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Local or not?

A brief guide to whether 'Detroit' brands are really from here

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Published 8/19/2009

It's not always easy knowing for certain what's local and what's not. Part of it depends on how you want to define the term. In reality, there's a spectrum of what qualifies as local, with the purest light coming from those companies that are locally owned with local manufacturing facilities. Then there are the corporations that might have some manufacturing facilities in an area, but the profits end up going to headquarters located elsewhere. At least they are providing jobs here, and perhaps buying supplies and services from other local vendors, giving a boost to the local economy. You can also find examples where a corporation has its headquarters in the area, but no production facilities. Meanwhile, brands that have deep roots in a city can change owners, who then move production out of state, making the only real local connection the memories that linger. 

To help sort things out, here's a (by no means exhaustive) rundown of some familiar names and their current status. 


Better Made potato chips
It doesn't get more local than this. As noted in the company history posted on its website, "Better Made's 70 years of progress have all been made in Detroit, using Michigan potatoes for eight months of the year …"

Located on Gratiot Avenue, the company is still privately held. Salvatore "Sam" Cipriano, son of one of the company's two co-founders, is its president and CEO. His sister, Catherine Gusmano, runs the sales side of things. Along with chips, these days the company also makes pretzels, popcorn, beef jerky and pork rinds.

Carhartt clothes The maker of durable clothing for working men and women — we're talking about real working folks, such as construction workers and farmers — got its start in southeast Michigan in 1889, when Hamilton Carhartt opened for business with four sewing machines and five employees. Still family-owned after all these years, the company's headquarters are still in Dearborn. However, neither cloth nor garments are manufactured here.

Faygo soda The iconic Detroit soda is still bottled here, but in terms of ownership, the company hasn't been a local one for a long time. Founded in 1907 by the Feigenson brothers — Russian immigrants trained as bakers — Faygo was sold to TreeSweet in 1986. A year later it was bought by Florida-based National Beverage Corp., which also includes another formerly homegrown favorite, EverFresh juices, among its labels. By the way, before it became part of a conglomerate, one of the owners of EverFresh was mobster Vito "Billy Jack" Giacalone.

Jiffy brand mixes They've been milling flour at the family-owned Chelsea Milling Company for more than a century. But it was the introduction of the Jiffy line of packaged baking mixes in 1930 that really put the company on the map. Still family-owned — company president Howdy Holmes is the grandson of Mabel White Holmes, who came up with the idea of producing mixes so simple even men couldn't screw them up — Jiffy continues to mill its own flour, and even makes the boxes the mixes come packaged in. A lot of boxes. The company claims to turn out 1.6 million packages of cake, muffin and other mixes every day.

Kowalski meats Another immigrant success story, the Kowalski Sausage Co. sprang from the smokehouse of a small grocery owned by Agnes and Zygmunnd Kowalski on Chene Street in Detroit more than 85 years ago. Still family-owned and -managed, the company has long been headquartered in Hamtramck, where it has two manufacturing facilities: one for its meat products, the other for its potato salads and similar fare. The company employs about 85 people.

Pioneer State Mutual Insurance When one of the Metro Times staff recently began shopping around for home insurance, he found a real bargain in the policy offered by Flint-based Pioneer State Mutual Insurance Co. An agent explained that one of the reasons it was able to offer such a good deal is that the company only writes policies in Michigan, which is spared the hurricanes and earthquakes that make insuring homes in other parts of the country more of a risk. That, he said, and the fact that Pioneer doesn't advertise. Compare that to State Farm, a company based in Bloomfield, Ill., that currently has billboards up around metro Detroit urging people to "buy local." 

Pioneer Sugar The Michigan Sugar Company's motto is: "Locally grown. Locally owned." Believe it. The Michigan Sugar Company, which produces the brands Pioneer and Big Chief, was formed in 1906 with the merger of six independent outfits that all made their sweet product from sugar beets. The company became a cooperative in 2002, and is now owned by about 1,200 growers. Although a few dozen of those farmers are located in Ontario, the vast majority can be called pure Michigan. With headquarters in Bay City, the nation's third largest sugar producer claims to generate "nearly $400 million in direct economic activity annually in the local communities" in which it operates.

Sanders candy and toppings The Detroit company founded by German immigrant Frederick Sanders Schmidt in 1875 has produced some of the area's favorite treats over the years, including its Bumpy Cake and fudge toppings. The bad news is that it was sold in 2002. The good news is that it was bought by the Morley Candy Co., another local favorite, known for its chocolates. Founded in 1919, Morley is located in Clinton Township, with its main factory on Hall Road. You can even tour the place.

Stroh's beer It wasn't exactly the beer that made Detroit famous, but it was the brew people associated with the Motor City. The cooler at your local party store may still be stocked with the suds Bernhard Stroh began brewing here in 1850, but that is as far as any local connection goes these days. After a period of expansion in the 1980s and '90s, when it began acquiring other labels, the company was broken up and sold off in pieces in 1999. Pabst Brewing Co. acquired many of the labels, including Stroh's.

Stroh's ice cream As with its bubbly kin, the ice cream first made by Stroh's brewers as a way to help the company weather Prohibition no longer has any direct ties to the city. A subsidiary of the family-owned brewery, the ice cream company was sold to Melody Farms in 1989, and sold again, to Dallas-based Dean Foods, in 2005. In 2007 the Detroit facility that manufactured Stroh's ice cream and several other brands was shuttered, and production was moved to a plant in Belvidere, Ill.

Vernor's ginger ale Another celebrated Detroit product (until the mid-1980s, the winking gnome of its logo was a Detroit icon) that is no longer a Detroit product. Originally created by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor, the distinctive drink made from syrup aged in oak barrels was introduced to the public in 1866. Vernor's heirs sold the business a century later, and it has changed hands a few times since then. It is now owned by the Dr. Pepper/Snapple group, which is based in Plano, Texas. The flagship Vernor's bottling plant on Woodward Avenue in Detroit was closed in 1985.

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