail – is important.
“We want to support moms and pops. We want to be the organization they can depend on,” he said. “We’ve been able to step in and help.”
At the same time, Tamarack is always looking to expand, including working with larger companies.
“Our two largest customers are Kroger and Meijer,” said Becker.
And while schools are closed, their food programs aren’t. Many school districts began delivering directly to students and their families, and Tamarack was there to provide some of the products needed. Cherry Capital Foods sold approximately 50 tons of apples in April and May sourced from Michigan farms – Friske Orchards in Ellsworth, Gavin Orchards in Coopersville, and Bardenhagen Farms in Suttons Bay – helping schools across the state provide nutritious meals to food insecure families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re nimble and smart,” said Hoagland. “We turned on a dime to retail grocery and schools and institutions.”
He compares the company amid the current pandemic to what happened when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago.
“We’re the little mammals running around,” he said with a laugh.
Lahti even goes so far as to say the crisis presented an opportunity for the organization to become better.
“When you stress systems, you learn where the fractures are,” he said.
As important as helping their customers survive the economic downturn is, another of the company’s hallmarks is its civic works.
“A priority under Chip’s leadership has been to be a good community citizen,” said Becker.
That’s reflected in both its work with groups such as local schools, with Detroit’s Eastern Market (preparing food boxes for those in need) and The Cook’s House in Traverse City (preparing meals for doctors and nurses at Munson). It regularly donates to Food Rescue and in 2020 won the Grand Rapids-based Good For Michigan – Good For Employees award.
When Tamarack acquired the specialty food company Food For Thought, it also included the Long Lake campus, formerly Long Lake Elementary School. It has since reopened following all MIOSHA health protocols. Hoagland said some of the goals of the campus, such as a teaching kitchen and expanding retail operations, are yet to be realized, but he’s confident that it will grow and succeed.