October 21, 2020

Forged In Fire

Michael Lahti took the helm of a Traverse City food company just as the pandemic was starting
By Craig Manning | Sept. 19, 2020

As the new managing director for Traverse City’s Tamarack Holdings, Michael Lahti is helping to lead a company that is one of the biggest players in northern Michigan’s food and agriculture industries. And it’s a job that, had things gone a little differently, he might not ever have taken.

“I can say that if I knew COVID was going to happen at the time that I was offered the position, I may not have taken the job,” Lahti told the Northern Express, before quickly adding a qualifier: “But that's only because I didn't realize the perfect opportunity to take the position during a difficult time like COVID. Because there's fear of the unknown, right? Leaving a comfortable position and venturing into something new is always a little scary, and that’s even before you add a pandemic to it.”

Tamarack Holdings is a collective of businesses geared toward getting Michigan-grown food from the farm to restaurants, retail stores, and institutions throughout the state and beyond. Lahti’s eclectic background seems to have prepared him well to lead the three-entity company.  A year ago, the Grand Valley State University grad was working in the construction industry as the general manager for Old Mission Windows. Before that, he’d spent nearly seven years at Black Star Farms, moving up the ranks from wine cellar employee to the winery’s CFO and director of operations. Even by then, his career had already jumped from commercial lending (his degree from Grand Valley is in finance) to manufacturing.

Lahti’s first few months in the Tamarack Holdings leadership role have certainly followed a “forged in fire” narrative. His first interview for the job was a phone screening conducted while he was in a hospital bed with a ruptured spleen. His first in-person interviews took place in February, the last month that anyone could fairly describe as “normal.” The final interview – and the job offer – came in March, just before COVID-19 impacted the United States. Lahti started the job on April 7.

On paper, Lahti acknowledges his timing looks a bit nightmarish. He took the helm of a food-driven business just as Michigan descended into a lengthy stay-at-home order, as schools shut down, and as the restaurant industry cratered. For Tamarack Holdings as an organization, the pandemic could have easily spelled the start of troubled times.

As the parent company for three entities – Cherry Capital Foods, Food for Thought, and Earthy Delights – Tamarack Holdings plays roles ranging from food distributor to restaurant consultant to advocate for sustainable food. Cherry Capital Foods, for instance, works with farmers, growers, and other producers in Michigan to sell produce, protein, wild mushrooms, and other foods into three main channels: retail, restaurants, and institutions (including K-12 schools).

All of those channels have been impacted by COVID-19, though the shifts have actually led Tamarack Holdings to one of its biggest years ever.

Wendy Becker, vice president of marketing and sales for Tamarack, said Cherry Capital Foods has sold more produce in 2020 than in any previous year on record. While the company’s restaurant business has “decreased almost by half,” Becker said a huge boost in retail business – and even a slight growth trend in the category of institutions, thanks to funding that allowed many K-12 school districts to distribute free meal packages to students and families – has enabled Cherry Capital Foods to stay stable through COVID-19.

Lahti credits the team at Tamarack Holdings for the unexpectedly strong 2020 numbers – and for making his first months on the job much more positive than he thought they might be.

“What I was able to realize is that this was actually the best time to jump into an organization like this,” Lahti said. “Everybody on this team stepped up and was able to grab hold as the organization shifted. We had to shift gears and I can't name one person in this organization that shied away from that. It was, ‘Alright, we've got this challenge. These are the channels we have to ship to; these are the people we have to mobilize; these are the risks we have.’ From every corner of this organization, I was able to see the strengths [of this team].”

That’s not to say it’s been an easy first five months on the job for Lahti. The new managing director describes himself as “a very interpersonal person…driven by genuine relationships.” Building those relationships – with the rest of the Tamarack Holdings team, with farmers and suppliers, with restaurants and institutional clients – has been uniquely challenging in the age of Google Teams meetings and remote work. Despite the extra barriers, though, Lahti says building strong relationships has remained the core tenet of both his leadership style and the broader Tamarack Holdings approach. Those factors have proved to be the company’s secret weapon in an uncertain time.

“We're a very relationship-driven company,” Lahti said. “If you were to ask what really sets us apart from a lot of our competitors, it’s that we take a vested interest in our agricultural partners – whether it's a processor, whether it's a value-added supplier, whether it's a farmer – as well as our customers. We really want to find out what their needs are and to help them grow. We get to know them personally. We get to know what their challenges are. We help them mitigate those. Our goal is to create a streamlined connection from supply to consumer.”

That focus – on understanding pain points and helping solve them – is part of what has enabled Tamarack Holdings to pivot successfully during the pandemic. For instance, rather than leave growers and producers to shift gears on their own, Tamarack has worked to understand the changing trends in the retail environment and to advise farmers on how they might change their product offerings to serve new market needs. The business has also been working “consultatively” with restaurants to help them redefine menus, seize new opportunities in the takeout space, and more.

The good news for Tamarack Holdings – and for Lahti as he grows into his new leadership role – is that the pandemic hasn’t eliminated consumer interest in quality farm-to-table food. While a spring of closures and a summer of 50-percent-capacity dining rooms have been difficult on the restaurant industry, Becker says it’s also led many consumers to take more ownership of the food they buy, prepare, and eat at home.

“More people are cooking at home and they’re cooking more complicated recipes at home,” Becker said. “So we think [COVID-19] has brought awareness to that fact that it's more important than ever to know where food comes from. There's been a dose of reality over some of the national shortages or some of the large processing plants that have been shut down. We think that's going to affect the consumer mindset. They are really looking for things that are produced, grown or made closer to home, and that falls right into our playbook. There was always this growing farm-to-table movement; the coronavirus has really just expanded that and made it more mainstream and more top-of-mind for consumers.”

That extra level of interest from the average consumer is reflected in Tamarack Holdings’ revenue numbers for the year. In the past, Becker notes that retail channels and restaurants would have each comprised about 35 percent of sales for Cherry Capital Foods, with institutions making up the remaining 30 percent. In 2020, retail has accounted for almost 60 percent of sales, with restaurants falling to around 10 percent. The shift has changed the way Tamarack Holdings targets the market – at least for the time being.

“Every connection that we're making going forward [with a producer or supplier], we are asking the question: ‘Can we retail-pack our products?’” Lahti said. “[Those smaller packs or individual sizes] seem to be the trend right now, rather than bulk ordering. But we're hoping restaurants come back on board. You figure if a vaccine is released and some of the smoke settles here, restaurants will come back. There's going to be a lot of used restaurant equipment out there, and a lot of empty spaces, and there's always an up-and-coming chef that's going to want to get started. So long-term, restaurants will come back. But right now, I think we're positioning more toward retail.”

Helping restaurants get back up to speed is certainly on Lahti’s goal sheet for his next six months at the helm – though he acknowledges that doing so will likely be a major hurdle. While restaurants throughout Michigan were limited to 50 percent capacity (or less) throughout the summer, many were saved by the ability to offer outdoor seating opportunities for their guests. As the days get shorter and the weather turns colder, those opportunities are dwindling, which could mean a difficult fall and winter for restaurants still limited in their ability to offer indoor seating. Tamarack Holdings is working with its restaurant partners to develop creative solutions – particularly as all parties prepare for the normally-bustling holiday season.

“One of the trends that we've seen in really successful restaurants operating in this new environment is with new, innovative, creative family meals,” Becker said. “And that's what we'll be working with restaurants on, particularly from now through the holidays. You probably won't be taking your aunt and uncle, your two kids, and your one grandkid out to a restaurant for Christmas Eve as you may have done in the past. Everything is going to be done at home, and people will have cooking exhaustion. So they'll want to pick up a beautifully pre-made cheese and charcuterie platter for Christmas Eve, or they'll want a wonderful Christmas morning brunch takeout. Those are the kinds of ideas that we'll be working with restaurants on, and sourcing great Michigan products to help them present.”

It's these types of creative solutions – and the ability to work with likeminded individuals in creating and implementing them – that has Lahti excited as he continues down the pathway of his tumultuous new job.

“I mean it when I say that I am thankful I get to be a part of this organization, and I that look forward to what we're going to accomplish in the future,” he said. “I don't believe there's a thing we can’t accomplish, and that’s because of the people that are on this team."

What Earthy Delights offers for home chefs
 Earthy Delights touts itself as “America’s premier supplier of specialty foods to quality-conscious American chefs and retailers.” Specifically, Earthy Delights focuses on wild mushrooms, dried mushrooms, truffles, truffle oil, and other gourmet, artisanal food products. During the pandemic, Earthy Delights has shifted toward serving home cooks, via an intuitive ecommerce platform and a diverse selection of unusual or hard-to-find products. But what does Earthy Delights offer that might inspire your next brilliant home cooking adventure? We picked out a few must-order items that you’re unlikely to find on the average grocery store shelf.

 * Dried Morel Mushrooms: Didn’t find any morels this spring? No problem: Earthy Delights has 4-ounce, 8-ounce, and 1-pound bags of dried morels in stock, with prices ranging from $65 to $220. If that sounds expensive, do note that rehydrating dried mushrooms will cause their weight to multiply by 6-8 times. Earthy Delights even offers a how-do guide on reconstituting dried mushrooms right on the product page, plus recipes for a few morel-driven dishes.

 * Barrel Aged Fish Sauce: We’ve all heard about barrel-aged beers, but what about barrel-aged fish sauce? Fish sauce is one of the key ingredients of most Asian cuisine, usually made from fermenting anchovies and salt for months at a time. You’ll find it in recipes for marinades, salad dressings, and old favorites like Pad Thai. On Earthy Delights, you can find the BLiS Barrel Aged Fish Sauce, a varietal aged for seven months in bourbon barrels that carries a unique sweet and smoky character you won’t get from your average grocery store fish sauce. A 200ml bottle goes for $24 on Earthy Delights.

 * Earthy Delights Truffle Oil: Truffle oils are regularly used by award-winning restaurant chefs to add that last extra kick of fine-dining flavor to dishes as diverse as French fries, pizzas, eggs, and even popcorn. Earthy Delights makes it own proprietary truffle oil, with 250ml bottles of both white and black truffle oil available for $24.50.

Find out for yourself which ingredients Earthy Delights has to offer by visiting earthy.com.

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