A Marriage of Ideas
Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Bangor Daily News
BY ALAN ELLIOTT, OF THE NEWS STAFF
Sparks fly when Craig and Rosemary Gladstone talk about their business. On the edge of their folding chairs, in their First South Street, Bar Harbor workspace, they pour out the past, future and present fortunes of Gladstone's Under the Sun.
It's a story about snack mixes with names like Fire of '47, Black Bear Munch and the Caviar of Maine.
The characters include Virginia roasted jumbo peanuts - yogurt covered and otherwise, dried wild blueberries and organic chocolate.
The tale even comes with labels jammed with tidbits about black bears or loons, or topographic hiking maps of Acadia Park.
Outside the shop, most neighboring businesses hibernate through the January-to-March slump. The Gladstones put the time to use, plowing through a post-Christmas checklist: Create new products, redesign labels and upgrade packaging. In the first two days of March, they scooped and shipped orders to L. L. Bean and the Eastern Mountain Sports chain, more than doubling in just two days the volume they delivered last year during the entire month.
This week, the couple returned from their third annual visit to the New England Products Trade show in Portland. They increased orders booked at the show by 180 percent over last year, bringing aboard 23 new wholesale customers.
The Compass Harbor couple came well prepared as entrepreneurs. They had some money to invest and a wealth of professional experience - not to mention an endless stream of sparks. "The one thing we didn't really feel comfortable with," Craig said, "was, how do people really do business in Maine?"
The short answer appears to be, very briskly.
After just two years in business, more than 300 retail shops and stores in Maine sell Gladstone's healthy, grab-and-go snack packages. The company attracts direct-ship customers in all 50 states and overseas through advertising, word of mouth and its Maine Munchies Web site. In the fall, Gladstone's filled its first orders for EMS and L.L. Bean.
But the jump from roadside garden shop to prodigy enterprise came with a steep learning curve. The Gladstones studied up at numerous business seminars through the Washington-Hancock Community Agency, the Small Business Administration and Eastern Maine Development Corp.
There they tapped into the statewide push to move Maine-made products up-market as a kind of collective, specialty item brand.
That push inspired the now-trademarked "Maine Munchies" and the "Caviar of Maine" label for Gladstone's blueberry products. It also inspired calls to growers like South Hiram-based Apple Acres, who now provide dried fruit for their Apple Pie a La Mode snack. It touched off similar supply relationships with instate blueberry and cranberry processors.
Craig Gladstone said shows and fairs, like last weekend's trade show, have generated essentially all the company's wholesale contacts. The couple now counts their connection to those shows and to Maine's small business culture among their most vital assets.
"There is a community support here if you let yourself network," Rosemary said. "There is a tremendous energy in that."
Before snack foods, Rosemary crunched numbers as an accountant and a chief financial officer. She'd managed the books for a senior care facility operator in Virginia as it grew from two to 300 employees. Craig's stomping ground was in bioscience, first in research, then in sales and marketing of biotechnology equipment.
The couple moved from Virginia in 1999 when Craig was hired by Jackson Laboratory to set up the lab's outside and contract sales forces. The job quickly became a worldwide scramble. Gladstone said he chalked-up nearly a half-million frequent-flier miles on US Air alone in less than two years.
"We really came here to enjoy the lifestyle of Maine," he said. "But I didn't get a chance to — I was too busy."
Wanting more time with his son, Abe, who is now 13, Craig gave notice at Jackson lab early in 2001. The couple leased a piece of property at Otter Creek and something new - Gladstone's Under the Sun - was born.
The shop's fresh fruit, vegetables and perennials attracted a steady following through its first season. Then came Sept. 11, and the customers disappeared.
"It was like someone closed a curtain," Rosemary said.
They closed up shop at Otter Creek in October and pondered the lesson. The jumbo roasted peanuts had been a solid hit, particularly with hikers, bikers and kayakers who'd stopped by to ask directions and pick up snacks for the trail.
They linked that demand to a bigger picture: sales of nutritional snacks and trail mixes had become the fastest growing segment of the $68 billion U.S. snack foods market (40 percent nationwide in 2003). The Gladstones set out to fill the niche with a scale, a scoop, a computer printer for labels and a $35,000 nest egg. A few months down the road, they borrowed an additional $12,000 to pay for packaging equipment and a top-shelf laser printer.
They then bent their backs to a work blitz that carried straight through 2003. In January, when the operation geared down from 10 to two part-time workers, the Gladstones hit their do list.
The result is a new offering, Blue Loon: dried blueberries, roasted almonds and, get this, dark organic lavender-blueberry chocolate.
They are once again hiring, bracing for the rush as they head toward their third summer. At the top of the priority list is their hope to develop a steady, year-round following so they can provide permanent jobs, not to mention predictable lives. In the mean time, they do what entrepreneurs often seem to do best.
"You don't sleep at night. You work seven days a week. You work 80- and 90-hour workweeks," Rosemary said with a tired, confident smile. "That's just where we're at."