Marin entrepreneur trying to cultivate demand for organic flowers
Nurseries without fertilizers burgeoning into a new industry
Dan Fost, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Of all the quixotic businesses Gerald Prolman could start, it had to be organic flowers.
The Marin County entrepreneur has plenty of windmills to tilt at. He's trying to spur demand for an organic product that people aren't actually eating. And he's also hoping to create supply, convincing growers that they should stop using unhealthy pesticides and fertilizers on products that people buy simply for their beautiful looks.
To some degree, the challenges are being met. Prolman, 45, the proprietor of Organic Bouquet, is on track to ring up $3.5 million in sales this year, the firm's fourth.
Whether he's truly successful is a debatable point, given his ambition to alter the $20 billion-a-year cut-flower industry in a fundamental way. But none of that really fazes Prolman, a born maverick who has been down similar paths before.
He dropped out of high school and bounced around the country, working restaurant jobs and earning his equivalency diploma, before he wound up in San Francisco in the 1970s selling wild meat to fancy French restaurants.
He started a mass market organic produce business, Made in Nature, in 1989, finally selling it to Dole Food Co. in 1994 in a deal that helped signify the maturation of the organic market.
He even had a brief career change at age 40, when he became a music producer, managing the singing career of his wife, French jazz chanteuse Raquel Bitton, landing her a recording contract and three sold-out gigs at Carnegie Hall.
And now, in a small, cluttered office he rents from his longtime friend, produce pioneer Todd Koons, in a building near the Mill Valley waterfront that once housed the Grateful Dead's rehearsal space, Prolman is back in the role of eco-entrepreneur, building a new business the way he knows best -- passionately.
"I'm just taking a movement that's been happening and taking it to a higher level," he says. "The industry is ready for a change. We're the spark that's changing it. I'm ready. I believe Organic Bouquet is a $100 million opportunity within the next five years. And I believe, within the same time ... you won't be able to sell a flower in America unless it's been deemed sustainable."
To promote his vision, Prolman travels tirelessly, constantly proselytizing, scrambling to raise enough money to keep operating while adding a grower here and a customer there.
"He's really relentless," said Linda Brown, vice president of Scientific Certification Systems in Emeryville, who has worked with Prolman on developing a standard for sustainably grown flowers. "When he gets on something, he's not going to let go of it. He will not let go. That's the kind of personality an industry like this needs to help it get off the ground."
Early ties to Chez Panisse
Koons, the founder of Epic Roots, a company with its own broad ambitions to change American salads, first met Prolman nearly 30 years ago, when Koons was a young chef at Chez Panisse and Prolman supplied owner Alice Waters with exotic meats and vegetables. Koons is now Organic Bouquet's key angel investor. "I invested in Organic Bouquet and continue to support its growth because organic flowers are better for the earth, and Gerald is the one person that is tenacious enough to make this a reality," Koons said in an e-mail.
Florists aren't so sure. "I never once had a customer ask for organic flowers," said Harold Hoogasian, who runs one of San Francisco's most well- established florist shops. He does not know Prolman. "I mean, there is zero demand for organic flowers."
Win Winogrond, a consultant from Washington, D.C., with 35 years' experience in the international floral industry, is another skeptic. "To expect that people will place the same value on a decorative item as they do on something they ingest is doubtful to me," he said.
But Winogrond won't bet against the idea. "I was highly skeptical of organic fruits and vegetables, and that has grown far beyond anyone's imagination," he said. "To say there's no market is foolish. That would be ignoring history."
It would also be ignoring what Prolman and other environmentalists see as a pressing need. According to the Pesticide Action Network, "the rapidly growing floriculture industry is a heavy user of pesticides and is poisoning its workers and the environment in a number of Latin American and African nations."
To Prolman, "the need was clear, and the opportunity was very obvious."
"I was always very curious why organic flowers were not as available as organic fruits and vegetables," Prolman said. "Horticulture had been completely overlooked by the natural products industry. ... More chemicals are used to grow flowers than food. Organic floral production is safe for farmworkers and good for the environment. It encourages healthy stewardship of the earth."
But don't get him started.
During a long interview, Prolman proves himself adept at discussing in detail even parts of his past that he'd prefer not to publicize.
Quite often, he said, "I would find myself in unusual positions I hadn't planned on, and that steered me to what I would do next."
He's had epiphanies in slaughterhouses and restaurants, on rural farms in poverty-stricken Latin America and in the halls of big agribusiness. One came while reading a children's story when his son was young.
Organic farming campaign
He boasts that he has had a hand in converting 20,000 acres of farmland in five countries to organic production, that he has helped eliminate millions of pounds of chemicals from use, and that he has brought many of the world's top gospel singers together to record a song, "Together We Can," for World Environment Day in San Francisco in June.
His story begins as a child in Boston, where his grandfather ran a large downtown meatpacking operation. "All we ate was meat," Prolman said.
He left school at age 15 and hitchhiked south. He wound up in the restaurant business. He became a classically trained chef de cuisine, apprenticing in top kitchens around the country, learning what he could and switching jobs every four months. He served as a sous-chef at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a cook at Chasen's in Beverly Hills, "the restaurant to the stars." In 1978, still shy of his 19th birthday, he took a job at Cafe Mozart, "the tiniest restaurant in San Francisco."
It had six tables and haute cuisine. All ingredients had to be fresh that day, and it became Prolman's job to procure them. He began learning his way around the markets of Chinatown.
"Other chefs came in, asking where I got this or where I got that," he said. "I realized no one was supplying the chefs with fresh ingredients."
The next year, he started his own business, Night Bird. "At the time, it was forbidden to sell game," he said. So he negotiated with the Department of Fish and Game, and, making sure to obtain the tags used in the hunting of any animals he sold, began traveling around the world, importing game meats. There was salmon caught by fly fishermen on Scotland's River Spey and smoked in oak whiskey casks. There were eel, quail, grouse, red deer, roebuck.
Prolman branched out into other wild products. There were fresh truffles from Paraguay, cloudberries from Sweden. He learned about morels and chanterelles from his study of Native American eating habits. He started shipping his food to top chefs all over the country.
Although he reached several million dollars in annual sales, his expenses were high, and competition caught up to him. In 1986, he sold Night Bird to Durham Meat Co., which raised buffalo. He got "just enough to pay my bills."
At one point, after he had sold the business but while still working for it, he was among 52 people ensnared in "Operation Ursus," in which the Department of Fish and Game sought to bust poachers. Prolman ultimately cleared his name.
"There was a particular market in the Asian community for certain animal parts," he said, such as bear gall bladders, tiger penises, or "the horns of a deer with a little fur on it. That is like Chinese Viagra."
"We never sold any endangered species or illegally obtained animals," he said, but other people did. The department no longer has a record of the case, but a Chronicle story from 1988 was corrected to say that Prolman had not been charged.
"The things we did helped stop the poaching of animals," he said. "We did it legally and with a paper trail. We had a major hand in closing the market for people poaching animals."
Around this time, Prolman became a vegetarian. It was the culmination of three events, the first dating to the day he started Night Bird.
"I had to go into a very large cage and catch quail with a net," he said. "I'm a nice Jewish kid from Boston. I'm a city guy. I'm afraid they're going to bite me. I caught one and had it in my hand, and it just put its head down. The bird died. It had a heart attack. I felt its life energy go through my hands.
"Later that evening, I had to work in a processing facility, processing birds. I had blood and guts all over me. I was traumatized. I had to kill them, cut their heads off, eviscerate them, take their feathers off. The experience was horrifying. I said, 'I hate this business.' I quit after my first set of deliveries."
But, "A few days later, the phones were ringing. The chefs wanted their food."
He justified it to himself by reasoning that the animals were raised humanely and that humans had been eating animals for millennia.
Not long after, in 1990, he was reading a story to his 3-year-old son. He saw the animals in the picture book and blurted, "I used to sell animals for food." Little Julian burst into tears. "Papa, never read me that story again," he said.
They both became vegetarians. Although Julian hasn't stuck with the regimen, Prolman has. At the Buckeye, he ordered only salad and side dishes.
By 1989, Prolman had left Night Bird and started his next venture, Made in Nature. He intended the company to sell wilderness produce -- he started with fiddlehead ferns -- but a business partner had a financial interest in a pioneering organic apple and pear orchard in Oregon's Hood River valley. "I was amazed," he said. "I wondered, why aren't all apples and pears grown this way? I agreed to take on their marketing."
Once again, he began his tireless evangelism. Like an organic Johnny Appleseed, he covered the globe, buying and selling produce. He exported to Holland, Germany, France, Scandinavia and Japan, and imported from Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and other Caribbean nations.
"I would go to large agribusinesses, and I would persuade them to start testing a block of organics," he said. "I'd tell a big grower, 'Take 100 acres of apples and do an experiment that could lower the chemical usage on your 5, 000 acres, and I'll sell your apples and get you a higher price.'
"I got them to try it. ...They said, 'Wait. These are good yields and good prices. Let's do another 100 acres.' I did that over and over and over again."
He also went to undeveloped areas of Latin America, bringing his vision of how organics could help rural farmers make more money. He tells of a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, where impoverished people would lug enormous bags of coffee beans up and down hills, just to afford a meager portion of rice and beans. Among the coffee bushes, however, he saw banana trees providing shade. They were organic by default or neglect, so he agreed to buy the bananas.
"For us, it was a bargain," he said. "For them, it was like they won the lottery."
But Prolman's business also needed money. "It was always Band-Aid capital, " he said. "That seems to be a pattern."
In 1994, Prolman sold the company to Dole Food Co. -- he won't say for how much -- and went to work for it. In Prolman's view, Dole worked hard to farm responsibly and professionally, eliminating chemicals and building schools for workers.
But the arrangement was short-lived. Made in Nature was the last of a string of companies Dole had acquired, and it began shedding them within months to focus on its core business. After 17 months with Dole, Prolman bought the company back, again for an undisclosed sum.
He moved into dried fruits and juice drinks and in 1997 sold it again, this time to Vacu-Dry, a public company in Sebastopol. Vacu-Dry soon sold off its food businesses. Made in Nature is now based in Fowler (Fresno County).
Prolman took a hiatus to help his wife, whom Prolman calls, with his typical promoter's flair, "the French jazz superstar." Whatever superlatives Prolman attributes to his own business ventures pale in comparison with those he lavishes on her career.
But once that career was established and Bitton had an organization behind her, Prolman returned to his zeal for bringing business concerns in line with the environment.
"I believe in the basic goodness of people," Prolman said. "If presented with the facts, people will make the right decisions."
The Prolman file
Born: Boston, 1959
Family: Wife, Raquel Bitton; two teenage children
Business: Organic Bouquet, www.organicbouquet.com, purveyor of organic and sustainably grown flowers.
E-mail Dan Fost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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