New business venture coming to Two Harbors
The Two Harbors business community gained a new member recently when the start up frozen food company Ruth's Vegetarian Gourmet purchased the former Pizza Hut building along Highway 61.
The building has been empty for almost exactly three years after the Pizza Hut restaurant closed in April 2014, but Ruth's closed on the building last week and hopes to begin production of its frozen vegetarian meals and "meatballs" by the early summer. The restaurant is in surprisingly good condition, with just some tables and chairs to get rid of from the restaurant area and cleaning up the floors and walls before production begins.
The company has been in a testing and product development phase for about a year using a test kitchen in Superior, but the business has been in an incubation phase for much longer and is a "multigenerational" project involving many family members, according to Ruth's vice president Justin Bacon.
"We started discussing this about a decade ago at Christmas or Thanksgiving when the family would gather," he said. "As an extended multigenerational family, we realized that there were people in each layer of those generations that had interest."
Even the name "Ruth" evokes the multigenerational aspect of the company. The name doesn't refer to just one family member, it's a name shared by many family members and reinforces the venture is a whole family business.
"Ruth ambiguously encapsulates the multigenerational family person," Bacon said.
While talk about an actual company only goes back a decade or so, the importance of providing quality vegetarian and vegan food that provide the taste and texture of real meat without all the unhealthy elements like bad fats and cholesterol goes back much, much further. Bacon said his great grandfather died in his 50s as a result of a bad diet and afterward, at the age of 8, his uncle decided he wanted to be a vegetarian.
"We've all seen it in our own families," Bacon said. "Unfortunately, the ancestral men we care about tend to suffer health problems earlier than they should and maybe take their last breath on this planet earlier than they should, for no real good reason other than bad diet."
After his uncle's decision to try a vegetarian lifestyle, his grandmother began to experiment with vegetarian cooking and developing recipes. Over the years, the Bacon family began to hone a few different versions of meatless recipes and many times visitors to their home would try an Italian or barbecue meatball and be astounded that there was no actual meat. After deciding to take the plunge on a frozen vegetarian food venture, the family started testing recipes and production strategies that met food industry regulations and the high standards they wanted their products to achieve, which took some time.
"If you're making for a dinner party at your house, that's one thing, but if you're making enough for 1,000 people a day, the process and equipment don't lend themselves to that homemade feel and we weren't willing to compromise that," Bacon said. "We wanted to maintain that homestyle, grandma's kitchen flavor and experience."
Currently, Ruth's is trying to sell its products as a vegetarian or vegan option to high end niche grocery stores, like the Kowalski's Markets in the Twin Cities, and to cafeterias. There are also plans to develop a more "mass market" version that will be sold at mainstream grocers like Super One or Cub Foods. The Ruth's product line will have vegetarian and vegan options that will mirror each other and Bacon has a consumer in mind for both lines.
"The vegan line is an allergen free line that basically any cafeteria manager could put out there without any concern," he said. "The vegetarian line is what I feel is going to bridge the gap for your typical carnivore, the guy who is eating a brat every quarter of that football game and would never consider a vegetarian."
Ruth's chose Two Harbors because the town is a sort of home base for the family, with Bacon's grandparents owning a farm on Highway 3, and a commitment from the family to small towns.
"We wanted to build something in the Two Harbors area," Bacon said. "We believe in small town Minnesota and if small towns are going to be strong, people need to take the risk of creating jobs."
The company plans to be engaged and responsive to the community as well. Ruth's plans to operate on a four day shift schedule to start, mirroring the Lake Superior School District weekly schedule, to allow families to spend more time together as well as offering potential for growth within the company.
Initially, Bacon plans to bring about six employees on to start to the production process and doubling that number once production really gets going. As sales and distribution increase, the number could double again to about 24 employees total at the Two Harbors facility.
"We're hoping this place is a stepping stone for us and a few years down the road we can build a bigger factory, but for now our focus is let's work on sales and production to maximize this building and make it effective and provide gainful employment," Bacon said. "We believe there is a real need for the kind of work environment where people can be creative and highly productive, where people are respected and they have an opportunity to move up through the ranks."