Inc. 5000 Applicant of the Week: Bare Fruit
When asked to talk about their companies, most entrepreneurs – especially those who own multiple businesses – talk about their overarching mission, work environment, employee capabilities, and consumer reach as well as the product or service they sell to create a well-rounded picture of their company. But serial entrepreneur Bradford Oberwager can't stop talking about his product.
"I can't really tell you about the company until I tell you about the product," Oberwager starts. "Our product is our company."
Given such an emphasis, Bare Fruit's product is almost unthinkably simple. It's apples. Or rather, freshly grown Washington State apples sliced, dried and baked into a snack chip. Rather than adding additional sugars, Bare Fruit caramelizes apples' natural sugars to make a tastily sweet snack made of one extremely healthy ingredient. Despite its simplicity, Bare Fruit is changing the very nature of snacking.
"We believe anyone should have the right to a healthy snack, to a snack that's good for you, that still tastes good," Oberwager says. "I differentiate between 'better for you' and 'good for you'. There's a lot of stuff out there that's 'better for you' because the stuff before that was 'bad for you'. If a potato chip is bad for you, a granola bar is better for you, and a carrot stick is good for you, Bare Fruit is the equivalent of a carrot stick. It's just more delicious."
Oberwager is no stranger to the Inc. 500 list. Oberwager's father put his own company, Western Sky, on the list two decades ago, and Oberwager's own company, Sundia, ranked No. 130 overall and No. 2 on the Food & Beverage industry list in 2010. Based on last year's growth, Oberwager expects both Sundia and Bare Fruit to be included again this year.
Unlike most of Oberwager's entrepreneurial pursuits – a long list that includes Sundia, the former online pharmacy more.com, custom vitamin company Acumins, and most recently outsourcing service Camp6 – that he helped found, Oberwager was not part of Bare Fruit from the beginning. Rather, he bought the company last December, six years into the company's existence.
The history of Bare Fruit began in 2004 when farmer Eric Strandberg and neighbor Jeff Oberfelder began making apple crisps from the apples grown on their farms in Okanogan Valley in northern Washington State. Due to the great expenses of a food-based business, they sold their venture to a larger conglomerate, Old World Industries, in 2006. Under Old World Industries, Bare Fruit grew substantially, from just over 1 million to 6.4 million in revenue by 2010.
This was in large part due to Strandberg's continued dedication to his company, which he continued to work for after the acquisition. By December 2010, Oberwager bought Bare Fruit from Old World Industries and began infusing his own managerial style into the business. This began with an emphasis on outsourcing.
"I believe outsourcing is not done to lower costs," says Oberwager. "It's actually done to better the experience for your customers and for your employees. So while I systematize and I make the back office very efficient, the front office is more of a family."
Bare Fruit's "back office" consists of 25 outsourced workers from Oberwager's Camp6 and Pine Creek Pack. This workforce fulfills every role from receptionist to accountant to apple packager, allowing Oberwager, Strandberg and Oberfelder –CEO, general manager, and director of sales, respectively and the company's only true employees – to focus on sales and the company's larger visions. And while Strandberg and Oberfelder work from their headquarters in Omak, Washington, Oberwager oversees all operations remotely from San Francisco.
"Food companies are tied to the land, so having Bare Fruit be based in Omak next to all the apples is very important," Oberwager explains. "But the management of those companies has nothing to do with the land."
Despite the somewhat disjointed aspects of this managerial system, it seems to be working for Bare Fruit. According to Oberwager, the company has improved relationships with major vendors such as Costco and Whole Foods and project sales on its website, barefruit.com, alone will reach $400,000 this year.
Bare Fruit also recently finalized a partnership with the U.S. Water Polo team for a marketing campaign set for this September. "You can use your imagination of where I'm going to strategically place boxes of Bare Fruit in the photo shoots," Oberwager laughs.
Oberwager hopes Bare Fruit will double in size over the next year. The key challenge for the food company will be to do so profitably. With the recent change in leadership, the last six months at Bare Fruit have been burdened with added expenses and an overhaul of the company's financial and operational systems. But, Oberwager is optimistic in his newest company's future.
"The transition was very challenging," he said. "But we had a meeting last week, and I said, 'You know what, we're through it. Good job, everyone, now we're going places.'"