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Local sauce business expands across Midwest

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INDIANAMADE: A line of Midwest Fresh products, all of which useingredients from Indiana farms.
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IN THE WAREHOUSE: Kevin Grider, owner of Midwest Fresh, packs jars of his signature Spicy Bacon Jam in a box at his Marion warehouse.

By Clay Winowiecki - cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

“I was born and raised in Marion, that’s why I am stationed here,” said Kevin Grider, owner of Midwest Fresh, a business that provides locally sourced sauces.

While the sauce business is only two years old, it has already managed to find shelf space in five states and well over 200 stores. 

Midwest Fresh has changed quite a bit since its inception. 

“It was (originally) a restaurant consulting company,” Grider said. “My thought process was to help out other restaurants with whatever they needed.”

Grider would supply restaurants with recipes, staff training or connect them with industry sales people. After only six months working as a consultant, Grider began dreaming of developing his own products.

“I helped open up the pizza place at the Plymouth Club,” he said. “When I was doing that, the product idea came to mind. Instead of using someone else’s pizza sauce, why don’t I make my own?”

After tweaking a pizza sauce recipe he had created years earlier, he had his first product.

“I’m really proud of it,” he said.

Grider would go on to create a molasses-based barbeque sauce, known as Blackstrap BBQ sauce, a Chile Lime Vinaigrette and his signature Spicy Bacon Jam.

Before starting Midwest Fresh, Grider helped open the restaurant Grains & Grills in Fairmount, where he worked for nearly three years. The experience allowed him to fine tune his recipes and before long, customers were asking if they could take extra sauce home in Styrofoam cups. 

Grider knew he had potential to turn his recipes into a business. 

It was around the sixth month that Grider could take his business full-time, but there were still hurdles to climb.

“(A) challenge you’ll have with retail is that there is a ton of people out there with good ideas, and they all deserve shelf space to some extent,” Grider said.

The difficulty, however, is getting the store to take down a current product and replace it with the new business’s product.

“You don’t walk into too many grocery stores or home depots, or anywhere for that matter, and there’s an empty shelf that says ‘waiting on a magical vendor to show up,’” he said.

Grider joined an organization known as Indiana Grown, which helped him manufacture his products and get them ready to put on the shelf. 

A surprising struggle was finding a glass jar that was not made in China. Grider eventually found a company in Arkansas, which is one of the few glass producers in the entire country.

For ingredients, Grider has found he can source most of them from Indiana farms such as Healthy Hoosier Farmers in Miami County.

When he first began, he had to approach stores himself and convince them to sell his product.

The first store to put him on the shelf was Horner’s Butcher Block.

“We first got to know (Grider) through Grains and Grill,” said Verlin Horner, owner of Horner’s Butcher Block. “We ate at the restaurant and enjoyed the products.”

Horner found the products were made with quality ingredients, and when Grider began working with Indiana Grown, Horner added Grider’s products to the local product section in his store.

“Indiana products (are) a kind of popular theme at the moment,” Horner said.

As to why Horner put him on the shelf first, Horner said Grider made it easy for him.

“We have a lot more now than we used to, we started small and grew (the selection of products) little by little,” he added.

Grider continued approaching businesses and soon found himself with 32 accounts. It was time for him to approach a distributor, where he was picked up by Ideal Meat J&L Inc.

“Ideal Meat gave me a list of 10 or 12 places that they already distributed to,” Grider said. “They weren’t all people I knew. I could walk into Horner’s and say, ‘Hey, I am from Marion, can you sell my stuff?’ It was a whole new realm of everything.”

Stores seemed to leap at the chance to sell his products.

Later he was picked up by Piazza Produce Inc., who put him in 80 stores the first week alone. A third distributor, Vino Indiana, also began distributing products.

His rapid growth hasn’t stopped yet. Last month, he sold over 200 cases of his Spicy Bacon Jam, 12 jars to a case.

Inside Grider’s warehouse, his shelves are nearly empty due to increasing demand.

Now, only two years into his business, his products will hit select Meijer locations such as Kokomo and Fort Wayne on Dec. 8.

On Nov. 29, he was picked up by 40 additional Kroger locations. While primarily based in Indiana, his products can be found in a few locations in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri.

Grider said he still gets excited at the thought of having his products on store shelves or in someone’s refrigerator.

“I have all these Post-It notes about the places that I’m going to, the places that I’ve heard about,” he said. “I have Post-It notes of highways going toward Toledo and highways going toward Cincinnati.

“I have one account all the way in Missouri, so I am trying to find places all along that route that I can pick up on the way,” he said. “It’s just fun for me.”

A new dad at the age of 32, Grider is enjoying his newfound job as a product engineer.

“It’s been an awesome learning experience,” he said. “I’m really glad and proud. Being able to sell your own product, it’s kind of the American dream, right?”