Rose sells Rella Good Cheese to open HempNut specialty food store in Sebastopol
Sebastopol health foods entrepreneur, Richard Rose, is switching from cheese to seeds.
Rose has sold his Rella Good Cheese brands, choosing to focus on what he thinks will be the next big thing in healthy eating, foods made with hempseed.
"Tofu is big, but hemp food will be bigger. When we started selling tofu, it was a hard sell. Now it's in most grocery stores. We'll do even more with hempseed products," Rose said.
The sale of Rella Good Cheese Co. to Florida-based Tree of Life Inc.'s natural foods manufacturing and marketing division, American Natural Snacks, will free Rose up to focus on his new company, HempNut Inc., which he founded seven years ago.
The brand name reflects the nutty flavor of the shelled seed produced by hemp plants, which Rose describes as a nutritious, low fat, easily digested food.
Rella Good Cheese was the 1996 reincarnation of Sharon's Finest, the original firm founded in 1986 by Rose and his first wife, in a spare bedroom. The couple pooled $400 to wager that people would buy a healthier alternative to dairy cheese. Their bet on soybean based foods paid off handsomely.
Hard work combined with a little luck helped to create a line of alternatives to traditional cheese and meat meal items, substituting mainly tofu, rice, almonds and grains.
First came the substitute for mozzarella, TofuRella, which led to RiceRella, AlmondRella and VeganRella brands, which are sold in supermarket chains and natural food stores across the United States, Canada, England, Hong Kong and Japan.
It didn't hurt that in 1993 the company was chosen to participate in a Sonoma County small-business program that gave them one year of free professional services from four Santa Rosa companies: National Bank of the Redwoods, the law firm of Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon, Moss Adams certified public accountants and the Armstrong Image Group marketing firm.
"That helped us really make a quantum leap. That was the year we really took off, selling $4 million in product and landing on the Inc. Magazine's list," Rose said.
The company grew 950 percent from 1988 to 1992, earning its No. 281 ranking according to the Inc. 500 list of America's fastest growing private companies. They were joined that year by only one other local firm, KnowledgePoint, which was ranked No. 364.
Since that record year in 1993, sales have leveled off and were $3 million in 2000, Rose said.
He said the sale of Rella Good Cheese confirmed a gut feeling that turned out to be a good business practice.
"This confirmed for me the value of being professional and cordial to your competitors. The company that just bought us has been our biggest competitor all along. They are transaction focused while I'm more of an evangelist about healthy foods. I sold to them because they can expand the company line and place it in far more places than I ever could -- and because they had nice deep pockets," said Rose.
Rose declined to disclose the sale price.
Tree of Life is a subsidiary of BolsWessanen, the U.S. subsidiary of a $4 billion multinational food company based in The Netherlands.
Rose's Sonoma County food companies are essentially virtual entities with production, packaging and distribution accomplished offsite, with a few exceptions. Santa Rosa's Peter Rabbit's Chocolate Factory supplies chocolate to Lotus Bakery, which cooks up the candy with hempseed, and hempseed cookies are baked by Mrs. Denson's in Ukiah.
Ten employees, some of whom, heretofore, concentrated on the tofu lines, will still have plenty to do at HempNut Inc.
"Nobody is being laid-off. There may be natural attrition, where workers choose to do something else, but we'll be busy," Rose said.
It might sound odd to use a food product that is associated with marijuana. Hemp is experiencing a renewed interest by many food and clothing manufacturers.
Rose imports hempseed from Europe, Asia and Canada, which have long provided them, primarily to be used for birdseed.
"So far we've invested $1.5 million in the hemp business. I could retire now, except I'm committed," said Rose, 44.