Going to market

Hartville Kitchen has a reputation that extends far beyond the small Stark County community in which it’s located.

People are willing to drive a couple of hours to the 440-seat family-owned restaurant — which Soloma Miller opened as a lunch stand over her husband Sol’s livestock auction in the late 1930s — just to sit down to a meal like Grandma used to make: broiled and pressure-fried chicken, roast beef, real mashed potatoes, made-from-scratch soups and baked goods. Vernon Sommers Jr., the husband of one of the couple’s granddaughters who oversees restaurant operations, says the place serves an average of 2,500 meals a day.

And it’s known for 21 kinds of pie, particularly coconut cream.

“We probably make an average of 600 pies a day,” he says. “They’re sold either by the piece or whole, and they’re not sold anywhere else but here.”

In fact, for years, the only Hartville Kitchen items that could be purchased outside the restaurant were homemade salad dressings. According to Bob Pawley, president of Specialty Foods in Massillon, Hartville Kitchen’s exclusive distributor, the refrigerated dressings are in the produce departments of approximately 600 grocery stores in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as in farm markets as far south as Tennessee.

The stuff, he says, is very popular, even though Hartville Kitchen does little or no advertising. He’s been told that the sweet and sour dressing, for example, is “the No. 1 salad dressing in units and dollars, including shelf dressings,” in a couple of local grocery store chains.

“We do sell an awful lot around here,” he says. “There are stores that sell 40 to 60 cases a week, which is a lot of salad dressing. It’s not something that you use up right away.”

But the Hartville Kitchen label is on more than just salad dressings. Last fall, the restaurant introduced its refrigerated cookie dough in six Fishers Foods stores in Canton, as well as 12 Giant Eagles and 15 Acmes in the Akron-Canton area and a handful of Marc’s throughout Northeast Ohio. Sommers says other products will follow.

Contrary to what some believe, however, putting a restaurant favorite on supermarket shelves is no piece of cake when you insist on making and packaging it yourself. Sommers says extending shelf life is a major challenge, especially for a place that doesn’t like using preservatives. According to Pawley, distributors and retailers who don’t properly store or rotate the product compound the problem.

“You can end up with more problems than you’ll ever have profits if the product is mishandled,” he says.

Pawley says Sommers learned that lesson the hard way long ago, when Hartville Kitchen tried to make pies for sale at other outlets.

“People would advertise that they had the Hartville Kitchen pies, and they’d do a good business with them,” he says. “But if they had a slow couple of days and didn’t sell all their pies, they’d hold them over for the next day. Well, they don’t do that at Hartville Kitchen. And if the pie wasn’t good, (Hartville Kitchen) got blamed for it.

“When you sell somebody something, it no longer belongs to you. You can’t tell them what to do with it.”

To prevent such problems with the cookie dough — a product suggested by Pawley that comes in chocolate crinkle, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar and “bushel” varieties — Sommers and his crew are working to extend its all-natural nine-week shelf life, which limits distribution.

“A lot of it is sold now at school fund-raisers,” Sommers says.

Freezing, of course, would eliminate the problem. But the refrigerated dough, which comes in a resealable 1 1/2-pound plastic tub, allows consumers to bake as many cookies as they want, whenever they want. In this case, as with some of the salad dressings, preservatives that Sommers says won’t change the flavor will be added to the recipe.

“We try to use natural ingredients when we can, things like vinegar in the salad dressings,” Sommers says. “But in this case, you are almost forced into using (preservatives). … It’s just almost impossible to market something that’s got only nine weeks from the time we produce it until you have to use it, to get it through distribution and everything.”

Packaging is yet another consideration.

“When we bring out a new product, we take it a step at a time,” Sommers says. “Sometimes we do things by hand, then we buy equipment that will go into an automatic line later on. We’ll just keep on adding to it. We’re not one of these companies where we go out and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, then hope it works.”

Although a machine deposits cookie dough into containers, the lids are still put on by hand. In contrast, the salad dressing line — which once consisted of a one-gallon blender and pitchers used to fill jars by hand — is almost completely automated, with a system capable of cranking out 10,000 pint jars a day.

Then there’s the matter of getting a new product into grocery stores and retaining a distributor. The word-of-mouth success of Hartville Kitchen’s dressings belies the effort of doing both.

“It’s very, very competitive,” Sommers says. “You don’t see grocery stores with empty shelves looking for new product. You have to prove to them that they can make money at it. That’s the name of the game.”

The Miller family and its parent company, Hartville Auction, have a history of accomplishing big things. Six Miller grandchildren and their spouses, with the exception of one granddaughter, are all involved in the businesses to varying degrees.

Over the years, they’ve turned the restaurant into a day-trip destination. Hartville Kitchen relocated to its current site five years ago after it outgrew the former dry goods store the lunch stand occupied after the health department closed it in 1966 — officials didn’t like the idea of Soloma preparing and serving soups and sandwiches over the livestock pens, according to grandson Howard Miller Jr.

Next to the new restaurant is a bakery and candy shop; above it is a 15,000-square-foot gift shop that sells everything from greeting cards to Hummel figurines and Swarovski crystal, and a 5,000-square-foot art gallery that features works by painter Thomas Kinkade. The family also owns a large True Value hardware store purchased in 1972.

Behind the restaurant, ground has been broken for a 85,000-square-foot flea market that Sol started not long after he opened the livestock auction in the late 1930s. The old restaurant houses a 15,000-square-foot antique mall and the salad dressing manufacturing operations, but there are plans to build a new plant for the latter.

“We had always made our own salad dressings here,” Sommers says. “People started asking for them, and we used to put them in a 16-ounce paper cup, put a lid on it, and sell them that way. Then the local grocer asked for them, so we got a little container to put them in for him.”

In July 1976, Pawley, whose only client at the time was a maker of frozen pizzas, approached the Miller family about selling the dressings in grocery stores.

“Within about three months, (Bob) was no longer selling pizzas — nothing but salad dressings,” Sommers says.

Pawley says the Hartville Kitchen-brand cookie dough, limited though distribution may be, is “doing very well.”

“We are going to hopefully come out a lot stronger with it this fall,” he says.

A refrigerated ready-to-bake pie crust — a challenge even for accomplished cooks — may follow. Pawley says the restaurant is already testing crusts for shelf life. Another potential product is noodles.

“We use a lot of noodles here, and we don’t make our own,” Sommers says. “We would love to do that some time.”

Subsequent products will be items that are popular in the restaurant and bakery and that meet the needs and desires of consumers.

“We’ve talked about barbecue sauces and all kinds of things,” Sommers says. “But that’s just not who we are.” How to reach: Hartville Kitchen, (330) 877-9353

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.