With more than 20 years of experience as a chef and a nutritionist, Mareya Ibrahim, the CEO of natural products company Eat Cleaner, had no shortage of ideas on how to improve the way people eat. But one idea in particular had been parked in the back of her mind for a few years. Her father, Shawki Ibrahim, an environmental scientist, had told her that as a PhD student, he had worked on a solution to remove pesticide residue from fresh , but it never came to fruition. produce
That idea took on greater significance for Mareya in 2004, when Shawki was diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer. He had to have his bladder and prostate removed, which severely weakened his immune system. The doctors gave Shawki a list of foods that her father should avoid while he recovered. On the list was uncooked fruits and vegetables, which the doctors warned Ibrahim could be harmful because of bacteria and pesticides.
"I just thought that was crazy--that's the bulk of what you should be eating," Mareya says.
So together, daughter and father set out to create an all-natural produce wash that could remove pesticide, residue, wax, and bacteria, thus making fruits and vegetables safer for people to consume. They called the Lake Forest, California-based company Eat Cleaner; Mareya became the CEO and Shawki the Chief Science Officer. The first task? Figure out how to develop a product they were passionate about, and convince consumers why they should be passionate about it as well.
While Mareya's biggest priority was making sure that the spray could effectively remove bacteria and pesticide residue, she had a few more other items on her wish list. For starters, she wanted to make sure that the product had the right ingredients so that it could get into natural foods stores, like Whole Foods. During her market research, she had also found that many consumers who did use other produce washes complained that they had an aftertaste.
Additionally, she wanted to be able to create another selling point for customers, by creating spray that could increase the shelf life of produce, thus helping them save money.
"Anybody can appreciate the idea of produce lasting longer," Mareya said. "I knew that if we could do that that, then it would be a game changer."
It took about three years, lots of third-party testing, and approximately almost 10 different formulas to bring the Eat Cleaner spray to life. Today, Mareya says that Eat Cleaner removes over 99 percent of bacteria, wax, and pesticides, and can extend the shelf life of produce by up to 200 percent.
Mareya admits that "we were kind of ambitious when we first launched [in 2010]. Most people come out with a product--we came out with a line." She knew that many retailers looked more favorably on a company if it had more SKU numbers, so she developed an Eat Cleaner spray, wipes, and a variety of product packages that included salad spinners, scrub brushes--even a subscription to a Martha Stewart magazine.
She quickly realized it wasn't quite the right approach. "We didn't want to necessarily be in the business of selling apparatuses for cleaning your produce." So she continued to fine-tune the company's focus, and decided to beef up the company's commercial and private label business, which comprise about 50 and 40 percent of the company's business, respectively. The tactic has paid off: Mareya won't disclose revenue figures but says the company has been profitable for the past three years.
Now, Mareya is gearing up to tackle another challenge: beefing up Eat Cleaner's retail sales. Eat Cleaner faces some formidable opponents in the natural consumer products industry--Earth Friendly, Citrus Magic, and Jessica Alba's $1.7 billion The Honest Company are just a few of the well-established brands selling natural produce washes. Honest, for example, sells a patent-pending natural fruit and veggie wash on its website that claims to have many of the same benefits as Eat Cleaner's wash (it removes unwanted pesticide and chemical residue, inhibits browning, and helps food last up to 200 percent longer).
To take Eat Cleaner to the next level, Mareya recently appeared on season two of the TV show Hatched, a family-friendly Shark Tank-like show that aims to help entrepreneurs get "ready for retail." While she hoped to secure an investment from the show's investors, she also wanted to get feedback on how to improve the product and its selling points. Mareya can't divulge the investors' decision, so you have to tune in on September 17 to find out how it went. (Inc.'s LA bureau chief Lindsay Blakely served as a guest mentor on the show.)
"We're building our company for the long haul, so I thought it was great just to get some expertise from the panel of judges, and to be able to interact with so many different personalities," Mareya says.