By Doug Graves
NORTHWOOD, Ohio – Oftentimes the journey of a company’s success takes winding turns and detours before finding its safe resting spot in the business world. Such is the case of Hirzel Canning Co., of Northwood.
It all began in 1922. Carl Hirzel was a German brew meister living in Buffalo, N.Y. When prohibition legally halted all liquor production, Carl and his wife, Lena, followed his brothers to the Toledo area looking for work. The Hirzels bought a farmhouse and 40 acres in Northwood, where they began growing cabbage, tomatoes, horseradish, alfalfa, carrots and potatoes.
Growing cabbage led the couple to making sauerkraut. They started shredding the cabbage and placing it in wooden drums to ferment and produce sauerkraut.
As a hobby, the couple also began canning whole tomatoes to be sold at local general stores. They became well-known as growers and food processors. The next year Hirzel Canning Co. was established.
Over the next 100 years, members of the third, fourth and fifth generations of the Hirzel family have helped grow the company by expanding its quality product offerings. Sauerkraut is still part of the business, sold under the Silver Fleece brand, but 90 percent of their business is in tomatoes under the Dei Fratelli brand that can be found in dozens of Toledo grocery stores and others across the country.
The company now has more than 160 people year-round on its staff. During tomato season that number increases to more than 300. Last year, the company preserved nearly 4,000 truckloads of vine-ripened fresh tomatoes. Not bad, especially for a company that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
While Hirzel grows much of its required tomatoes and cabbage, it elicits help from 30 growers in Ohio and southeast Michigan, calling these partnerships vital to the company’s success. The company relies on its 30 farms and greenhouses that leads to distribution of their products to 36 states from the Midwest to Florida and Texas.
“Their heart and soul and their attention to detail, it’s in the business,” said Steve Hirzel, president of Hirzel Canning Co. and fourth generation to take the helm of the company. “We’re not just a one-level business, we’re not just a buyer. It’s a partnership with growers, and if they aren’t successful, neither are we.”
The area around the company abuts Lake Erie. It’s known for its rich soil and natural rainfall. In the past 30 years many businesses in the area moved to California. One such company that relocated to California was H.J. Heinz, which had its world research facility in Haskins, Ohio. Hirzel bought the facility, which included a few buildings and 140 acres. A strong relationship between Hirzel Canning and its growers kept the company in northern Ohio.
“The key is not having to buy all your ingredients, but rather source them close by,” Hirzel said.
The company puts a strong emphasis on quality, which is why growers are paid by grade. Twenty years ago, the company hired Jeff Unverferth, a former Hirzel grower who now serves as the agriculture manager. He is the liaison between growers and the company. He meets with growers in January to pick seed varieties and planting dates.
For a century, the company’s mission has been to deliver a premium product at a reasonable value by sourcing vine-ripened tomatoes grown by area farmers, most within a half-hour of one of the company’s three processing facilities (in the cities of Ottawa, Pemberville and Northwood).
“We don’t compromise on quality ingredients, starting with the tomato,” Hirzel said. “Our grower base is phenomenal, and they understand and know it’s all about quality.”
The company has about 400 customers, including retailers such as Kroger and Meijer, as well as wholesale customers who use tomatoes for the base of their own brand names. Add to that restaurants, schools and health care institutions who also use Hirzel tomatoes.
“Many of those farms are family owned, which has helped us maintain a high level of quality produce,” Unverferth said. “We’re all kind of one family. If somebody has an issue with their family, we work together through those tough times.”
Unverferth, a fourth-generation tomato grower, has enjoyed seeing each family farm pass down to the next generation.
“What’s really been neat is, when I started, the grandfathers were still involved,” Unverferth said. “Now, they’ve kind of stepped back and their sons are my age and are now stepping into the operation. It’s just been unique to see the generations transfer over time.”
Unverferth said 41 percent of the growers Hirzel works with are second-generation farmers and another 41 percent are third-generation farmers. Many of these growers have relatives who worked with HIrzel.
Tom and John Koraleski, owners of Koraleski Greenhouse in Petersburg, Mich., have worked with Hirzel for decades. The family has operated a greenhouse since 1935.
Brothers Michael, Mason and Mitch Iott, owners of Iott Ranch and Orchard in Ida, Mich., said they’ve worked with Hirzel since 1997. The Iott brothers are fourth-generation farmers. The Iott Ranch started in 1958, originally named Iott Tomato Farms. The Iott family grows 900 acres of cabbage and 300 acres of tomatoes on 2,200 acres.
“It’s great, they’re very easy to work with,” Michael said. “Jeff (Unverferth) is out here about every week. He helps us out a ton.”
Growers have a choice of 13 tomato varieties with maturities from 90 to 120 days. Nine nearby greenhouses are contracted to plant and grow the transplants. On average, from harvest to packaging into various containers is between six and 10 hours.
“Later on this year we’ll be doing some additional things to celebrate the 100th anniversary that are going to be focused on donating product and generating product for local feeding organizations,” said Herb Milem, Hirzel director of retail sales. “It’s not too many family-owned businesses that can make it to that 100-year milestone.”