Stonyfield Institute inspires success stories

Heidi Hertzberger was motivated her to start her own herbal products company.

Curtis Grace found the inspiration that helped him resurrect and redirect his family’s gelato business.

Both received their direction and encouragement at the same life-changing event — the Stonyfield Institute, the next version of which will be held March 30-31 at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. New Hampshire Business Review is helping to sponsor the event.

Launched by Gary Hirshberg, yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm’s chairman, president and “CE-Yo,” the institute features a “boot camp” experience that gives entrepreneurs and CEOs the chance to focus on solving problems and swapping stories, ideas and experiences with other business owners facing similar issues.

Hertzberger, 63, had worked as an herbalist at Canterbury Shaker Village for 15 years, developing teas, cooking mixes and even a moth-repellent from old Shaker recipes. Even after leaving the village in 1997 to open a Montessori school near her hometown of Gilmanton, her love of herbal products stayed with her.

Combining her knowledge of Shaker remedies and plants from her own garden, she developed an all-natural, plant-based fertilizer called Earthminder.

“Plants need 62 trace elements in addition to the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that we all are familiar with,” said Hertzberger. “Chemical fertilizers eventually leach nutrients from the soil. Earthminder not only fertilizes the plants, but puts back essential elements into the soil.”

Hertzberger knew she was on to something with her Earthminder, but didn’t have the knowledge or the financial backing to turn her passion into a business.

Attending last year’s Stonyfield Institute was the turning point. With healthy doses of curiosity and serendipity, Hertzberger went to the seminar with ideas of finding more resources for her school and came out with ideas of how to establish Earthminder fertilizer as a viable product.

“When I saw everyone’s presentations and how much they loved what they were doing, I thought, ‘I’m here for the wrong reason; I should be here for Earthminder.”

She said the presentations by representatives of Gilsum-based W.S. Badger Co. — maker of the Badger Balm of lotions and balms — really struck a chord with her.

“Their life philosophy was so close to mine. Everything really starts with the soil,” she said.

The advice given by other entrepreneurs also impressed her, she said. “The audience really got behind every presentation and genuinely wanted those businesses to flourish.”

Emboldened by her experience at the 2005 Stonyfield Institute, it wasn’t long before Hertzberger resigned from the school to work full-time on Earthminder.

Over the past year, small-scale test-marketing has yielded good results from several greenhouses in Vermont. She’s even expanded the product line to include a “tea bag” concept to fertilize indoor houseplants.

With her Earthminder fertilizer nearly ready to hit Granite State gardens this summer, Hertzberger said she’s attending this year’s Stonyfield Institute to learn more about financial backing for micro-businesses.

Achieving a dream

Funding is certainly on most entrepreneurs’ minds, and Curtis Grace of Barrington-based Spasso Foods is no exception.

As the maker of Doriti Gelati and Sorbetto, Grace, 39, said he hopes to find an investor to help him expand.

Grace has been in business since 2002 and has nearly reached his break-even point in just a few years, selling his all-natural gelati and sorbetto primarily to small, independent groceries and gourmet food stores.

Doriti Gelati, like most gelati, differs from American-style ice cream in that is has a much lower butterfat concentration and less air whipped into the product. This makes the flavorings used in gelato even more important.

“It’s ‘dense and intense,’” he said, quoting the product’s tag line.

Grace also has a thriving food-service product line catering to chefs at restaurants and hotels like the Ritz Carlton.

But it took a lot of hard work — not to mention frozen tongues — to get to this point.

It had long been a dream of Grace’s to adapt the gelato business his parents owned from the late 1980s to the early 1990s to today’s tastes.

After September 11th and the subsequent tech bust — Grace was a recruiter for the high-tech industry at the time — he decided it was time to breathe new life into his career and his parents’ gelato recipes.

“I knew I wanted to do something different,” said Grace. “They sold gelato that they made in the family kitchen from a pushcart stand and eventually a café in Portsmouth. I wanted to create a high-end retail brand and bring it to market from coast-to-coast.”

Unlike some entrepreneurs, Grace tempered his passion for gelato with a large scoop of reality. He spent several months preparing a business plan, researching equipment, distribution and packaging as well as working closely with the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center.

“In our first few months, we only had about 15 accounts and made about $8,000,” said Grace.

Undaunted by an inadequate test kitchen and a converted refrigerated truck with a door that kept freezing shut, Grace managed to get his product into some of New Hampshire’s most upscale shops, including Angela’s Pasta & Cheese in Manchester, Tuttle’s Red Barn in Dover, and the Durham Marketplace in Durham.

Now Doriti Gelati can be found at New England area Wild Oats natural food stores and the natural and organic food aisles of Hannaford’s grocery stores in southern New Hampshire as well as 200 other accounts — some as far away as New Jersey.

If you see some parallels between Grace’s business and Gary Hirshberg’s Stonyfield Farm yogurt and Ben Cohen’s Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, you would be right.

Grace said he used Stonyfield’s — and Hirshberg’s — success as a road map for his own business plan.

In fact, meeting Hirshberg was the impetus behind Grace attending the 2005 Stonyfield Institute. “I wanted to hear him speak and meet him. I also wanted to share and learn from the other entrepreneurs, to network, and to hear their stories,” he said.

The inspiration he received at the institute has helped him to continue to move the company forward. “I feel we’re on track to reach that $1 million mark, and reach our goal of $20 million in the next five years,” said Grace.

Like Hertzberger, Grace also will be attending the 2006 institute, hoping to find an investor — and to meet his other role model, Ben Cohen, who is scheduled to speak about the early years of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

Grace said he’s also eager to meet other entrepreneurs, both those from the previous class and those who are new to this year’s seminar.

“It’s a very healthy thing to go meet other entrepreneurs. There is a real sense of camaraderie. Anybody who is thinking about going should go. There is always somebody you will meet or some advice you can come away with. I’m really glad Stonyfield and SNHU are there wanting to help entrepreneurs,” said Grace.

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