Ken Jansen – Grits for The Grand and Everybody Else

Working after hours can be a grind for 71-year-old Ken Jansen, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jansen works during the day at Fairhope Tire, which he has owned and operated since 1995. But at least one night a week finds him doing a second shift of sorts — grinding corn in a back room of his shop and producing high-quality corn meal and grits as a robust side business. 

“I usually grind the corn after my regular store hours on Monday night, ” he says. “Sometimes I do it two nights a week, maybe a few other hours here and there. I usually do about eight hours a week.”

Jansen sells his corn products to a discerning group of customers that includes the iconic Grand Hotel Marriott, Hazel’s Market in Daphne, several restaurants in Mobile and Danny’s Fried Chicken in Fairhope. “They all pick up their orders right here at the store every Tuesday morning, ” he says.

The grinding machine, which dates back to Jansen’s dad, Claude, runs at far less than top speed to ensure a high quality product.

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Jansen says he grinds his corn nice and slow, which results in a better taste. “If I ran my (milling machine) at capacity, I could do about 600 pounds of corn an hour, ” he says. “But if I did that, it would heat up the corn. It would cook it somewhat, and when it gets hotter, the taste goes away.”

Instead, Jansen grinds much slower — about 100 pounds an hour — turning 50-pound sacks of shelled corn into ground corn that still has a moisture content between 14-16 percent.  That much moisture requires that his corn be refrigerated, but the tradeoff is fresher taste.

“The main income from my corn products is from selling grits, and the Grand Hotel is my main outlet, ” he says. “At times, they’ll use 250 pounds a week, and I’ve got to have that ready for them if they have a big shindig, a conference or something like that. And their golf course café uses the grits, too. The Grand Hotel can use that much, but normally they need about 100 pounds a week.”

The corn products that Jansen’s food service customers don’t buy are sold from a large display cooler in the waiting room of his automotive shop. They are packed in pint, quart and gallon bags, ranging in price from $2 to $12. Customers who get a tire change or buy other services get a free bag of corn meal. 

Jansen will ship his products upon request, although he says it’s costly to do so. “Some people will call me from places like Washington, D.C., Oregon or New York and say that they’ve been at the Grand Hotel and heard about my grits, ” he says. “I will ship, but it isn’t something I do regularly — only if they call.”

Jansen managed tire and service stores for both Firestone and Goodyear for 23 years before starting his own shop 20 years ago. He runs his tire shop with the same attention to detail and emphasis on service that he puts into his corn-products side business. “I truly feel an obligation to my customers to make their driving safer at a fair price, ” he says.

With a pneumatic lug wrench you want maximum torque and RPMs. With a cornmeal mill, not so much.

Jansen learned a lot about mechanics from his father, Claude, and that has served him well in the automotive business. “My dad had a very mechanical mind, and I gained knowledge and training from him, ” says Jansen, who holds a degree in Industrial and Personnel Management from the University of Alabama.

Late in his life, and after his own successful career, Claude Jansen started grinding corn as a hobby. “When my father’s health started going down (he died in 2006), he wanted me to continue what he had started with the corn, ” Jansen says. “I started this as a commitment to him, but once I get into something, I go at it pretty hard. I’ve increased the corn products business from almost nothing to what it is now. It’s paying for itself and making me a little money.

“A lot of people know me as the tire guy, ” Jansen says. “While producing corn products over the last few years, I have been rewarded by all the customers telling me how much they enjoy these products. I’ll do it until I die, most likely. It’s something I enjoy doing. I watched my dad do it, and he got great satisfaction from it. I’ll keep doing it. There are too many people who would come and shoot me if I didn’t.”

Jansen married his wife, Rita, in 1966, and they have three children. “I’ve met a lot of people in the tire and service business, and producing corn products has let me meet many more people, ” Jansen says. “These have been my jobs, but I hope I will be remembered more not so much for my work but for being a loving husband and dad. I am a proud and loving grandfather of six grandchildren.”

Charlie Ingram and Matt Gates are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Ingram is based in Birmingham and Gates in Spanish Fort.

text by charlie ingram • photos by matt gates

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