By Mary Gallagher
David Klingenberger is the owner and founder of The Brinery, a Washtenaw County business that produces sauerkraut and other fermented foods that are sold in stores across the Midwest.
What got you started in the sauerkraut business? I was a farmer before that — I found farming in high school, at Tantre Farm. I followed a girlfriend out to Tantre and got into farming. I never went to college. Ultimately, for me, sauerkraut is a beautiful way to preserve the bounty from farming. My deep connection to sauerkraut and brining and fermentation is carrying on the tradition of food preservation that our ancestors have been practicing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Also, we’re enriching the raw ingredients with bacteria, and those probiotic bacteria that are in the fermented vegetables are a key to our health.
What strategies have helped you succeed as a small business owner? My strategy has always been to trust my gut. There’s a reason they have the term “the gut brain.” Serotonin production happens in your gut — to be a healthy human, a lot rests in your digestive system. I’ve relied on my gut brain, and also my community. The farmer who grew me my first cabbage is Richard Andres the farmer who owns Tantre Farm, where I first made sauerkraut back at the turn of the century. So I’ve always relied on my community, and I’ve had a lot of success because people in the community believed in me.
How do you think the local food movement can be made more accessible to people with lower incomes? My goal is to employ people in my community beyond just a paycheck, but to pay a living wage, have a pleasant working environment, and honor the food traditions of the world in an intentional way. It’s funny when you see people who do have a lot of money, like a doctor in Ann Arbor who’s complaining about the price of something, because they can definitely afford it. I understand if it’s somebody who has a lower income who really doesn’t have the money to pay for the best-quality product. But I think it’s also this international thing where food is subsidized by cheap oil, by exploited labor. It’s a shift that needs to happen: what are the true costs of quality products and ingredients? That being said, organic produce and these fancy products like the Brinery sauerkraut are expensive, and therefore are kind of priced out of reach of a lot of lower-income people, and that is a problem. In this modern era, there’s all these layers.
What motivates you to keep doing this work? The world’s a sad and beautiful place, it can be scary, and dark, and overwhelming. For me, it’s always been important to feed my community, from farming and now into making sauerkraut, and I just try to create a positive and very high-vibration work environment, and create nurturing living foods to feed my community. I feel like that makes sense to me, and that will keep me on track.
What’s on the horizon for the Brinery? I definitely want to keep scaling this company up, while maintaining this deep connection and roots in the local community, with local farmers, making product within Washtenaw County. Already we’re selling our products in over 500 stores all over the Midwest, and we will continue to redefine what local means. I’m not just a hyper-local company — I’m proud to have a product that’s exported out of Michigan. Northern Ohio is way more part of our food growing region than northern Michigan — all these things are arbitrary, and so I’m looking at our place in the greater community as the Great Lakes region…Anyone who eats a jar of Brinery sauerkraut is a part of my community. So that’s what’s coming up: more growth, more product development.