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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 29, 2017 1 year ago

Proof is in the pastry

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A gluten-free brand is working its products into stores nationwide with the help of a gung-ho top executive.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

Michael Getoff was enjoying semi-retirement as a personal trainer when he got word of an opportunity.

An investor in gluten-free food company GeeFree wanted Getoff, a Sarasota County resident who founded a furniture company in a previous corporate life, to be the company's chief operating officer.

“When they asked me to come on board, I said, 'Send me some samples,'” Getoff says. The company mailed him a box of products, and when he got it, he made a fruit pie out of GeeFree puff pastry. “I ate the whole pie and started working the next morning,” he says.

Now he's working 80-hour weeks and regularly travels around the country for the company.

GeeFree, which was founded in 2013, sells frozen gluten-free puff pastry sheets, chicken pot pie, spanakopita, franks in blankets and other gluten-free products. Susan Hougui, a food technologist, and Steven Leyva, a fifth-generation master baker, started the company after Hougui ate a similar product in Israel. Getoff says Hougui reverse engineered it and made alterations to create GeeFree's potato starch and butter-based dough.

Getoff, who started at GeeFree seven months ago, says he's on the phone with Hougui, now the CEO, about 30 times a day. That's because while Getoff lives and works in Venice, she's in New York. They collaborate virtually, along with Leyva, who lives in New Jersey. The company's co-packer has a plant in New Jersey, too, where GeeFree products are manufactured, frozen and packed. Because of technology, the GeeFree executives are able to operate the business from three separate states.

The company has sales associates in every state — 140 nationwide — who approach stores and chains about carrying GeeFree products. When Getoff started at the company, he said it was more of a solo operation to get the product into new stores.

His first goal was to bring GeeFree to more Florida markets. He looked up store info and called buyers or visited stores himself. “I always figure you'll either tell me to leave you alone or try the product,” he says. “I keep going until one happens.”

Getoff, who, in addition to the furniture company, worked for a commercial printing firm, says his wife jokes that he's a “learn-on-the-go guy.” “When you get your ass kicked [out of] a store, you learn what not to do the next time,” he says.

When Getoff became COO, GeeFree products were in 900 stores. Now they're in 2,300, he says.

The products are selling well in smaller food chains, Getoff says. “When you go to a health food store,” he adds, “they get it.”

It's more challenging to sell the products to larger supermarkets. “Whenever you're in the freezer section,” he says, “you're knocking someone off.” It's frustrating, he says, when people tell him the products are too expensive because they're healthy. “But I think that's changing as people see what food does to us.”

Getoff describes having Lakeland-based supermarket chain Publix carry GeeFree products as a “dream.” If that happened, “Then I'll know we've made it,” he says. GeeFree representatives have met with the chain before, Getoff says, and are planning to meet with it again next month.

So far, $1 million has been invested in the company from 10 investors, according to Getoff. That money has paid for start-up costs, salaries and buying product. An additional investment of $2 million to $3 million would help the company expand to larger supermarkets, Getoff says, and GeeFree is currently in talks with potential investors.

Across the country, he expects the gluten-free market to expand in a big way. And he expects the same for GeeFree. In 2016, Getoff says the company had $400,000 in gross sales. This year, it's projected to have sales of $1.5 million. He says in 2018, the company could have gross sales of $3 million to $5 million. “The natural food industry is one of the hottest out there,” he says. “Health food is the new technology.”

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