Community Shares Memories, Memorial Service Planned for Jack Aronson

Community Shares Memories, Memorial Service Planned for Jack Aronson

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Aug. 10, 2021)

Ferndale, MI – Garden Fresh founder Jack Aronson has died at the age of 68 after battling cancer for several years.  Aronson built a salsa empire that began in the kitchen of a small BBQ restaurant in the 1990s in Ferndale.

The service for Jack Aronson begins Friday, August 13th, at 11 AM. Guests can begin arriving at 10 AM. Masks are mandatory.

St. Patrick Catholic Parish Church

9086 Hutchins Road

White Lake, MI 48386

County Executive Dave Coulter, who previously served as Ferndale’s Mayor, remembers the day he walked into the restaurant, just around the corner from his house, and found that all the bottles of soda had been removed from the Pepsi cooler and replaced with white buckets.

“I’m selling salsa,” Aronson told him.

“I thought this was the most bizarre idea,” Coulter told Oakland County Times.  “They were a BBQ place – and a really good one!  I thought why are you getting sidetracked with that? But Jack had a vision and he turned those buckets into a success story.”

Aronson sold Garden Fresh to Campbell’s in 2015, but only after careful negotiations that would protect the jobs of the hundreds of employees who worked at the Ferndale processing plant.

“I remember before he sold to Campbell’s, Jack had gotten an offer from another company – a huge offer that would have made him more money than he could spend in his lifetime, but they wouldn’t guarantee keeping the jobs in Ferndale and he turned them down.  I know how hard that was, but his first concern was the employees and the community. That’s the kind of guy Jack was.”

Coulter also noted that Jack was not alone in his success. His family, and in particular wife Annette, were an essential part of life for the busy entrepreneur.  “My heart goes out to Annette.  She and Jack were inseparable and she was just as much a part of the work and the decision-making as he was.  He trusted her more than any person in the world.”

Aronson was known for his generosity in both time and resources. Among the many efforts that benefitted from Jack’s involvement was Metro Detroit Youth Clubs, formerly Boys and Girls Club of Oakland and Macomb Counties.  He served on the board.  He helped fund numerous projects including the expansion of the clubs into the City of Detroit.  And he was a mentor who made time to listen to the kids.

Jack has been a trustee for 12 years and was a ford3e for good and growth for us,” said Executive Director Brett Tillander.  “We dedicated the Ferndale Club in honor of Jack and Annette Aronson. He was the visionary for our newest club, the Levin-Comer Club, in Detroit.  We are truly heart-broken by the loss of an incredible human being, a man who lived large by taking up home in our hearts.  Jack Aronson had an insatiable drive that was fueled by  endless creativity.  Jack poured his heart and soul into everything that mattered to him.  Jack and his greatest love, Annette, his wife and soulmate of 33 years, grew their family, nurtured their businesses and fed and prospered so many causes and communities. Jack saw solutions and possibilities when confronted with need.”

Tillander remembered Aronson’s passion for baseball, and the many charity softball games he helped coordinate.  On the field he’d inspire players just as he encouraged them in business and life.

“He would look us in the eye with that big, warm smile, and he would say ‘let’s take some swings and make a difference.”

FernCare Free Clinic is another project that would not have flourished without Aaronson’s encouragement.  FernCare founder Ann Heler told Oakland County Times “He truly was a supporter of FernCare.  He never failed to ask me how we were doing and then immediately praised the volunteers who worked with us. He was a major donor and supported our Annual Dinner fund raising event for years. Years ago when we held our garage sales at the old 451 clinic, he would ride his bike over and just give whatever he had in his pocket as a donation.  And of course because he was Jack, talked to a number of people and never failed to thank them for the work they were doing ….providing healthcare at no expense to the patients.

“So many words for Jack.  He was genuinely pleased when someone achieved, when like us, we made our project work, when people dreamed and they wanted him to hear them out while they explained. A natural leader because of his compassion, his honest listening to others and willingness to work as hard as anyone. He will be greatly missed.”

Other causes close to Jack’s heart were literacy, supporting the schools and local sports teams, mentorship for youth through various cities Youth Assistance programs, fighting hunger in the community, supporting local journalism, and finding other ways to be of service.

“Every time I saw Jack, he’d ask me if I knew anyone that needed anything. Whether it was someone with a broken washing machine, or someone who had lost everything in a fire, Jack wanted to know and to help,” said County Executive Coulter.  “He did so many things that he didn’t want recognition for.  He just wanted to help.”

His heart was not just in helping the community.  He also loved watching other entrepreneurs thrive.

AJ O’Neil used to run AJ’s Coffee Shop in Downtown Ferndale.  When that chapter of his business came to a close, Aronson would not let that be the end.

“After I closed AJ’s Cafe, Jack took me in. I had this idea that I could start a coffee company and continue to tell the story of all of the accomplishments that the cafe came to be known for,” O’Neil said.  He had started his own “Detroit Bold” coffee line at the café, and with Jack’s help launched it into a regional success.

“We thought that we could use the Detroit Bold brand to emphasize the positive things that Detroit and its hardworking people were really all about. Very few believed it was a good idea. But jack drew me a roadmap to follow and stayed with me as I trudged along until a year went by. He scheduled a progress report meeting and after he saw that I had stayed on the course he had laid out, he made some calls and got me an appointment at Meijer to present our product.

“On a snowy Saturday in December at a civic event in Ferndale, I broke the news to him that we were accepted. ‘AJ got into Meijer, AJ got into Meijer!’ he told everyone ! I think he was happier than I was! That was Jack. He was always there whenever I asked him.

“We met at Red Hot’s Coney for lunches fairly often in those early days. We were both from Highland Park originally and he loved to go back there. I’ll dearly miss my friend but I will never forget him. Random acts of kindness in countless ways is mostly how I’ll remember him. I’ll carry that on, just as he would hope without the need for anyone to know. But Jack will know, and that will be just fine. Rest, dear friend. You have done well.”

In 2015 Aronson launched The Seed, an incubator program located in Ferndale’s industrial district that partnered with Eastern Market vendors to explore packaging and promotions of their edible products. “We’ve got seven companies right now working out of The Seed,” he said at the time. “Michigan is #5 in the country for growing food, but we’re #25 for processing it. People have to send their pork to Wisconsin to be processed. Soybeans get sent to Indiana. There is a real need for more food processing in Michigan and a real potential for people that want to do that.”

He and his wife also opened a high pressure processing plant in Taylor to help small food companies manufacture without the use of chemical preservatives.   The plant helped fresh-minded companies like Drought, Bangkok96 meals, and Great Fresh expand shelf life and distribution range.  “Before HPP everything had to be cooked or filled with preservatives in order to be distributed,” Caitlin James, co-founder of Drought said at the time.  “Jack and Annette’s facility is genuinely going to pioneer how local food businesses can grow.”

The couple’s kids have also shared the family’s passion for fine foods.  Son Trevor owns Jack’s Roadside BBQ on Dixie Hwy in Independence Township, and And recently stepbrothers Dan Aronson and Jack Page launched Missy and Mel’s Salsa, named after sisters Melissa and Melanie.

Jack started out life in Hamtramk and his family landed in Ferndale.  He graduated from Ferndale High School, where the former police chief Mike Kitchen was his class president and close friend. His wife Annette went to St. James. And they picked Ferndale to grow their business. When he began, he had no idea that his joy in feeding friends and neighbors something healthy and delicious would end up being a national success.

From those who remember the early days of Clubhouse BBQ, to those who worked in the plants making the salsa and hummus, to those who have been touched by his generosity and his advice, the memories are positive and plentiful.

Bruce  Channell worked for the Aronson’s back in the 1990s.  “I remember when he started out selling the salsa and chips out of the Clubhouse BBQ,” he said.  “I was delivering for them. One day he sent me down to Mexican Town for tortillas. When I got back we started cutting them in fours and then we began using the deep fryer to make the chips. This was in 1997 when he was selling various hot sauces and had a store in Summit Place Mall and on Main Street in Royal Oak.”  The salsa eventually eclipsed the hot sauce trade, and Garden Fresh Salsa was officially formed in 1998.

Roberta Cooper was 14 when she started working for the Aronson’s, at a pizza place called Rocky’s before Clubhouse BBQ.  “I basically grew up working there,” she said. “Jack constantly added things to the menu, always looking to improve on it. There was an assortment of people, interesting characters, working at Rocky’s and Jack was good to everyone. …Family was always important. His brother Ken and sister in law Joan worked there, as did nieces Lori and Diana. Diana contacted me the night before he died. His young children Trevor and Melissa were a presence in his life, always. He was my first boss, a mentor, and a dear friend. I spoke with him 2 months ago and he was supposed to call at one point but never did. I knew something was wrong. This is a devastating loss for so many people.”

Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana said the City is working on a resolution to honor Aronson’s legacy.   “Jack was a beloved member of our community, who did everything within his ability to make this city better. He was generous, compassionate and full of ideas and creativity. Our loudest cheerleader will live on in,” she said.

In 2016 Jack Aronson spoke to a group of students in a program to help with reading skills.  He talked to the kids about this encouraged them to keep learning, especially the parts that are hard.  “Everybody has things they are good at and things they need to work on.  If you want to run a business or succeed at whatever you’re doing, you need to learn new things and work on your skills,” Aronson said.

The same year he was invited to give the commencement speech at Oakland Community College.  “Tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic, onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, cilantro, vinegar, lime juice and salt.

“Sounds good – I know – but you’ve got to wonder why I begin this commencement address with what sounds like a grocery list. The answer’s an easy one – those are the ingredients to the Artichoke Garlic Salsa that started it all for Garden Fresh Gourmet, the company my wife Annette and I founded in 1998. Back then, we made our first batches of the stuff in five-gallon buckets in the kitchen of our humble little restaurant in Ferndale. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Garden Fresh has morphed into America’s #1 refrigerated salsa brand, now owned by the Campbell Soup Company after our sale last year.

“What a blessing Garden Fresh has been, and what opportunities the company has provided for my family, loyal employees and me. Yet all our success – all our good fortune – can be traced back to what? – the right ingredients. I’m here to tell you that the right ingredients are critical, not just for delicious salsa, but also for a meaningful, productive, joyful life.

“The ingredients for happiness – that’s what I want to talk about today… Call them the three ingredients for happiness – at least according to Jack Aronson: (1) choose your friends and colleagues wisely, (2) find your purpose, and (3) give back, always give back.”

Jack embodied the three things he chose to share with the students. And as the community – and his family – mourns the loss of their biggest cheerleader, it’s an opportunity for everyone to step up into those big footsteps.

“So ask yourselves . . . what’s your purpose?” he had said.

“That – graduates – is such a heavy question, one that may require some real soul-searching and should not be answered without serious thought. Your purpose is highly personal, and obviously unique to you and your set of values. Whatever it may be, it’s your purpose that energizes you, gets you up in the morning raring to go, and is the source of long-term happiness. I promise you this: material wealth is no substitute for the peace of mind and gratification that only purpose can bestow. I implore you all – find yours.”

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