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Chaldean Entrepreneur Snacks His Way to Success
By David Najor :: Sunday, September 8, 2013 :: 10865 Views :: Article Rating :: Business & Finance

 

H. Michael Robin arrived in Detroit from his native Baghdad, Iraq, in 1968. The Chaldean immigrant found a job loading potato chips onto delivery trucks.

That modest beginning led to Grandpapa’s, a snack food manufacturer that is part of Robin’s $15-million-a-year snack food business. From a newly renovated 140,000-square-foot factory at 6500 Davison in Detroit, Robin ships pallets stacked with cheese curls, cheese balls, and other snacks around the globe.

Locally, Grandpapa’s may be best known for its line of pork rinds, although that particular snack food is just the tip of a business operation that ships 99% of its production overseas.

From loading trucks to owning a far-flung export business was a journey of hard work and luck and seizing every opportunity.

“Determination and guts and a lot of hard work and don’t take no for an answer,” Robin, 66, said last week. “When you start something you have to really put 150%. It’s a lot of your own money, efforts, sleepness nights. Hard work will always get you there.”

In Grandpapa’s cavernous plant, employees wearing hair nets at various machines mix cheese and other ingredients to bake and package the cheese curls and other snacks. Grandpapa’s also is a “co-packer’ for other brands such as Better Made’s potato chips.

Grandpapa’s is now on the verge of major expansion, which Robin said will boost his workforce from 22 to about 70. The expansion is being underwritten by Urban Partnership Bank, a Chicago operation that recently opened an office in Midtown Detroit.

Invest Detroit, a nonprofit funding operation, brought Grandpapa’s to the attention of the bank. Melinda Clemons, a lending officer at the bank, worked with Invest Detroit and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to get Robin the funding he needed for his expansion.

Clemons cited Grandpapa’s strong business model, export focus, and the willingness to take over a vacant industrial building in the city of Detroit. “What a great success story,” Clemons said last week. “When we put all that together, we said, ‘Wow, this would be a great partnership for us.’ ”

Robin’s son, Michael, 24, serves as vice president and checks the export-oriented site Alibaba.com for leads on new opportunities. “I get inquiries from the most random countries in the world,” he said, including a recent query from French Guiana.

Many of products they ship overseas carry brand names such as America’s Best or Lady Liberty, and all are clearly marked as products made in the U.S.A.

“People love American product,” Robin said last week. “And when a person in Saudi Arabia or the Philippines or wherever eat American product, it’s a bragging right. It’s like I’m eating something superior to anything else that’s available. And that’s what sells.”