A Hirzel employee sprays down tomato processing equipment during the Ag Tour organized by Putnam County Soil & Water in August 2019. (file photo)
A Hirzel employee sprays down tomato processing equipment during the Ag Tour organized by Putnam County Soil & Water in August 2019. (file photo)

(Editor's note: The version of the article that follows contain further details in addition to what was published in print on April 15.)

OTTAWA — At the height of harvest during late summer or early fall, Hirzel Canning in Ottawa processes approximately 1,000 tons of tomatoes during a typical day. Roughly 50-60 truckloads deliver 22 tons each of tomatoes grown by farmers throughout southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, including here in Putnam County.

Hirzel Canning then turns those tomatoes into 30-gallon barrels and 300 gallon totes of diced tomatoes and crushed tomato bases for food-industry customers. Those customers then use these ingredients in their own food products. At a very similar but separate processing facility, the company also supplies its own Dei Fratelli brand of chopped tomatoes and sauces.

As a national company that deals with farmers in the field, commercial food producers, chain restaurants and their local and high-end counterparts, along with suppliers to major and minor grocery store chains, Hirzel Canning has a unique perspective on the system that supplies food to our nation.

The company’s product also places it in a unique position, as its President and CEO, Steve Hirzel, explained during a phone conversation this past Monday. Unlike the “on-demand” nature of much of American manufacturing, including food production, Hirzel creates the entirety of their shelf-stable product in a few short weeks. It then sells the stored products from their warehouses, or uses them as ingredients for sauces, salsas, or similar items it produces for food-industry clients and itself throughout the year. After harvest and processing, Hirzel Canning usually has about 15-months worth of typical demand on hand.

These days, of course, are anything but typical. “It’s been an interesting four weeks,” Mr. Hirzel says. “Something I’ve never seen, and I’ve been doing this for close to 24-25 years.”

“Right now, we’re starting to run product in our Pemberville facility in 15-ounce cans. We’re working out of our warehouses, out of the [300 gallon] totes. We’re making some spaghetti sauce and tomato soup that’s primarily for the food banks. Because they’re in dire need.”

“We’re making this sauce for the food banks, because we’ve just heard the need, especially in the last two to three weeks. We’ve gotten calls from a lot of food banks all over the country. I mean, they can just not get product.”

“This is our 97th year,” he continues a bit later. “We’ve got a lot of experience doing this. You know that there’s going to be some rough crop years. You know that there’s going to be some rough market years. There’s going to be some good market years. You can just never predict them, so you try to find a happy medium where you always have as much product as you can available, but not too much.”

So, how then do things stand for the company now? Are they well-positioned to weather this storm?

“Oh yeah, extremely. We’re highly diversified. For retail, we have the Dei Fratelli brand, and we do some private label [for other retailers]. The brand is the biggest portion of our business and retail is a little over 50% of our total revenue. And, that’s what seems to be going crazy right now.”

“Consumers are running to the store and grabbing our type of product. Something shelf stable they can put in the cupboard and pull out to make something pretty easily out of it. That seems to be where all the demand is right now.”

“Our foodservice business, mostly restaurants, a little bit of health care, a little bit of schools, [it] usually it runs about 25% of our total revenue, sometimes a little less. That’s completely, or almost nearly, entirely shut down right now.”

“These restaurants are in terrible shape,” Mr. Hirzel says with a good deal of emphasis. “They can’t operate. Of course, many are trying to do take-home, and things like that. But, we mostly sell to sit-down restaurants with white tablecloths. People looking for high-quality tomato products that they can cook with. That portion of our business is pretty well just stopped right now.”

“I’m not worried about us. I’m worried about the distributors and that whole supply chain, as well as the restaurant, the users. But, the retail side has more than made up for it. Our numbers have jumped up 45% for what we’re shipping to retail over the last four weeks.”

“I cannot tell you, or predict what’s going to happen over the next two, to four, to six weeks. I just don’t know. Nobody knows. But, it’s really picked up recently because consumers are demanding it.”

“And, that remaining 20-28% of our business with the bulk [processed tomatoes] down in Ottawa. That’s what we would sell directly to a user, to a manufacturer. Somebody that will pull the tomatoes out of the tote and make something out of it. We sell to quite a bit of people that make retail products. Their demand is up too, so that’s up a little bit as well.”

“So, two segments of the business has increased, and it’s more than making up for the foodservice. So, we’re very, very fortunate. That diversification has played out well, and it’s kind of who we are. We’ve done a little bit of a lot of things, and it serves us well. It gives us a lot of flexibility to move with the market when it’s evolving in one area over another.”

Mr. Hirzel is then asked how the company is meeting the demand he spoke of from the nation’s food bank, and what his company is doing locally.

In response, he explains that the company’s operations are currently working at capacity, and so they work with food pantry distributors who can match Hirzel’s scale of production, such as the Ohio Association of Food Banks, Feed the Children, and Feed America. These types organizations are able to take and redistribute entire truckloads of product. Which is a much more efficient means of providing large quantities of food to high volumes of people.

Mr. Hirzel adds that he does believe informal arrangements have been made to allow for a local organization to come “grab a half a pallet,” every now and then, but there is no organized system of support at that level.

Mr. Hirzel also details the company’s efforts at keeping its own employees safe. In addition to the strict standards already enforced as part of a food production facility, the company has introduced a number of sanitization practices. The goal is to ensure that every surface, from doorknobs, to the microwave and refrigerator in the break rooms, to the cell phones in employee pockets, are regularly cleaned. They also hold regular meetings with employees to learn their ideas, and to encourage similar practices at home.

As Mr. Hirzel tells it, the company’s focus has always been people. “One of our key values, our purpose as a company, we always say, ‘We feed people,’” he says. “It may be in different forms or fashions of how we do it. Most of it is shelf-stable, but how we sell it, and what type of packaging, and if we’re adding a lot of spice, or creating a recipe for someone - we’re always feeding people.”