Inventor of The Vegetarian Burger
Paul Wenner didn't start out wanting to be a wellness revolutionary or even a great success. He thought that he had finally realized his lifelong dream in 1981 when he opened his gourmet vegetarian restaurant, The Gardenhouse Restaurant, in Gresham, Oregon. As he explains in his book, "Like all restaurateurs, I was soon faced with what to do with the leftovers. My solution was something I called the 'Gardenloaf Sandwich' made of leftover vegetables and rice pilaf. Later I got the idea of slicing up the loaf into what looked like patties—and suddenly the Gardenburger was born." Soon, one out of every two lunches sold in his restaurant was a Gardenburger.
Then, in 1984, a recession hit Oregon and his restaurant folded. Paul thought it was the end of the world, although, as he reflects now, it was "the best thing that could have happened." Customers started calling to ask where they could still get Gardenburgers, and one day Paul's sister set up a meeting with the CEO of her company to see about financing a business to supply them. The CEO tried the Gardenburger, offered Paul $60,000 to start the business, and asked: "When will this company make money?" Paul had absolutely no idea, so he replied, "In 13 months," based on the notion that if it couldn't make money after a full year he wouldn't be able to stick it out anyway.
As Gardenburger grew, Paul learned to turn every negative experience into a positive one. When 9 out of 10 restaurant owners told him, "We don't get any vegetarians in here," his response was, "Maybe that's because there's nothing vegetarian on your menu."
The company went public in 1992, and Paul Wenner turned over day-to-day management to food industry professionals in 1995, retaining for himself a seat on the board and the title of chief creative officer. By 1998, Gardenburger, Inc., had sold hundreds of millions of Gardenburgers and the company's products were distributed in tens of thousands of supermarkets and natural food stores worldwide.
Unfortunately, as fast as Gardenburger grew, it wasn't fast enough to satisfy the demand for what Wenner had started. In 1993 another restaurateur, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decided he, too, could create a good-tasting vegetarian burger and started Boca Foods—which by 1998 was making vegetarian substitutes for ground beef, chicken, sausages, and other popular meat products. Another competitor, Worthington Foods, also entered the "meatless meat" market with a more complete line of soy-based products called Morningstar.
Although Gardenburger achieved sales of $100.1 million in 1998, this represented then only about one-fifth of the market it had created for meatless vegetarian substitutes.
The food industry professionals running Gardenburger were convinced that all they needed was more awareness and trial of their product before someone else acquired their future customers. In 1998, Gardenburger spent $1.5 million for an advertising spot on the last Seinfield episode. Although the ad was seen by a record 104 million viewers, critics claimed that the bulk of the benefit went to Gardenburger's competitors, who also reported increases in store sales the next day. To sustain its $100.1 million in sales in 1998, Gardenburger spent an incredibly high $15 million on advertising that year and was planning to continue such spending by raising more equity capital. The company sold $32.5 million in preferred stock in 1999—but that year its sales fell 12 percent to $88.8 million. Sales fell an additional 21 percent to $71 million in 2000, and the company recorded a loss of $32.7 million, or $3.67 per share.
To make matters even worse, in 1999, Kellogg, Inc. ($9 billion sales) purchased competitor Worthington Foods for $307 million, and in 2000, cigarette maker Philip Morris purchased Boca Foods. Wall Street lost confidence that Gardenburger could ever recover against such strong competition, and its stock price crashed from $18 to less than 50 cents a share—causing Gardenburger to be delisted from the Nasdaq. The company subsequently filed for bankruptcy and successfully emerged from bankruptcy on March 30, 2006 as a privately-held corporation called Wholesome & Hearty Foods Company. According to its latest annual report, the company is now refocused on "returning to its roots as a maker of great tasting vegetarian foods that provide positive nutritional benefits."
Paul Wenner is now running a vegetarian restaurant in Hawaii. He wrote a book Garden Cuisine, part autobiography, part how to start a business, part how to achieve a healthy body, part how to prevent cruelty to animals, and part how to protect our environment.
Wenner's personal loss today seems almost insignificant considering the billions of vegetarian burgers now sold and the positive impact Wenner has had on the lives of millions of people.