With all of the focus on Wellness, I had the unique pleasure to interview Chris Mittlestaedt, the CEO of The FruitGuys to understand what offerings are being developed to solve the issue of fresh fruit availability in the workplace. Pretty awesome story! (How awesome? They have been named one of the fastest growing businesses each year since 2008 by Inc.com)
What led you to start The FruitGuys?
I’ve always been someone who has liked personal health. I was a hyperactive kid who always participated in sports and that has carried through into my adult life. FruitGuys is definitely part of who I am however, if I’m being honest I have to say that starting FruitGuys was born out of an act of desperation. In late 1997 I was in between jobs and working as a temp in the business office of the Fairmont hotel. I was 27, had a 19 year old boss who called me “fax boy” and my wife had just let me know that she was unexpectedly pregnant. I had experience running a business while I was in college and I realized that it was either now or never for starting something. I talked to some folks in downtown San Francisco — remember this was the beginning of the first dot com wave — and people started telling me that they were feeling unhealthy and gaining weight fast due to the fountains of Jolt Cola and chocolate covered espresso beans that were flowing wildly at that time. Armed with the idea of bringing fruit into office break rooms as an alternative to the junk food, I started calling on businesses in the Embarcadero Center of SF. I think I made nearly 500 phone calls and was able to get 5 companies to try us out. Those first few years were very difficult especially with a new born and then soon twins on the way as well. I would start at midnight and work until the afternoon and then do it again. We’ve been very lucky that we have clients who appreciate what we do and today we have thousands of customers and serve millions of people per year. It’s a long way from that moment in the basement of the Fairmont hotel.
For my readers, how does it work? What is the value proposition?
Companies are looking for ways to keep employees healthy and The FruitGuys fulfils that need. Our success is evidence that businesses understand the importance of creating healthy environments for their employees. Something as simple as giving someone a healthy choice rather than junky choices has a huge impact. We see examples of businesses who start with us as an alternative to the chips and chocolate in break rooms and then switch to a “healthy-kitchen” concept for their employees. We are committed to growing the business in a way that reflects our values and thus have multiple hubs around the United States from which our local buyers can work with small and regional farms to bring in not only the stuff that folks can find across the nation such as bananas but also the special small farmed and local gems of produce that are harder to discover. Once we bring the fruit into our warehouse in each location we hand pack our mixes and then deliver it to you next day. Customers range from Fortune 500 companies to family-owned businesses like us. The value proposition – healthy snacks can make office workers happier, healthier and more productive.
What are the farmers like? Are they organic growers? Large farmers, or small local farmers?
I love the fact that we get to know the farmers we work with across the country. Many are organic growers but we also have conventional fruit that we sell as well. The common thread when we work with local farms is to work with the small folks who are great stewards of the land that they work. We obviously also buy from folks that grow things like bananas as that is a very popular office fruit, so I don’t want to communicate that we only work with small guys however it is the small American farmer that we are most interested in supporting. This year as an example we started The FruitGuys Community Fund, a non-profit fiscally sponsored project of Community Initiatives with a mission to support small independent American farm. Our mission aims to support farms, farmers, non-profits and policies that allow for greater environmental and economic health, community engagement and advocacy that embrace sustainable agriculture.
What are the success stories that you have had so far?
There are a great number of them. We hear from companies that see improvements in self reported health amongst employees, tell us that morale has increased due to the fruit offering and we even have seen companies that use us as a communication tool by bringing people together across the company over healthy fruit. On the HR Benefits side for larger organizations that act as ASO’s we’ve heard that they use the fruit and our individual take home program to help with issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and other disease management issues that they are attempting to address.
What limitations do you have on your distribution – any geographical limitations?
We deliver all over the US out of multiple locations.
What’s in the future for FruitGuys?
We will continue to stay focused on our goal of working with regional and local farmers, supporting companies who are creating healthy environments for their employees and thinking about ways we can help individuals achieve greater personal health. We are very focused on doing all of this in a privately held and long term format as a way to model healthy business sustainability and values along the way.
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