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  • | 10:11 a.m. July 20, 2012
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Benjamin Fleischer doesn't look the part of a man who plans to take on the sugar industry.

Dressed in lime-green shorts, flip-flops and a lululemon athletic jacket that accentuates his muscular physique, Fleischer, 33, might look like he'd fit better at a Naples cafe after a gym workout on a Sunday morning.

“This isn't corporate America here,” Fleischer chuckles, as he swivels around in a boardroom chair inside a nondescript industrial building in Naples.

But don't underestimate the laid-back appearance and modest digs at Pyure Brands. Fleischer is building a company that produces a calorie-free, all-natural sweetener from the stevia plant, a relative of the sunflower. The sweetener is also gluten-free, Kosher certified and an alternative for diabetics.

Despite his youth, Fleischer has plenty of experience in the food business. He helped his father, Marc Fleischer, build Fleischer's Bagels into the biggest private-label bagel maker in the U.S. that churned out 1 million bagels a day.

Fleischer started working as a young teen in the factory, rising to become national sales manager after earning a degree in communications from the University of Maryland and a stint as a commodities broker for the food and beverage manufacturing industry.

For example, Fleischer designed and sold the first organic line of bagels. “I learned manufacturing and quality control,” he says.

Fleischer left the bagel business in 2007 before his father sold the company and set about developing a healthier alternative to Red Bull and other energy drinks. Fleischer is a fitness buff who enjoys skiing, yoga and the CrossFit program. He recently joined a men's lacrosse league, where he plays attack position.

It was while researching a healthy alternative energy drink that he came across a sweetener made from the stevia plant. At the time, the stevia sweeteners on the market tasted bitter, so Fleischer experimented in his own kitchen on ways to remove that bitterness.

With his own savings, Fleischer launched Pyure in 2008, spending $250,000 on research and branding. “I didn't collect a paycheck for another three years,” he says.

Fleischer hired a team of scientists to grow a strain of stevia and develop an extraction system for his own brand of stevia sweetener. It took a year and a half and cost “six figures” to win approval from the Food & Drug Administration. “We grow and extract all our stevia,” he says, declining to disclose more detail for competitive reasons.

Controlling the supply of stevia is key to maintaining quality, cost and quantity. Fleischer says competitors buy from brokers and lack that advantage.

It didn't take long for some of the largest commercial food and beverage companies to come calling as word quickly spread that Pyure has the best stevia extract, Fleischer says. Pyure sweetener is now in more than 400 products.

Fleischer declines to name specific customers, but he says Pyure produces over one metric ton of the sweet stuff per month. (A little stevia goes a long way; it's 350 times sweeter than sugar.)

Pyure's first sale was $60,000 in late 2009, Fleischer says. Since then, he says Pyure has grown more than 300% annually to seven figures last year (he declines to be more specific.) “It all goes back into the business,” he says. “We turned a profit last year.”

The success of the commercial business is fueling the growth of the retail side, which Fleischer launched last year. Fleischer says he owns the company outright and hasn't needed nor sought outside investors or bank financing.

Now, consumers can buy Pyure organic sweetener in 2,000 stores, including upscale supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Wegmans. “We've created the best-tasting stevia in the marketplace,” says Fleischer, who recently enlisted 200 brokers who sell to organic stores. “Now, we're really building the brand,” he says.


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