Elissa Sangalli is president of Northern Initiatives, a Marquette-based nonprofit that provides loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs who might have difficulty getting traditional bank loans. She said she is in the process of closing on a loan for Fruitbelt.
“Fruitbelt is a new customer of Northern Initiatives,” she said. “We especially love that they are a woman-owned business, sourcing Michigan ingredients and turning them into value-added beverage products.”
Tim Braun is brand manager at Imperial. He said Fruitbelt’s juices are the right product at the right time. He said customers in recent years have moved away from sweet drinks and mixes, the trend being toward less sugar and more tartness, and Fruitbelt checks both those boxes.
“They reached out to us. They were self-distributing and trying to get their name out there, but they didn’t have the manpower,” he said. “We liked what we saw and decided to take it statewide.”
He said they had their first meeting early in the fall. By mid-December, Fruitbelt was in stores across the state.
“We launched a marketing plan with our sales team, with volume goals for each region. It’s been a big focus for our sales team and our 85 account managers around the state,” he said.
Imperial has offered case discounts to get stores to buy in volume and perhaps put up displays.
“The feedback has been really positive. Fruitbelt has the advantage of being local and being really distinct,” he said. “People are really paying attention to what they are putting in their bodies and being healthier. Consumers want something drier and tarter. That’s a direction sales have been going the last two years.
John Langham is grocery manager at Traverse City-based Oryana Community Co-op, a popular two-store co-op that began as a small buyers’ club in 1973 for those seeking local and organic products.
He started carrying Fruitbelt last summer. “I really liked it and thought it could do well. We put in a big display and had it on sale for a dollar off a case, and that kick-started it.”
But delivery was sporadic. A driver would bring some up on occasion from Harbert, but Langham said he couldn’t always use enough cases to make the trip worth the driver’s time.
“Customers asked for it. It created a following. The trend is for more nutritional foods, to get away from heavily-sugared drinks. And away from sodas to sparkling waters and teas,” he said.
Those loyal followers can get Fruitbelt from the co-op regularly now that Imperial makes deliveries twice a week.
“We’re happy to have bought in Fruitbelt and it’s doing well.”
The apple drink is 25 percent fruit juice, made from Michigan heritage apples supplied by King Orchards in Central Lake, northeast of Traverse City. Other ingredients are organic honey, extracts of lime and caraway, and bitters, which include dandelion and chicory roots, propolis, aronis berries, quassia and cherry bark.
The elderberry drink is 15 percent fruit juice, supplied by an elderberry farmer they found in Missouri, with elderflower extract and bitters.
The cherry tonic is 20 percent fruit juice, from Montmorency tart cherries, also supplied by King Orchards, with ginger extract and bitters.
Propolis is an aromatic, resinous substance produced by bees to cement their hives and is considered to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. It is fitting the company uses both honey and propolis, given that Denton is a beekeeper.
Gazzolo said she has been talking to Michigan farmers about supplying gooseberry and Saskatoon berries, which look like blueberries but aren’t as sweet, with a nutty almond flavor. Despite being in one of the best blueberries regions in the world, Gazzolo said they don’t have a blueberry drink because the berries are just too sweet to work.
“We aim to bring forgotten fruit crops back to Michigan and the greater Midwest landscape,” said Gazzolo. “By working with farmers who are willing to grow them and fruit processors who are willing to convert the fruit in small batches, and by heralding the unique taste and benefits of these fruits, we hope to encourage the widespread revival of indigenous crops, enhancing biodiversity and restoring the soil.”
She said she’d also like to add tonics made with black and red currants.