Mitten Crate Offers Surprises in Every Box
All over Michigan, people are making and selling great food products: jams, chips, sauces, beverages, candy and so much more. Made in home kitchens, rented commercial kitchens or small packing plants, many are only available in their local area.
Enter Mitten Crate, which brings those foods to the rest of the state and country through a mail-order subscription service. Once a month, subscribers receive a bright teal-and-white box filled with Michigan-made foods. The fun part is you never know what’s going to be in the box.
Founder Andrew Chmielewski and managing partner Cory Wright, both Detroit-area natives, met when they worked at the same restaurant in Auburn Hills. Wright went on to manage a restaurant in New York; Chmielewski founded Dave’s Sweet Tooth toffee in Harrison Township. As Wright was taking a deep dive into food production, Chmielewski was learning the ropes of setting up a food business.
The idea of opening a store devoted to local foods appealed to both of them, but at the time they didn’t have enough money for a brick-and-mortar shop. “That was right when the box idea [wine clubs, for example] was becoming popular,” Wright says. “From a startup standpoint, that was what we could offer.”
They sourced boxes from Detroit’s Michigan Box Company, came up with a name and in 2013 Mitten Crate was born.
Starting out with warehouse space in Oak Park at Hopeful Harvest, a for-profit subsidiary of Forgotten Harvest, Mitten Crate reached out to makers of quality Michigan-made, artisanal products to populate their boxes. With the motto “Eat. Love. Michigan.” they only offer products they’ve tasted or that are from producers whose practices they know.
For logistical reasons, Mitten Crate offers products that don’t require temperature control and are shelf-stable for at least 30 days. The flavors in a recent monthly subscription box were diverse, to say the least: a bottle of Shrub Soda, a rhubarb-flavored drinking vinegar from Traverse City; Flint Strong Coffee from Fireside Coffee Co. of Swartz Creek; spicy, crunchy kale chips from Kalamazoo’s Kaleamazoo Chips; Detroit-based McClure’s Bloody Mary potato chips; a dried berry-nut snack from Eastern Market’s Germack; and a bottle of Royal Oak–based Hell Fire Detroit poblano hot sauce.
“We get a lot of feedback on the products,” Wright says. “People kind of appreciate where we’re coming from.”
Subscriptions are $35 a month; shipping is free. You can also order just one box. “That’s the bread and butter; that’s what we built the company on,” Wright says. Inside each box is a note explaining that each sale provides a donation to Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. From the beginning, the partners wanted to do more than just sell food. “That is super important to us,” Wright says. “I think we’ve done the equivalent of 100,000 meals. That’s something that I’m super proud of.”
They were moved to promote Gleaners in their boxes after learning about how many children go hungry in Metro Detroit. “One in five children over all,” Wright says, “and so little goes such a long way with Gleaners’ buying power.”
Though still a young company, Mitten Crate is on the move. Due to big developments coming to Hopeful Harvest, the crates are now packed at the Dave’s Sweet Tooth facility. That company started in 2011 with a recipe developed by Chmielewski’s dad, Dave. Growth has been dramatic; Andrew Chmielewski was recently named to Forbes Magazine’s 2017 “30 Under 30” list. He was also selected for Crain’s Detroit Business “20 in Their 20s” list last year.
“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is because Andrew is a small-business owner,” Wright says. In addition to benefitting from Chmielewski’s experience and facilities, Mitten Crate has also grown right along with the artisanal food scene. They’ve already worked with more than 100 small-batch producers.
"When we started we were working with some very small companies,” Wright says. “I’ve seen co-packers that have doubled and tripled in size in the last few years.” Now most of their food suppliers are contracting out production, he says.
Currently Mitten Crate is looking for a new space that will allow them to have a storefront and warehouse. “Now it’s kind of a natural progression for us,” Wright says. “Sometime this year we’ll have a new space.”
Meanwhile, in response to demand, Wright is looking to customize the crates. “We have also gotten into doing a lot of corporate business,” he says. “In the past year and a half, we have really pushed to do fully custom boxes. We’re going to get into selling retail boxes this year as well as selling individual products.” Crates could, for example, be tailored to dietary needs or special occasions.
That will require expanding their shipping schedule beyond once a month. According to Wright, the demand is there, “I get emails practically every other day: ‘Do you have any boxes left?’”
Find out more at Mitten Crate