Bucks entrepreneur's raw foods flying off the shelves

The seeds and kale. Product demand has been robust .
The seeds and kale. Product demand has been robust .
Posted: April 15, 2014

With annual sales of his raw-foods snacks closing in on $20 million and investment experts suggesting that could rise to at least $100 million in the not-too-distant future, Doylestown-based organi-preneur Brad Gruno's lesson is indisputable:

Mothers have been on to something all along with their "Eat your vegetables!" harping.

Gruno was smart enough to build a business off it - one that started in 2009 with a sales table at a Bucks County farmers' market and now has shelf space in major markets such as Whole Foods and Wegmans and many specialty grocers.

His Brad's Raw Foods product line has expanded from raw tortilla chips made of a dehydrated mixture of fresh vegetables, flaxseed, and buckwheat groats to include seasoned sprouted seeds, dried onion rings, and what is now responsible for 70 percent of sales: six flavors of crunchy kale.

On the way are "broccoli poppers": dried crowns coated with a cashew-based batter similar to what has made Brad's Raw kale so popular, even at $7.99 for 2.5 ounces.

Demand is so robust, including internationally, that Gruno said it's time to bring in experts to help scale up the business, not yet profitable because of all the investments to handle growth. He is seeking equity investors.

"We don't know how to build the best manufacturing facility in the world, but there are people that do," said Gruno, 55, of Quakertown, who wants to continue to be "the face of the brand and come up with new products."

It's an impressive comeback personally and professionally for Gruno, whose cookbook, Brad's Raw Made Easy, came out in January.

The Hartsville native was riding high in the 1990s - sometimes on his 68-foot yacht - as owner of an Atlanta-area company serving the telecommunications industry. That sector's implosion in 2001 took out his business.

"I ended up losing everything," Gruno said.

He returned to the comfort of family in Bucks County, where a dinner invitation would revive his health and entrepreneurial verve. Aunt Joyce Murphy in Ottsville served him a five-course raw meal - and a short video about the harm done by food. An overweight Gruno went on a 100 percent raw diet, and, after a month, "I felt like a million dollars." Within three, he had lost 40 pounds.

As part of his new eating regimen, Gruno was making his own chips. A fortuitous encounter with a guy selling raw-food salsa at a Go Green Expo in Philadelphia led to Gruno's making his chips for sale at farmers' markets.

Soon, his home-based chip operation moved to a converted garage on an organic farm in Pipersville. Then came a chance to sell Brad's Raw Chips at two Whole Foods Stores, in Philadelphia and Princeton. The business took off.

Gruno moved production to a bigger place with a low-interest loan through Whole Foods' Producer Loan Program. Neither he nor Whole Foods would disclose the amount.

"The partnership has been a win-win, as our customers have enjoyed finding new ways to incorporate more vegetables into their diet while Whole Foods Market has continued its mission of supporting local producers," AnaMaria Friede, the chain's Mid-Atlantic grocery buyer, said in an e-mail. Brad's Raw products are now in 100 Whole Foods stores.

Family and friends also invested. Production moved again 21/2 years ago to roomier quarters in Pipersville. Corporate offices and a warehouse are in Doylestown. The company has 120 employees.

"Crazy, isn't it?" Gruno said one morning last week, standing amid pallets piled high with boxes of his vegan, kosher, organic, gluten-free, no genetically modified-organism creations bearing goofy names such as Vampire Killer and Pina Kale-Ada.

Linda Sartor, a nutritionist at Penn Rodebaugh Diabetes Center, said Gruno has "created quite a phenomenon. It's encouraging a greater consumption of vegetables."

But because a raw-foods diet is "a difficult lifestyle to maintain 100 percent" and not "necessarily the most economical," Sartor said she "would tend to see it more as a fad."

Not agreeing - at least when it comes to snacking - is Michael Burgmaier, managing director at Silverwood Partners, the Massachusetts investment bank Gruno has hired to find equity investors.

"Healthy snacking is a very real trend," Burgmaier said, noting that Brad's Raw sales are strong in both the natural- and conventional-foods markets.

"It's proven the brand can stick and can expand in both sectors," he said. "It can easily be five times the size they are now."


>Inquirer.com

The powerhouse that is crunchy kale. Brad Gruno talks on video about one healthy business at www.inquirer.com/business


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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