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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 9, 2017 1 year ago

Food for Life

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Employees embrace, not avoid, problems at Fitlife. The model has produced some stellar growth.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

It was only six years ago David Osterweil was ripping off the plastic lining on a frozen Kashi meal and heading to the microwave just about every day.

Then a business development executive for Outback Steakhouse in Tampa, Osterweil would eat at his desk and read Men's Health magazine. He and his wife, Laura, ran marathons and were all-around health nuts.

Yet Osterweil wanted to live an even healthier life, and he wanted to help other people get there, too. His vision: A business that sells healthy, made-from-scratch prepared meals, snacks and drinks. That idea has come to fruition with Tampa-based Fitlife Foods.

The company has grown rapidly since the first store opened in 2011, mostly, Osterweil says, because he and the staff are hyper-focused on food and fit. The company now has 14 locations spread around Orlando, the greater Tampa area and Sarasota. Eight of those stores have opened since the beginning of 2016, and the next location, in Boca Raton, is scheduled to open in late June. Executives decline to release revenue figures.

“It is important to understand what you are asked to solve and what you are not asked to do. You need to understand who you are and what your company does,” says Osterweil. “We are for one thing. We are for making the best chef-prepared meal you can buy. We don't do juice cleanses.”

The fast — but what Osterweil calls aggressively managed — growth, also wouldn't have happened unless the company embraced what many entrepreneurs and executives seek to avoid: problems. “We like to take on problems,” says Osterweil. “That's how we get better.”

The mantra to solve problems seeps into every nook of Fitlife. One of the company's core values, for example, is accountability. “If we think about these things on the front side of the business,” he says, “we don't have to worry about it on the backside.”

Fitlife solved a big problem in 2015, says Osterweil, when it moved into a new food operations and test kitchen facility, in a 100,000-square-foot space in Plant City. The high-tech kitchen is a big differentiator for the company, and a big step up over having several smaller kitchens. “There are so many people who do food and food delivery,” says Osterweil. “But we believe the magic for this business happens behind the doors of this facility.”

The focus there is on diversifying the menu, and beating eating trends to the marketplace. Fitlife menu items, with 39 original sauces and 13 different spice blends, are low glycemic and high in fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat. Choices include macaroni and cheese, salmon, tacos and chicken enchiladas. Organic and locally sourced ingredients are used whenever possible, the company says.

Quality control, says Osterweil, is a big deal at FitLife. “We want to have people who are addicted to the way they feel,” says Osterweil. “We don't want you to be our customer for five weeks. We want you to be our customer for five years.”

The Osterweils sold their stocks and investments and obtained an SBA loan with their house for collateral to get funding to launch Fitlife. A regional group of investors, including Tampa entrepreneur Bob Gries and Stuart Lasher, former chairman of Lifestyle Family Fitness, backed the company in 2014 with a capital infusion of more than $1 million. A second capital raise followed in 2015, says Osterweil, and he's getting ready to launch a third round soon.

The capital is to support the growth plans, which someday could include going outside Florida. Says Osterweil “We are looking for markets where there is some energy.”

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