Client Spotlight: How a small social biz grew into a statewide staple

In 2016, the folks behind Michigan Farm to Freezer trusted us to redesign the core piece of their brand identity: their packaging label. At the same time, the Michigan-based processor of fruits and vegetables moved their freezing facility from Traverse City to Detroit to expand their reach. Two years and a whole lotta growth later, we’re back together with the Michigan Farm to Freezer team to help them build out their brand.

For our first-ever Client Spotlight, we chatted with Brandon Seng and Mark Coe, the brains behind Michigan Farm to Freezer, about growing pains, staying true to your values, and when to rethink your brand.

Thanks for chatting with us! Care to share a little background on how you guys started Michigan Farm to Freezer?

Brandon: I started a small non-profit organization in Manistee County called the Manistee Community Kitchen. It seemed like folks in the area just didn’t know what to do with fresh produce, so we started doing some education at the schools, which turned into a bunch of things. We took over management of the school lunch program, started a farm-to-school program, started a small café, and managed the farmers market.

It was through the school lunch program where I first started buying produce from Mark. In June, July, and August, Mark would be calling with lots of produce available, but we didn’t have any students in session. So, he started freezing it at the school in small batches with a small blast freezer we had gotten through a grant.

Mark: I was already thinking about trying to get a farm-branded frozen product off the ground, and when I was doing deliveries, I started talking to Brandon about what we could do with a product like that.

Brandon: Meanwhile, I moved the program to Traverse City because we had some other schools that wanted in on it. I put in a larger contract with Mark at the farm and we started bringing in products to freeze for a worker training development program. A year later Mark came on with us.

Mark: Then Brandon and I developed the retail pack for a pilot project in two stores. Two weeks later the guy came back and said, “I want this in all five of my stores.” After a six-month exclusive with them we started going out to other stores who wanted the product, and it grew from there.

Brandon: A year or two ago, people from Eastern Market Corporation started to visit our facility and they mentioned they were interested in supporting our product. We were already in every grocery store and every school in northern Michigan—so we had to decide if we were going to expand this thing into a new market

So, you guys had really been growing just to keep up with demand up to that point.

Brandon: That’s right. We haven’t ever really done any marketing or anything like that. It’s all been word of mouth. I mean, I was up in Traverse City this week and I stopped in at a new market that had opened up. I went in, introduced myself and asked, “Are you guys interested in any frozen products?” and they went “Oh, you must be from Michigan Farm to Freezer.”

In northern Michigan, we’re a household name because we’ve been there, and we’re established. With Skidmore’s branding help, that’s what we hope to become in this market as well.

What has your “branding journey” been like as a small, fast-growing business?

Mark: The label has changed a few times since we started five years ago. We started with a solid color scheme, then we went with a big picture on the bag, then a small picture. But I wanted the product to speak for itself. Then Brandon came to me and said, “We’re going to work with Skidmore on our label design [through the Eastern Market grant],” and I thought “Oh, here we go again.”

Brandon: [Impersonating Mark] “We don’t have to accept [their work], right?”

That first day we sat down, the simplicity of what you put together blew our minds.

Mark: Our first meeting [with Skidmore] was just really cool. That first day we sat down, the simplicity of what you put together blew our minds.

Brandon: We had a lot of text on the label before because we felt like we had a lot of story to tell. It was right for the time, but it was clumsy. And now I feel like it’s way more elegant and concise.

Mark: I like that it’s farmish!

Brandon: Yeah, that too! It is. It’s that neighborly, farmers-market feel. Which is exactly what our brand has always been. And now, instead of Mark and I speaking to that, the brand can speak for itself—something that’s critical as we scale.

What was the reaction from buyers when they saw the new look?

Mark: [Our buyers] loved it when they saw what was happening with the simplicity of it. More so, a few people we know in the agricultural world looked at it and they all went “Oh wow, that’s really cool. It’s simple and it fits what you are.”

It made us feel different from what we were prior to this. It took us from a “job training program” to a company.

What tips would you give other small businesses to think about when it comes to branding (or rebranding)?

Mark: Every four or five years you have to reevaluate where you’re at. We tend to look at the times and track what’s going on in the food world, and you have to look at where you are and change with that.

Brandon: For me, it was really lucky that we got the grant and landed with you guys when we did. I don’t think we would have taken that leap without a little bit of a leg up to do it. And we’re so fortunate that it happened how it did. We really see the value.

When it’s a local brand, everybody knows you—they’ve seen the brand grow. But we’re going into stores that have never seen it before and to go in with wow-factor in terms of how the product is merchandised really sets us up. It’s taking our brand from a local brand to a state-wide brand, and then a regional brand.

We only have a finite amount of time in our day to talk to customers and buyers, so it’s becoming more important that we have a concise strategy that the brand can communicate for itself.

Mark: When we show them what we have, it’s right there. It’s clear. It’s transparent. And we talk a lot about transparency in our operations. We’re not afraid to share.

Brandon: The transparency has always been one of our values, but now it’s a brand value. That transparency and honesty about what we’re doing, it’s how we operate. And now we have the messaging and ability to communicate that. The brand is built on who we are.

Tell us what you’re up to next!

Brandon: It took us a year to get rolling at our new facility. So, coming into the first of the year, it’s really our first chance to push hard into the market. Everything up until this point has been natural growth; now we’re aggressively pursuing new market opportunities around here. The market is responding really well, and we’re so excited by it.

In the next year, you’ll see us concentrating specifically on Detroit and growing partnerships with the great restaurants, grocery stores, institutions, and farming scene around here. We’re now a Detroit-based entity, which means we’re becoming a recognized brand—especially after partnerships with places like Sister Pie, Rose’s Fine Foods, and even some of the yoga instructors in the area.

We’re just excited that people are excited about our products. We want to be able to walk into the next store around here and have them say, “Oh, you’re the guys from Michigan Farm to Freezer.” I know it’s going to happen. We’re on our way there now, and the work you guys are doing is going to help it happen.

Brandon and Mark are great folks and as their Agency of Record we’re honored to help them expand their business. Find Michigan Farm to Freezer in your local freezer aisle or look for the coolers in the produce section.

Looking for the next big thing that will help your business grow? Let’s chat and we’ll see what we can do to help.