The Evolution of Ryan Thornburg: Chef to Name Brand to Retail Executive

2014-02-26T12:41:00Z 2014-02-28T09:32:06Z The Evolution of Ryan Thornburg: Chef to Name Brand to Retail ExecutiveJane Ammeson
February 26, 2014 12:41 pm  • 

In the past I always could get in touch with Ryan Thornburg. All I had to do was call the Bistro on the Boulevard where he was the well-known and affable executive chef who made seriously great food.

But that was then.

Recently it took a serious game of phone tag until I finally caught up with Thornburg late at night as he drove his truck from Grand Rapids---where Thornburg and his wife Julie have a retail shop at the recently opened Downtown Market on Ionia Street---to the Thornburg's home in Stevensville, on the outskirts of the St. Joe/Benton Harbor metropolis.

Or maybe he was driving home from Chicago where he’d just had a day full of tastings for his recently developed line of preserves including Stanley Plum with Green Cardamom at Pastoral, a purveyor of artisan cheeses, breads, pantry goods and wine with three Chicago locations, a showcase for his Thornburg's products.

Of course the former chef could have been just a short distance from his home visiting The Buck Burgers and Brew in downtown St. Joseph, where the recently created “Thornburger”---topped with cream cheese, bacon and his Raspberry with Jalapeno and Kaffir Lime preserves---is on the menu.

But then again, Thornburg might have been traversing the equally short distance from the Ideal Place in the Arts District of downtown Benton Harbor. At the Ideal Place, where Chef Barb Clark is now using Thornburg's Stanley Plum Preserves as an accompaniment to her brined and grilled pork chops.

Whatever, wherever. I’m not even sure Thornburg knows exactly where he is or where he’s going since opening Thornburg and Company in 2011 and becoming an immediate sensational success.

It sounded like such a simple idea.

Ryan Thornburg grew up in the small town of Waterlivet, northeast of St. Joseph, in the house where his father had been raised. While the place is not a farm by agricultural standards, his dad kept a big garden and there are fruit trees around and the family always preserved much of the bounty.

From an early age it was apparent to both Ryan and his family that food was going to be his future. After attending the American Culinary Federation, Thornburg moved into an apprentice chef program with sponsored training at the venerable Tosi’s Restaurant in Stevensville. He worked his way up to chef at Tosi's and remained in that post for five years and then, he explains, he “took a step back” to work as a wine representative. 

Thornburg next had the opportunity to work with New York Chef Ali Barker who had moved to the area to open the Bistro on the Boulevard at the Boulevard In n, the venerable downtown St. Joe hotel overlooking Lake Michigan. Thornburg stayed at the Bistro for three years but returned to Tosi’s when co-owner and head Chef Gary Manigold decided to step down.

When Ali Barker left St. Joe for a chance to make his mark in Ohio, Thornburg returned to the Bistro as executive chef.

That was the job he held when he and his wife Julie started Thornburg and Company. The company was a re-creation of his childhood in the sense that it combined his love of the southwestern Michigan countryside brimming with fresh produce with commerce.

As head chef at both Tosi’s and the Bistro Thornburg had alliances with fruit and vegetable farms, relationships that he leveraged to secure the pick of the crops. Using large open copper kettles to simmer the produce, he and Julie worked on Thornburg preserves with the help of their kids who didn’t mind the picking and cleaning.

The Thornburgs placed their products in local stores like Perennial Accents in St. Joe. Then word spread rapidly after that and orders began flooding in from South Bend, Chicago and Grand Rapids.

At first the Thornburgs had a few products: Jams made from black raspberries, Bartlett pears, Stanley plums and heirloom tomatoes and local honey from bees who had feasted on star thistle, blueberry blossoms or wildflowers, were packed into gleaming jars.

But the first season's efforts ran out quickly as demand increased. Before long Thornburgs added more products—a line of aged balsamic vinegars with such intriguing ingredients as whiskey maple, black currents and needles from Douglas firs, Southwest Michigan maple syrup aged in whiskey barrels (from the Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks) and more preserve combination including selections like Blueberry with Pinot Noir and Lavender, Heirloom Tomato with Star Anise and White Pepper and Blackberry with Lemon Balm.

“I’m always looking for new items that are from our area and under-identified,” Thornburg explains. He forages for seasonal ingredients with his brother Brad, a chef as well, who also works in bottling production for Ryan's company.

One result of the brothers' foraging is a new item --- jam made from ramps and onions.

“There are a lot of wild things growing here that are readily available if you forage,” says Thornburg. “They’re untapped foods. Foraging really opens your eyes to something you’re not used to.”

Julie Thornburg, who has a degree in hospitality from Grand Valley State College, manages the day-to-day operations and also, along with their kids, hits the farmers markets in season. Thornburgs now have a retail store in Benton Harbor in front of their commercial kitchen where Thornburg and Company products are made.

Ryan left the Bistro last year and keeps busy with his exploding business which now includes the Downtown Market Grand Rapids where the couple opened a retail store.

The expansive market has grown rapidly since opening Labor Day weekend of last year. Housed in an old warehouse, the $30 million dollar refurbishment resulted in an outdoor seasonal farmers market as well as an indoor food hall which so far accomodates 19 vendors.

“We have a fishmonger who was at Pike Place Market in Seattle,” says Thornburg, describing Fish Lads which has a stall as well as a restaurant at the emporium.

Currently there are two other places to eat in the food mall, Rak Thai Bistro and Tacos el Cuñado. which also has meals to go and Latin American groceries. Other ready-made meals are available at Making Thyme Kitchen and Miss Maddie’s Fine Foods and other specialty vendors include Montello Meat Market, Aperitivo, a wine and cheese shop, Grocer’s Daughters Chocolates, Field and Fire, an artisan bakery, Spice Merchants, Dorothy and Tony’s Popcorn, Old World Olive Press and Simpatico, a coffee roaster.

There are also cooking classes and seminars for food entrepreneurs like a recent series on selling and transporting food including Introduction to Wholesale, and Growing Wholesale Sales through Grocery Retail.

The Grand Rapids Market also hosts a Happy Hour with drink specials and live music every Thursday from 4-7pm and Office Hours, a designated networking space for owners and entrepreneurs looking to connect with business savvy foodies, that meets from 10am-noon on Wednesdays.

“It’s very exciting, it’s the first year round market in Grand Rapids,” says George Aquino, who just stepped down after three years as board chairman for the Downtown Market. “It anchors the corner and it’s definitely a catalyst for expanding the downtown in terms of walkability. There are already condos going up because of the market.”

Aquino, who spent most of a cold, snowy Sunday at the market recently to recount his foodie experiences as related to the versatile array of market vendors including bread from Field and Fire--- the owner once worked as a baker at Zingerman’s --- a drink at the Bloody Mary Bar and a purchase at Fish Lads, which Aquino pronounces the best every anywhere.

“The community has really embraced us,” says Thornburg, describing his own retail space as well as the market itself.

No matter how hectic life may seem, Thornburg is achieving his dream of helping to lead Southwest Michigan’s agricultural heritage into the forefront of the food world. He is leading force in the effort to put small artisan family farms and food producers at the center of the game, a major player in the region’s rural landscape.

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