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Published: Monday, 1/23/2006

Basket firm, rich in history, thrives

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Matt Adelman, 37, is the president of the Berlin Fruit Box Co. in Berlin Heights, Ohio. Mr. Adelman, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, designs many of the company's baskets. Matt Adelman, 37, is the president of the Berlin Fruit Box Co. in Berlin Heights, Ohio. Mr. Adelman, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, designs many of the company's baskets.
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BERLIN HEIGHTS, Ohio - America was two years away from sending Abraham Lincoln to the White House when a local man began supplying orchards with cartons for blueberries, strawberries, and other fruit.

Nearly a century and a half later, when Samuel Patterson's descendants contemplated closing his Berlin Fruit Box Co. in this Erie County community, a pair of grandsons stepped in to rescue the struggling business.

"We feel there is a real rich history here and we didn't want to lose it," said Matt Adelman, 37-year-old president of the company, which since its founding in 1858 has been in the same spot east of Sandusky.

While the firm continues to supply a limited number of baskets to local orchards, its emphasis has long been on candy-holders, picnic baskets, vases, clothes hampers, and other decorative household baskets with prices ranging from $24 to $270.

Not long after taking over in 1998, Matt and brother Jason Adelman ditched wholesale sales to craft stores because they weren't sufficiently profitable.

Over the past three years, products have been sold on the Internet and to groups who tour the Cedar Point-area factory, which the president describes as a "sort of working museum."

Maple and American black cherry trees felled locally are cooked, peeled, and cut into thin strips which weavers then assemble by hand.

Fires in 1900, 1901, and 1968 obliterated the original building. But some equipment dates back to the roaring '20s.

Matt Adelman, left, and Ed Hensley gather basketmaking material from a lathe that peels a long in the workshop of the Berlin Fruit Box Co. in Berlin Heights, Ohio. Matt Adelman, left, and Ed Hensley gather basketmaking material from a lathe that peels a long in the workshop of the Berlin Fruit Box Co. in Berlin Heights, Ohio.
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Among the new owners' first moves was to rename the firm's decorative basket collection for the company founder. Their Web site, Samuelpattersonbaskets.com, plays upon the company's rich history.

Mr. Patterson's signature, recovered from a 19th-century document, was made into a mark that is burned into the bottom of each decorative basket.

Berlin makes 30 styles of household baskets. "We have sold tens of thousands of baskets," Mr. Adelman said.

The firm said it is one of the only sources of baskets made from American black cherry trees, which are common in northwest Ohio. Mr. Adelman and his staff developed the product as gifts for sponsors and others involved in a 2004 concert by the Boston Pops at the State Theatre in Sandusky.

"This is now the best-selling piece in our collection," the company president said.

Bonny Fowler, spokesman for basket-maker Longaberger Co., of Newark, Ohio, describes baskets produced by her firm and a small group of competitors as "a wonderful, wonderful example of an American craft that has gone on for generations."

At Berlin Fruit Box, many of the designs are by Matt Adelman, who is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Arts.

The company is small, with 10 employees and expected 2006 sales of $300,000. But the brothers hope that sales at the factory store, which is open Monday to Friday, will benefit from the arrival of year-round attractions, such as indoor water parks, in the Sandusky tourist area.

The president concedes that the company's name sometimes causes confusion. "Fruit Box" is a term that was commonly used in the 19th century to describe produce cartons, he explained.

"Now, people think we make baskets filled with fruit," Mr. Adelman added with a chuckle.

Contact Gary T. Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.

Small Business Profile is a weekly feature on local companies. To be considered, send information about your company to Small Business Profiles, Business News, The Blade, P.O. Box 921, Toledo, Ohio 43697-0921.



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