Food For Thought

How persistence and passion turned a new idea into a multimillion-dollar business
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the March 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

In this excerpt, Paul Wenner, founder of Wholesome and Hearty Foods, recalls his accidental invention of the vegetarian Gardenburger and his struggle to turn the idea into a business.

It was 1981, and at last, I was going to realize my dream--the opening of a gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The Gardenhouse Restaurant [in Gresham, Oregon,] opened to good reviews. Like all restaurateurs, I was soon faced with [the problem of] what to do with the leftovers. My solution was something I called the "Gardenloaf Sandwich," made of leftover vegetables and rice pilaf. Later, I got the idea of slicing up the loaf into what looked like patties--and suddenly the Gardenburger was born.

Grilled and placed in a hamburger bun, it was an instant success. [Soon,] one out of every two lunches sold was a Gardenburger. Cholesterol consciousness was just beginning to build in the early 1980s, and I'd truly found the "food for the times."

I was thrilled that a product I loved was so popular, but I still hadn't conceived of it as a product that might build a miniempire. In the summer of 1982, however, I began to get an inkling that there might be life for the Gardenburger outside my little restaurant. At the annual Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, I set up a small stand and sold 800 Gardenburgers in two days--mostly to people who'd never even heard of a meatless burger. The next year, I sold twice as many.

Another restaurant with a food booth at the festival was so impressed by my sales that its owners asked me if they could sell the Gardenburger at their deli. I consented, and they sold more than I did. I thought, "Wow, if I could get 100 restaurants to sell Gardenburgers, I could live off something I really believe in."

But another reality soon asserted itself. In 1984, the Oregon recession was verging on a depression, and it was a struggle to keep the restaurant afloat. The restaurant closed in November 1984. I thought it was the end of the world.

In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened. If the restaurant had succeeded, I'd probably still be there today, and Wholesome and Hearty Foods and the tremendous success of the Gardenburger might never have come to be. But at the time, I was feeling pretty bleak.

Old customers called me to commiserate, and almost all of them told me how much they were going to miss my Gardenburgers. Several asked me if there weren't some way they could still get them. One of my best customers, a salesman named Allyn Smaaland, had said on more than one occasion that he would love to help me sell Gardenburgers. [He and I] began plotting ways to salvage the Gardenburger.

Neither Allyn nor I had any money, just a lot of imagination and energy. We put out feelers everywhere, and one day, my sister Linda, who was a top salesperson for the Louisiana-Pacific (L-P), then a
$2 billion-plus company in the building industry, said, "You ought to talk to Harry Merlo." Harry was [L-P's] CEO and a legendary figure in the Pacific Northwest. "I'm serious," my sister said. "Harry's really into this health thing."

I arrived early the next day for my appointment with Harry, in his suite high atop Portland's tallest skyscraper. I stayed focused and gave [Harry's personal chef] Buzz some quick tips on how to cook a Gardenburger. I knew this would be the most important Gardenburger ever grilled.

Harry invited me to talk about myself, and I did. Then, abruptly, he asked me why I thought Gardenburgers would succeed.

I said they'd succeed because they fill a growing hunger people have--to be healthier. I could see Harry really perk up.

"I like how you think," Harry said. "Let's go into the kitchen and try one of those burgers."

[Harry tried the Gardenburger, loved it, and offered to finance Wenner's start-up, giving him $60,000 for the first year.]

[Then] Harry froze me with a piercing look and asked, "When will this business make money?"

I knew Harry expected me to have thought all this out very carefully. I gulped and said, "Harry, this business will make money in the 13th month and from then on will be profitable." My answer was based on nothing more than the notion that I'd work my tail off for a year and if we weren't flying by then, we weren't going to get off the ground.

Things didn't go well in the beginning. Allyn would go around to 15 or 20 restaurants some days and come back with few accounts. I found the situation extremely frustrating. I knew people wanted Gardenburgers, and I knew I could sell them. So I suggested to Allyn we switch places for awhile.

And, sure enough, I started getting accounts--not in great waves at first, but steadily. I had my chef background going for me; I could go into restaurants and show people how to make Gardenburgers so appealing that [customers] couldn't resist them.

Generally, if I could get the product into somebody's mouth, the Gardenburger completed the sales job. The trick, though, was to get through the front door before getting thrown out. For every restaurant manager who would say yes, another nine would say no. A lot of people asked me how I could stand all that rejection. But I always looked at each no as a positive. I knew it was a numbers game. Each no simply brought me to the inevitable yes.

That, I believe, is a key trait of every successful salesperson--always seeing a positive in a negative. I put this attitude into practice whenever I'd enter a restaurant [only] to be told "We don't get any vegetarians in here." My response was "Maybe that's because there's nothing vegetarian on your menu."

[Sometimes I left] free product. This approach paid off. Every time I'd come back after leaving a free case of Gardenburgers, I'd have a new account. By the end of 1985, I had 75 or 80 restaurants signed up. But despite our progress, time was running out on us, as was our money. We still hadn't turned a nickel of profit.

The big national Natural Food Expo Show was coming up in Los Angeles in March 1986, and I knew we had to get our product into that show so health-food retailers from all around the country could learn about us and actually sample Gardenburgers. The fee was $1,200--close to what we had left [of Harry's] seed money. I decided to spend it.

Fortified with some new packaging for the product, I headed down to Los Angeles. I knew there was a cafeteria at the expo center. I had thought every exhibitor would be battling to get their products into the cafeteria and was astounded to discover not a single one had approached the management.

Retailers started noticing how many people were buying Gardenburgers at the cafeteria and sought me out on the floor. Orders started to pour in. Suddenly, the Gardenburger was the talk of the show.

I went back to Portland feeling vindicated.

And so it was that we arrived at the 13th month and, right on schedule, our first profit--$300! Harry got wind of our little triumph and phoned me.

"You said you'd make money in the 13th month, Wenner," Harry boomed, "and, by God, I understand we've got 300 bucks profit in the bank. Congratulations!"

Today, over 200 million Gardenburgers have been sold, and Wholesome and Hearty Foods' line of meatless and low-fat foods is available in more than 30,000 food-service outlets, 10,000 grocery stores and 4,000 natural-food stores worldwide.

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