Artisans in the Country
Four delightful makers
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, Josie Schneider, Laura Lyjack Crawford
From the December, 2016 issue
Alpacas in the Mist
Saline's Two Branch Ranch
Weekend visitors to the Saline Farmers Market can't miss Mark and Sue Schalk of Two Branch Ranch. As Mark operates a sock-knitting machine, Sue knits, crochets, and sells skeins of alpaca yarns, socks, blankets, scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, and rugs-all in glorious rainbows of colors.
During weekdays, Mark works for Ford in Dearborn, Sue for Truven in Ann Arbor, but for more than a decade they have spent nights and weekends working on their home-based business in a log cabin they built southwest of Saline.
"Our business started when we bought thirty-five acres that included two branches of the Macon River," Sue says, as she re-skeins alpaca wool she has just finished dyeing and drying. "That was in 2000. After we built our home, we wanted a way to help us pay for our taxes and save for retirement. We didn't have enough land to farm, but we had enough to raise animals. One day Mark asked me, 'What do you think about alpacas?' I barely knew what an alpaca was."
Alpacas, they discovered, are relatively low maintenance and "easy on the land"-their two-toed feet don't tear up pastures like hooves do. The Schalks launched their business with three males; their herd now numbers nineteen. "Although the USDA classifies alpacas as a source of meat-which is very lean and very healthy-few people are interested in trying alpaca," Sue says. "So we learned to shear, grade, and dye the wool." The Saline Community Fair's 1999 Homemaker of the Year, Sue was already a needleworker, so knitting and crocheting came naturally to her. When Mark found a rug loom at a yard sale, she contacted friends in the Spinners Flock of Chelsea, who taught her how to set it up and use it. Soon afterwards, she bought a blanket loom. When she's not weaving rugs or blankets, she is knitting or crocheting. "We don't sleep much," she says, laughing.
During the spring shearing, each alpaca produces
between five and seven pounds of fiber, all of which can be used. ("Unlike sheeps' wool," she says, "where 50 percent of the fiber is lost because it's full of lanolin.") Sue uses environmentally friendly detergents to wash the fibers, and then she spins, dyes, and skeins them, and puts them to work. Her handwoven blankets sell for $300 ("they're very labor-intensive"), two-by-three-foot rugs for $100, scarves for $35 to $65, and socks starting at $20.
She notes that they have a small online presence, but "most of our sales come from the farmers market" and occasional craft fairs. "People seem to want to feel the texture, smell the wool, and choose from the colors at hand. We always meet someone who tells us, 'I can buy a scarf for a lot less at Walmart.' Those aren't the customers we attract."
In addition to the Saline indoor farmers market Saturdays, the Schalks will be at the Ann Arbor City Club Art & Craft Festival Dec. 3. twobranchranch.org
-Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
Dexter's woodsy, world-class chocolatier
"Earthy, fruity notes," says Priscilla, a halter-topped young woman from Mexico, as the flavors swirl in her mouth.
"It finished with a nutty flavor," declares Glenn, a small business owner from New Jersey.
It's not a wine tasting-this event is all about chocolate. On the plate are samples from Madagascar, Vietnam, and Belize, as well as one made deep in the woods outside Dexter. These high-end chocolates are extremely potent, and the sample from Dexter's Mindo Chocolate is clean and vibrant.
The class is part of the four-day bean-to-bar seminar held at Mindo's unlikely headquarters, the home of founders Barbara Wilson and José Meza. When the attendees are asked at the end of the day what they thought of the seminar, every one launches into an impassioned speech filled with gratitude and reverence for the couple and their chocolate. Mindo, the students say, is the go-to knowledge base for chocolate in the world.
"Oh, they've come from Korea, Bolivia-all over," says Wilson of the people they've taught. Wilson, fifty-eight, and Meza, sixty-seven-who Wilson says is the true entrepreneur-have carved out five distinct chocolate-related businesses encompassing hospitality, manufacturing, teaching, and brokering-here in Dexter as well as in Mindo, Ecuador, the company's namesake.
The businesses are flourishing, but so are their loftier goals: paying cacao farmers fairly and disseminating knowledge. Such attitudes and practices help shape Mindo as a big player in the world of chocolate. Yet at the core of Mindo's success are first-rate products: chocolate bars, baking chocolate disks, cocoa powder, and hot chocolate, all award winners at the 2016 International Chocolate Salon, an annual competition held in San Francisco.
But driving down a long dirt road to Mindo Chocolate's factory and headquarters outside Dexter feels quite the opposite of heading toward an international powerhouse. Set back among towering hickory and maple trees, the two-story house has been renovated into more of a factory for the company, which now includes the couple's niece and general manager Dana Romaker plus three other full-time and seven part-time employees. Wilson and Meza share their living space with fifty-pound bags of raw cacao beans, machinery, coworkers, and visitors.
It all started in 2007. Meza is originally from Riobamba, Ecuador. He and Wilson traveled there after Meza retired from their successful ArborMotion auto repair business in Ann Arbor and bought land in Mindo. As the idea for a chocolate business grew, Wilson and Meza cultivated relationships with cacao farmers, paid them higher than commodity prices for their superior nacional variety of beans, (the only variety Mindo purchases), and helped change how cacao beans are brought to market. They make chocolate both in Dexter and Mindo, where their chocolate- producing factory has made it possible for cacao farmers to taste, for the first time, chocolate made from their own beans.
Mindo's products are available throughout Michigan, including at Dexter Pharmacy, Hackney Hardware, Joe and Rosie Coffee and Tea in Dexter, and Global Marketplace in Chelsea. Beginning in November, Mindo will also host weekend workshops and classes in Dexter on chocolate making and cooking; information at mindochocolate.com.
Chelsea Soft Sell
Little Flower Soap
Holly Rutt was studying business at EMU when she tried soap crafted by her roommate's sister. She loved how it made her skin feel, and soon the roommates traveled to the sister's northern Ontario home to learn soap making. "I came home on fire, ready to make soap," Rutt says. She also came home with 125 bars of freshly made soap, which she gave to guests at her wedding. They loved it and requested more, and Rutt began selling her handmade wares at craft fairs and in small stores.
She launched the Little Flower Soap Co. in 2010. In addition to soaps, she makes beautifully packaged lip balms, bath salts, and healing salves, which she sells through etsy.com and her own website. She also took her skin care products to major craft shows, where she quickly attracted attention from media and retailers including Martha Stewart and Country Living. Not a bad start.
Initially, Rutt, thirty-three, and her husband, Justin, a newly minted doctor of osteopathy, operated Little Flower out of their home in Grosse Pointe Woods. In May, the couple moved into an 1840s farmhouse on a couple of idyllic acres just outside of Chelsea. The Werkner Rd. property includes a small barn that they're renovating as a studio and retail outlet for Little Flower. For now, she's still working out of her home and will host open houses in November and December.
Little Flower soap stands out from other handmade soaps for its use of tallow (rendered beef fat). This traditional ingredient isn't used much by today's soap makers, who prefer vegetable fats. Rutt blends it with coconut and olive oil, but says tallow is what makes Little Flower soap hard, long lasting, and moisturizing. For fragrance, Rutt uses only plant-derived oils certified by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
She is committed to keeping her business small and local. She points to a book by Zingerman's Ari Weinzweig on her coffee table and says with a laugh, "I'm following the Prophet Ari."
Rutt has hired several local women to help but says, "I don't want to grow too fast or too big. I want a lifestyle that lets me make my living by hand and contribute to the community I live in."
Alongside Weinzweig, her other inspiration is Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower" for whom Rutt, a Catholic, named her business. Thérèse made it her life's mission to "do small things with great love," a philosophy that Rutt takes to heart.
"That's what I try to do with my business," she says, "I make small things with love."
Little Flower soap is sold at Serendipity Books and Bumble's Dry Goods in Chelsea and Found in Ann Arbor's Kerrytown. Open house dates (7228 Werkner Rd.): November 18, November 25, December 9, Dec. 16. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. littleflowersoap.com
-Laura Lyjak Crawford
Super Sour Manchester
Tall Paul's Pickle Passion
Paul Majewski's story reads like a children's book: Paul was always taller than every other kid. He grew up in suburban Detroit with three siblings and a passion for sports and vegetables … especially his family's homemade crock dills.
That happy summer memory grew into a hobby that became a passion-and, ultimately, a business. This summer-the third for Tall Paul's Pickles-the business turned the corner. "We now have positive cash flow from sales and receivables," Majewski says with relief. "We've been working on back orders for the last four months."
But that's jumping ahead of our story.
"When I was seventeen years old and six feet seven inches tall, I started making pickles with my Auntie Geri in Greenbrier, Arkansas," Majewski says. "I owe my success to her-she gave me the old family recipe for spicy dill pickles that had been handed down by my Polish great-grandmother."
Majewski, who grew to six feet ten, initially made fifteen or twenty jars of pickles every summer for his family, growing the cucumbers, garlic, and dill on his wife's family farm outside Manchester while working full time for Aflac Insurance. Then friends started asking for pickles. His summer production rose to fifty, then sixty, then seventy jars. "You've got something special here," friends insisted.
When the demand reached 150 jars a year, Majewski launched Tall Paul's Pickles with some financial help from those friends-"enough to give me a start, but not enough to lose friendships over." His logo features the signature red jalapeño peppers that give the original recipe the spicy kick. With leftover brine, he began making standard dill pickles, which now outsell the spicy dills two to one. "Next year, we plan to start making relish and a chow mix that has carrots, cukes, cauliflower, and celery in our brine, and I hope to go into the business full time. But we won't expand to sweet pickles. We like our niche," he says.
Tall Paul's is building a dedicated customer base through sales at area supermarkets. As one customer paid for her first jar of Tall Paul's Pickles, the cashier at Tippins Market nodded approvingly. "These are my all-time favorite pickles. Whenever I open the jar, I feel as if they were made just for me."
The Majewskis continue to raise the peppers, dill, and garlic on their Manchester farm but now use other Michigan growers for cukes. "Cucumbers are harder to grow," he explains. "I want to concentrate on the business, not the garden." He now processes pickles in a commercial kitchen on Jackson Rd. in Scio Township, but plans to expand Tall Paul's into a larger facility down the road. Currently they average 1,500 jars a month. Their goal is to process 3,000 jars a month between Memorial Day and Halloween. When they can manage 4,000 a month, they'll work with distributors; for now they deliver the jars themselves.
"As we grow, our first priority is to create a formula to maintain quality. That's hard. But we will never do anything to compromise our quality. We make pickles with passion, not for the money. If we follow our passion, we'll be doing something right. And down the road the money will come."
Tall Paul's Pickles are sold at Busch's, Plum Market, Knight's Market, and Tippins. For special orders, go to tallpaulspickles.com or call (734) 474-4569.
-Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
[Originally published in December, 2016.]
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