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PROGRESS 2019: ‘The future looks great’

Gluten-free production expands in Hillman

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Next Phase Enterprises gluten-free products are all made and packaged at the company’s Hillman location. Pictured from left to right, Barb Beegen, Shah Chaudary, Alaine MacQueen, and Lisa Ulin.

HILLMAN — As Next Phase Enterprises Corp. continues to expand the variety of gluten-free products and business they offer out of their Hillman operation, owner and CEO Shah Chaudary says the goal in the coming year is to also expand the company’s baking production.

Next Phase currently manufactures, blends, and packages baking mixes and pastas, with a smaller production in the baking department.

“The next step is we want to bake the goods,” Chaudary said. “Hopefully, we will be launching our brownie in January 2020. In 2020, we’re going to try to expand our baking, because our baking side is not that big.”

Next Phase has more upgrades in the works, including new machinery equipment purchased through a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development grant. The $94,800 grant was given to Next Phase to establish a commercial dry bean and hemp flour production line to expand markets for Michigan crops.

However, the grant money has not kicked in, yet. The project had to be reevaluated because costs were higher than initially thought.

“We are still in the process of getting equipment and trying to figure how much exactly it’s going to cost, because we had the quotes (for equipment) before we went for the grant,” he said. “By the time we got the certificate that we were awarded, we reached out to the suppliers and they started quoting us three times the actual price they had quoted us before, so there is a gap that we are trying to work out.”

Chaudary said he has been in talks with MDARD to see if there are other options, such as finding a way to enhance the grant, but there is no way to tell yet if that’s possible.

Next Phase owners Shah and brother Haq Chaudary bought the facility and company in November 2017 where the former Mrs. Glee’s Gluten-Free Foods once stood.

The time of the shutdown couldn’t have been less fortunate, as employees were out of jobs during the holiday season.

The brothers decided to buy the company, planning to keep the business there just through the holidays so employees had jobs. Plans changed, though, once the two got to see how welcoming the community was and what potential the location held, while knowing how hard it is to generate businesses in the area.

“The goal, here, is to make this place known for quality gluten-free products,” Shah Chaudary said. “My team is very experienced in gluten-free products.”

The decision led the brothers to relocate their Iowa-based business, Breads from Anna, in 2018. Baking equipment from a company they previously purchased in Chicago was also relocated to Hillman.

“From day one, when we purchased the business, Dave Post (the Hillman village manager) had the water supply and everything connected within hours, and, since then, everyone has been so supportive, and we have felt very welcomed here, and it’s a blessing,” Shah Chaudary said.

Employment fluctuates at Next Phase depending on the orders they get from stores, Shah Chaudary said.

The company typically employs 10 to 12 people, but sometimes less than that. The company sells to retailers such a Walmart, Whole Foods, and other grocery stores nationwide.

Its products Breads from Anna and Incredibean navy bean pasta can also be purchased online and shipped to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. About one-third of sales for Breads from Anna are made online.

“If we make a bread from hemp flour, it’s going to have more fiber in it, more protein, more iron, and more calcium, so, nutritionally, it’s better for you, and more and more people are getting into that,” he said. “So, as people are trying to get into the healthy foods, that’s what’s driving the expansion in these foods.”

Barb Beegen, the plant manager and person who handles sales, has been working for Next Phase since the brothers purchased the previous gluten-free company back in 2017. Before that, she was an employee of Mrs. Glee’s and Heartland Ingredients since 2004, with 15 years of experience in the gluten-free industry. She said gluten-free foods have great potential in Hillman.

“That’s why we’re still here, because we see the potential,” she said. “Breads from Anna is one of the premium food products of gluten-free, we know the Incredibean pasta is a good pasta, and it has the high fiber, the high protein, all that kind of stuff. The future looks great.”

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