Seeking new eats: Heinen’s is on the prowl for the next big sensation

For the past 15 years Jeff Heinen and his brother Tom, co-owners of the popular Heinen’s grocery store chain, have focused heavily on carrying locally-grown produce in their 19 Ohio stores.
“As a company, for the last 15 years we’ve really worked with increasing fervor at purchasing locally, and now 70 percent of our produce is local in the summer,” Jeff Heinen explains.
Then, about seven years ago, Heinen started noticing an increase in local packaged food producers. So the chain began focusing on supporting those food entrepreneurs by carrying their products. Now the Heinen's team is welcoming new purveyors with its upcoming third annual Shark Bank competition.
“We’re a local company and we want to support them,” Heinen says of the packaged food producers. “So we took our produce experience and took it to packaged goods. The Cleveland food scene, in terms of producers, is incredibly robust for the size of the city. In Chicago, which is four times the size of Cleveland, their local food scene is far less developed.” Heinen should know. The company also has four stores in the Chicago area.
Shark Bank is a play on the hit reality television show Shark Tank. Shark Bank gives food entrepreneurs a shot at having Heinen’s carry their products in all of the Ohio locations.
“This lets local entrepreneurs know we are interested in their products,” says Heinen. “And it gives them exposure to our customers.”
The competition is open to any local food entrepreneur. A panel of judges then chooses 15 companies to become semi-finalists.
“They do product demonstrations in our downtown store for one day and customers get to vote on the ones they like most,” says Heinen. “The top four companies are chosen and we do the demos the next week.” From there, one winner will be chosen.
The winner will get a prize Heinen values at $10,000 — space on Heinen’s shelves, product mentions in Heinen’s advertising and social media, a story in Edible Cleveland magazine, and four product demos at each Heinen’s Northeast Ohio location.
“It’s the most effective way to get the customer to buy the product,” Heinen says of the four demos. “And we don’t look at any company as being too small. If they can’t supply all of our stores, we’re okay with that.”
Past Shark Bank winders include Jefferson-based Bissell Maple Farm’s Sugar Chalet bourbon barrel aged maple syrup and Westlake-based Backattack Snacksalmonds.
The judges have yet to be chosen, Heinen says, but usually the panel includes one of Heinen’s chefs, another local chef and a third expert.
Heinen’s will be taking food entrepreneurs’ applications through Tuesday, Aug. 1. The semifinal demo competition will be on Friday, Sept. 15 at 11 a.m. in the downtown Cleveland location, 900 Euclid Ave. followed by the finals on Friday, Sept. 22 at 11 a.m. The public is invited to attend.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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