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The first thing you notice inside the Hirzel Canning Co. plant in Northwood is the color. There’s more red than a Ferrari dealership in Tiananmen Square.
It’s prime tomato picking season, and the Hirzel plant is full of the fleshy fruits this time of year.
“Ninety percent of our production is done in this two-month stretch,” said Herb Milem, director of retail sales at Hirzel. “We can make our pasta sauces, ketchup, things like that in the off-season. But the majority of our stuff is fresh packed.”
As he spoke, heaps of fresh tomatoes zipped past him, headed down the line to be sorted, chopped, and sealed away.
The area tomato harvest starts the first or second week of August and goes until the first frost, which is usually around the first or second week of October. During that time, Hirzel handles about 4 million pounds of tomatoes a day split among its three northwestern Ohio processing plants.
Tomatoes are trucked in daily from more than 30 family growers in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Hirzel germinates most of those tomato plants at a large greenhouse system in Northwood. They also have their own fields.
“They’re not your typical tomato you’re thinking of in produce,” Mr. Milem said. “They’re smaller, almost like a roma style. They’re real meaty. They have to be real firm and resilient to get unloaded and go through this process. You don’t want them beat up by the time they get into the can.”
The company says half its tomatoes are grown within 10 miles of the plant at which they’re processed, and 75 percent are grown within 20 miles.
“That’s kind of the key, getting the tomatoes from the field to the finished product in the can as soon as possible,” Mr. Milem said.
For its fresh-made retail products, Hirzel tries to have tomatoes sealed in the can no more than six to 10 hours after they come off the vine.
Though tomatoes are more resilient to dry conditions than some other crops including corn, the drought Ohio experienced earlier this year did knock down yields somewhat.
“The early crop was really impacted by the lack of rain,” Mr. Milem said. “Fortunately about two-thirds of our growers’ [fields] are irrigated. That helped significantly, but the yields are significantly down in the early crop. We’ve had some rain in the last few weeks that have really helped the mid and late crop.”
Hirzel uses machines to wash and sort the tomatoes as they come in, but the produce needs to be further sorted by hand to ensure overall quality and to make sure the tomatoes that are canned diced or whole are the most appealing to the eye.
That takes a lot of bodies.
Hirzel has about 150 full-time, year-round employees. During canning season, employment balloons to as many as 400 people.
Under its Dei Fratelli brand, Hirzel sells a variety of pizza sauces, salsas, pasta sauces, whole, diced, and pureed tomatoes, and tomato juices. The company also cans products for schools, restaurants, and other food companies.
The Northwood plant produces mostly food service products, along with some retail products. The bulk of Dei Fratelli’s retail products — which collectively make up about half of Hirzel’s business — are made at the Pemberville plant. The Ottawa plant primarily produces 55-gallon drums and 300-gallon bins of crushed or diced tomatoes for industrial customers. Hirzel also uses those for its own products made during the off-season.
“We can use it to make pasta sauce and salsa and all that throughout the year. Most of our competitors use tomato paste and add water to it so it’s being made from concentrate. We’ve found that using that crushed and diced tomato, it’s got a fresher flavor to it and it’s going to taste like you just harvested it.” Mr. Milem said.
The company has worked to harness social media in recent years, especially via Facebook and Pinterest, which has become popular for sharing recipes.
“It gets people knowing where their food comes from and who’s behind it,” said Dasa Dzierwa, Hirzel’s marketing communication coordinator. “We have a great story to share at Hirzel Canning, and social media is a great place to share that. We have something that other companies would love to have, and that is that family story.”
The Northwood plant and company headquarters sit adjacent to the old Hirzel family homestead, and the 89-year-old company is currently led by a fourth generation of Hirzels.
Though tomatoes are Hirzel’s big business now, it all started with sauerkraut — and an interesting story.
The founder, Carl Hirzel, was a brewmaster who by constitutional amendment found himself out of a job.
“Prohibition came along and he needed something else to focus on,” Mr. Milem said. “Fermenting kraut is very similar to brewing beer. He got into the kraut business, and tomatoes were another one he jumped into.”
The Dei Fratelli name came much later.
The Hirzel family traces is of Swiss-German heritage, and its Star Cross brand didn’t quite have the buzz the company wanted.
“You think of Italy a lot of times with tomato products. We had a little contest, one of the gals who worked in the plant was Italian and she came up with the name Dei Fratelli, which means ‘of the brothers.’ Four bothers were running the company at the time,” Mr. Milem said. “That’s been our brand ever since.”
Hirzel distributes its Dei Fratelli products throughout the Midwest and the Southeast, and has gradually expanded west into Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Retail sales makes up about half of Hirzel’s overall business, with 30 percent going to food service and the remaining 20 percent going to industrial users.
Mr. Milem said the top two sellers on the retail side are Dei Fratelli’s pizza sauce and crushed tomatoes.