“We find that people expect a product like sauerkraut to come from a place like Cleveland,” co-founder Drew Anderson told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We get the local feel wherever we go.”
Sauerkraut, like the Midwest, has an “authentic, hardworking” image due to its industrious German and Eastern European origins, Anderson continued.
But overtime sauerkraut has lost its luster as a “crunchy, delicious” fermented food, according to Cleveland Kraut.
“The product has been watered down and made to sit on a shelf for a long time with low turns and has become a more of a seasonal product. And really, fermented vegetables, should be a vibrant and delicious product,” he said.
Cleveland Kraut was founded four years ago by Anderson and Luke Visnic, who both took up fermentation as a hobby guided by childhoods centered on cooking with fresh local foods as Anderson’s mom was a trained chef and Visnic grew up learning how to ferment vegetables from his grandmother.
“When all of our buddies were brewing beer at home, we had a bunch of cabbage fermenting in the basement; but we were a hit at barbecues,” Anderson said.
Cleveland launching pad
Local Cleveland retailer Heinen’s, with locations in the Chicago area, was among the first retailers to start carrying Cleveland Kraut products and then the brand’s reach grew to Giant Eagle, a conventional retailer with 350 stores.
Consumers in around Cleveland were also open and willing to try a crafted sauerkraut product that didn’t come from a generations-old legacy brand because of the fermented food's significance in the area.
Ohio is also home to a fertile agriculture industry, especially cabbage, the star ingredient of sauerkraut, Anderson added. Cleveland Kraut sources its cabbage nearly year-round from farms in Northwest Ohio and for few winter months brings in cabbage from the South to keep up with its weekly production runs.
“Our system is reasonably local,” Anderson said. “We make fresh sauerkraut, so we get cabbage in every week for processing. The big guys will do two or three batches a year during the harvest.”
"You don’t have the visibility of a Brooklyn, Denver, Boulder, San Francisco or Austin, but there’s a lot of advantages to being in middle America, especially Cleveland," Anderson said.
Even though many fermented foods are benefiting from a strong consumer interest in gut health at the moment, Cleveland Kraut prioritized taste above all else when developing its seven SKUs (classic caraway, roasted garlic, whiskey dill, beet red, gnar gnar, cabbage & cukes, and curry kraut) packaged in 16-ounce glass jars for $5.99. The packaging will eventually change to standup pouches for easier portability and shipping, according to Anderson.
To hone each of its flavors, Cleveland Kraut works with a team of chefs from the Culinary Institute of America.
“Flavor is what drives us. I don’t want to offer a product that’s just pure function,“ he said.
However, Anderson clarified that it does include the probiotic benefits its sauerkraut contains as part of its marketing strategy.
"We knew that it was extremely hard to find raw, fermented foods that offer probiotics and all the bacteria for your microbiome; we do push that."
One of the aspects that makes the company’s products stand out from other brands is its crunchy texture, an attribute many sauerkrauts on the shelf today have lost.
“We know that Americans love crunch,” Anderson said, explaining that the company starts with a very hearty cabbage variety to maintain that consistency throughout the fermentation process and up until point of consumption.
“When you’re doing it right and monitoring every aspect around the fermentation process then you get really vibrant, crunchy, delicious fermented products.”
While the sauerkraut maker may have its hands full with its roughly 1,000-store footprint extending from its strongest market in the Midwest all the way to Southern California and the East Coast, Anderson said it's continuing its distribution push across the US.
As one of the five chosen food and beverage startups in the first-ever Kraft Heinz Springboard incubator program, Anderson said the brand is already experiencing positive exposure.
“We’re pouring jet fuel into our engine now. We’ve created this great base and now we have a world class organization that’s guiding us and helping us grow,” he said.
“When we sit down with new customers we have a stamp of approval [from Kraft Heinz].”