Brad's Raw Foods Founder Shares How His Kale Chips Landed on 7,000 Store Shelves
Brad Gruno lost a lot of money and confidence before he grew Brad's Raw Foods into a business with products available in 7,000 stores.
Before he began eating or selling kale chips and other vegetable-based snacks, Gruno was a victim of the telecoms crash of 2001. He escaped the ensuing depression and weight gain by taking on a diet of only fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.
His homemade kale chips were the talk of farmers markets in Bucks County, PA by 2009. Four years later, his gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO (genetically modified organism) products are available at Whole Foods and other retailers. Last month, he closed a deal with Kroger to land his products in 1,100 locations.
While preparing for the Dec. 31 release of his book, Brad’s Raw Made Easy, Gruno chatted with EcoWatch about his transition from telecommunications to organic foods and his 120-employee company's process from the farm to the chip bag.
What were you doing before you became known for having products in thousands of stores? How did you make that transition?
The whole telecom industry kind of collapsed, mainly because of a glut of fiber and all the investors pulled out. I had a construction company doing about $30 million a year, and I ended up losing everything I had. A lot of people stopped paying me, and it was kind of like a trickle-down effect. I kind of said, 'What am I going to do now?' Here I am in my mid- to late-40s ... Here I was, 40 pounds heavier. I was depressed because I just lost my company. What am I going to do to get out of this rut? My aunt introduced me to raw foods. I watched this video called Eating. It was two doctors and they were talking about Americans and where they were going with processed foods and obesity rate ... Something clicked right then and there. I said, 'You know what? I can sit here being depressed or at least one thing I can do is start putting good food in my body and start exercising.' It made me feel better. I lost 40 pounds by going on a raw foods diet. Mentally, I started to feel better and I wasn't depressed even though I lost everything.
Once I started to feel better, I would make these chips out of vegetables. I would just make them for myself, never thought about making a business out of it ... Somebody said to me, 'Hey, you've got a great product here.' And that somebody showed me an article where the CEO of Whole Foods [John Mackey] said that he wished he didn't have the chip aisle because it's the most unhealthy aisle he has in the store ... I started to go to farmers markets because everybody said, 'Brad, that's a great idea.' So, I set up at my little Ottsville Farmers Market, and everybody just fell in love with them. They were really encouraging me and it kept me going, so I started doing two farmers markets. Then, I started doing four farmers markets a week. I went to an organic farm and turned a one-car garage into my little chip factory. I went to a couple little local health food stores. There's one called Kimberton Whole Foods. They had a chain of about eight stores. [The ownership] put me in there, and they just started selling. It was $8 a bag and I was just selling so much of them. Then it was, 'You ought to go to Whole Foods.' I'm like, 'Well, I don't even know how to get in there or how that works. This is not my world.'
I just went and knocked on the door of Whole Foods in Philadelphia. I met a guy there and said, 'These are my chips' and explained it to him. He's like , 'Wow, this is unbelievable.' It took me six months to do all the paperwork to get approved. I got into one store there in Philly. Then, I got into Princeton [New Jersey] Whole Foods. I started to demo in the stores and that's when I gave up the farmers markets. I ended up selling 14,000 a month per store in Princeton. It didn't take rocket science to figure out [the potential]. Whole Foods, at that point, because I didn't have any money, lent me money to build a bigger place and buy some equipment. They help out a lot of small entrepreneurs. Seriously. Nobody else does that. They have a loan program to help out smaller entrepreneurs come out with new, innovated, good, healthy food. Next thing you know, we got it ... I said, 'Will you let me grow, store by store,' and they said absolutely. I started going to store to store [in the Mid-Atlantic region]. That just kind of blew up. Then, 'Can you go into another region?' New York, Boston, Florida, Chicago. Next thing you know, I'm nationwide.
Where do you get your kale?
It's grown all over the U.S., in cool climates, on the eastern side of the U.S., from Florida, all the way up to Maine. We have great farming right here, near New Jersey, in Bucks County, PA where I am. It's great, but we can only grow kale here six or seven months a year. It either gets too hot in the middle of the summer or too cold in the dead of winter. So, we go to Florida. There are farmers who have organic farms. I have gone down, like in North Carolina, I personally met every one of these farmers. I guaranteed them because they were a little scared. I said, 'If you grow 50 acres, I guarantee I'll buy every leaf.'
Right now, we buy 65,000 pounds of kale a week that we process ... We get tractor-trailer loads of kale every other day. The majority of it comes from probably 15 good, decent-sized, organic farmers.
Can you describe the process from the time when you get the kale to when we see it on store shelves?
We get the kale and it comes in the big leaves, kind of looks like a sponge, in a way, almost. The first thing we do to it is wash it. Then we de-stem it. We actually compost the stems back into the soil. Once we have the clean kale, I make it no differently than I made it when I was making it for myself. I would take a blender and I would take cashews, sunflower seeds, red bell peppers, scallions, sea salt ... imagine putting that into a blender and it would make a batter, almost like a pancake batter. I would rub that into the kale by hand. I have 25 people and that's all they do all day. It's not a machine that does it. Then we set it on a tray and we dehydrate it. People say, 'why is it so much money?' When you look at that little container, it might be eight times the amount of that when you start. When you dehydrate something, it's 80 percent water. It dries for 15 hours below 115 degrees. You're not cooking it, you're not baking it, you're not frying it. All you're doing is drying it and you're taking the moisture out of the air. Now, it's so light. All this kale is condensed in this container. That's what maintains the enzymes when you dry something below 115 degrees. You're not killing all the good nutrients and enzymes within those vegetables.
When I first started, I started to compost all these stems. I'd throw them into the soil because I worked on this organic farm. We would grind them up, put it back in the soil and compost and use it again. That was 30 percent of my weight, but they're just as healthy as these kale leaves. As I started to grow, now I've got truck loads of stems that are being hauled up the road to farmers, to pig farmers. I had so many, I couldn't give them away. I said, 'We've got to make a product out of this.' What we did was we came up with a pet food that is 50 percent kale-based. I took my dehydration process, grind up the stems and I mix other vegetables in it. It's human-grade dog food. People today are looking for something healthy to eat for their dogs? I'm going to give you something that's kale that humans can eat. I did a show in Las Vegas and PetSmart came to me and said, 'Whoa, Brad. We want to do an exclusive with you. Can you just sell to us for six months? In return, we'll put you in 1,200 stores across the U.S. and Canada.' We just shipped our first couple tractor trailers of pet food to PetSmart. We're the only dehydrated pet snack in PetSmart. We're really kind of changing some stuff ... That's talking about being sustainable, by taking everything in your plant and utilizing it.
What is the most important tip you can give to somebody who wants to take their product from the farmers-market level to the national scale as you've done?
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Go to Whole Foods. Don't be afraid to go in there. Talk to the guy that has had success ... Don't give up. I was discouraged many times. One day, you didn't sell anything and it's like, 'Oh my gosh!' Don't get discouraged. You've got to keep plugging away. As long as you believe it's good and it's good for the environment and it's healthy and good for people, if you really know that, keep plugging away.
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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