Local entrepreneurs find the clean and green side of healthy eats

It’s rare to find Lisa Marie Reed dressed in anything other than a white chef’s coat and a teal hairnet. In a sanitized cooler of her workplace on Carnegie in Midtown, bunches of carrots and bushy kale are soon to be mixed with lemon juice. In another, wheatgrass from a farmer friend in Michigan is de-pulped by the bale, awaiting marriage to 10 gallons of pineapple.

The founder of Garden of Flavor, an ultra-healthy juice maker, describes her process of cold pressing raw foods (never above 112 degrees) into drinkable form as she does most things – with meticulous attention to detail. As cooler fans whir, Reed rattles off a list of dos-and-don’ts as if she’s curing dozens of ailments at once. Add wheatgrass; it’s the king for cleansing. Want an antioxidant boost? Go for the aronia berry. And, if anything, make sure to peel your beets.

<span class="content-image-text">Lisa Marie Reed owner of Garden of Flavor</span>Lisa Marie Reed owner of Garden of Flavor“The biggest complaint people have about beet juice is that it tastes ‘dirty’,” she says. “A lot of it’s in the skin of the beets, so we get rid of it. That way, our customers don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s too earthy!’ We don’t want that.” After half an hour of touring Reed’s juicing facility, it hits the astute observer why the expert speaks with so much pep and vivacity: she’s the number one user of her product. “Oh, I live on juice!” she offers. “I just can’t get enough of it.”

Whether used for a one-day cleanse or a liquid alternative to cooked kale, Garden of Flavor is a key model in the ongoing market appeal for health-conscious foods, one best marked with the factors of a “clean label,” which appeals to the paleo, non-GMO and vegan sets. Whether those trending diets are passing fads or worthy ideologies, the "clean" designation – which Food Business News called the trend of the year in 2015 – is a high bar to reach for start-up juicers and foodies. Even as critics balk with concerns for authenticity, non-GMO and/or paleo certification is a must-have for a health-conscious business in today’s ingredient-conscious market.

It's a notion of which Reed is well aware. Ever since her first brick-and-mortar juice bar opened up in 2012 in Chagrin Falls, where the seeds of her nine-flavor juice line were planted by regulars, she’s tackled the question familiar to health food retailers: How do I make the food I want a food people will actually consume? That is, how to get away with a tasty juice with, let’s say, nutrient-rich spinach and romaine.

The results thus far include everything from "Mean Green” to “Turmeric Tonic.” All of her products are non-GMO, vegan, BPA-free and gluten-free.

“To me it’s more important what’s in the bottle than what’s in the label,” she says. “Yeah, we can make something really healthy, but it has to taste good. Otherwise, people aren’t gonna drink it.”

Garden of Flavor juices are now widely available in northeast Ohio grocery stores and in several other states.

From Wall Street to Sports Drink

A common thread in many paleo-friendly food start-ups nowadays is that most of them began as personal solutions for their CEOs as a sort of motive or mission. Like Reed’s personal goal to “create a juice for anybody in America,” a similar agenda drives Nooma, a Euclid-based Gatorade alternative for the paleo faithful.

Stemming from the goal of brothers Brandon and Jarred Smith to find a low-alkaline sports drink to combat acid reflex, Nooma—short for “No More Acid”—came in early 2012 when the brothers began transferring their needs as athletes into those of “hungry entrepreneurs.” Turning away from aspirations as Wall Street bankers, the brothers decided instead to enter the sports drink market with a breakout product rooted in post-hockey game recharges. Four years later, it’s clear to co-owner Brandon why they initially failed.

<span class="content-image-text">Jarred & Brandon Smith of NOOMA</span>Jarred & Brandon Smith of NOOMA

“We were possibly a little bullheaded in the beginning,” he says, recalling the edict “No acidity and ph-balance is the key! That’s what the whole thing was all about. But it didn’t really matter what we thought. It was what the consumer said Nooma was all about.”

Under the added direction of dietician Kirstin Kirkpatrick, the Smith brothers reimagined Nooma as a clean label adherent. Trial periods in Northeast Ohio Crossfits and Rock Hall Yoga meetups, gave way to a number of 'aha' moments. Soon, flavored coconut water replaced sugar and potassium citric. They colorized the flavors, applied for non-GMO and paleo certification, yet kept the 20-calorie mark. A half-time pick-me-up quickly became embedded into workout culture: Nooma took up vendor tables at downtown 5Ks. Facebook fans joined #TeamChocolate or #TeamBlueberryPeach. This year, a gym was rightfully installed at Nooma headquarters to ensure, Brandon notes, that “everyone in our company sweats five times a week.”

Even though Brandon himself notes his own health is improved—now “a total food and bev nerd”—the athlete-entrepreneur says he’s actually less rigid than he was in Nooma’s drastic phase. Yes, he practices the clean lifestyle to reflect Nooma’s image, and what the product label preaches.

“Nine days out of ten, I’m going to keep it clean, work out, run the business,” he says. “But I’m okay to enjoy life once in a while. I mean, I don’t mind having a Bud Light with a buddy at a Brown’s game.”

Nooma is available in most health food stores around northeast Ohio, including Whole Foods, Constantino’s and Heinen’s.

‘Taste Is King’

That same dilemma of balance—how healthy exactly should I eat?—is a question health food entrepreneurs ponder constantly when contemplating the market, which is tough to penetrate in a city like Cleveland. It’s partly food purveyors imagining themselves at the table with their buyers. That is to ask: How much paleo is too much paleo?

Probably a fine question for the folks at PaleoMD, especially when considering their top product: a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, non-GMO PaleoPizza. What may make greasy pie lovers balk or shudder is actually a lauded alternative for a specific reason — there’s nothing else like it around.

“Here’s the thing: paleo people miss pizza,” says Patricia Urcuyo, co-owner of PaleoMD, sitting in the conference room of the company's offices in Oakwood – a village just south of Bedford. “Many people do fine eating it, that’s great. But there are people who don’t.” Which is, Urcuyo adds, why fellow participants at the 2016 Paleo f(x) conference in Austin, Texas were more than enthusiastic at the prospect of PaleoMD's 2014 launch. “We’re one of the only certified Paleo pizzas out there.”

The venture began as a home kitchen experiment by “Papa” Armando Urcuyo, and was electrified by son Dani, who was a student of medicine at the time. After starting out with a complete line of freezer foods — soups, chili and fajitas, the family had a “come to Jesus moment” in 2012 when the Urcuyos decided to focus on a single item – pizza – after the market spoke.

The result is Papa Urcuyo’s claim-to-fame: a thin-crust eight-inch pie made from tapioca and almond flour and topped with USDA-approved meats and Ohio-grown veggies. Eating an oven-baked Three Meat PaleoPizza, one gets a first-hand insight about healthy eating: much of it deals with a personal a trade-off between “food as medicine,” as Urcuyo says, and food as something pleasurable or treasured. For those who've experienced the paleo diet, the very notion of a "legal" slice of pizza is sure to evoke a swoon. So while PaleoPizza does not pretend to be delivery or DiGiorno, it's clean, honest and most importantly, paleo.

“It’s integrity of the company over everything,” Urcuyo says.

As far as the future of PaleoMD, the idea that diets are becoming increasingly individualized is what Urcuyo says she and Dani are keeping tabs on. Maybe they’ll find another untapped niche for health nuts. Paleo breakfast burritos? Paleo smoothies? Who knows. Let the market decide.

“You’re not hear to force anything onto anyone,” Urcuyo says. “You can’t change people who don’t want to be changed. But, hey, why would you not want to eat healthier?”

 PaleoPizza is available at dozens of Earth Fare locations and other select grocers in states from Ohio to Florida.

Making It Work

All of this is part of the tennis match between producers and their ever-changing consumers. Most of whom, like the saying goes, judge a juice drink by its label. But that doesn’t keep food entrepreneurs from experimenting. So it goes for Reed, who's recently tinkered with how to whip up a sellable drink featuring medicinal mushrooms (they’re loaded with immune-activating beta-glucen). Dehydrate and combine with ginger? Mix it with pear and lemon? Of course, like always, she’ll get the requisite feedback.

“The trouble is getting it to taste good,” she says. “That’s what’s always stewing in the back of my mind: How can I make this work? What can I get away with?”

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.