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Today's Local News January 11, 2008

Entrepreneur turns Carlsbad’s red berries into greenbacks with dressings, condiments, spreads and barbecue sauces

By Leah Masterson |

Friday, January 11, 2008

According to the California Strawberry Commission’s 2003 consumer survey, 97 percent of U.S. households purchase strawberries. Warm sunny days and cool nights make Carlsbad the ideal place to grow the sweet fruit.

“I’m a little entrepreneur at heart, so when I did the research and found out 88 percent of the country’s strawberries come from California … I realized there could be a market here,” said Russ Bruhn, who founded Carlsbad Gourmet, a company that manufactures strawberry-based sauces, spreads, dressings, vinegars and mustards.

To his surprise, Bruhn couldn’t find any such products unique to Carlsbad when he started his business about 4 ½ years ago. So he hired a food scientist to help him develop the recipe for his first product, Strawberry Spread. The spread is sold at local Costco stores and is used in every peanut butter and jelly sandwich served at Legoland California in Carlsbad.

Bruhn uses half the amount of sugar found in jams for his spreads, which are free of preservatives, and instead of high-fructose corn syrup he uses cane sugar.

“I remember the first time me and my son made 10 cases of our Strawberry Spread,” Bruhn said. “We introduced it at The Flower Fields and sold all 10 cases in one day. We walked away with the biggest grins on our faces.”

The spread was just the beginning. With the help of Arizona chef Matt Guzman, Bruhn created a strawberry barbecue sauce. After that, Bruhn began creating recipes on his own.

Bruhn had owned small businesses in the past, but he needed help making connections in the food industry. Andrea Korogi, director of small-business development at the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, put him in touch with consultants, restaurant owners and finance companies, and directed him to workshops on employee benefits, insurance and taxes.

Korogi believed Bruhn had what it takes to be successful.

“He has such a great energy level, and he loves what he’s doing,” Korogi said.

“The thing you learn after doing this for a while is that there is a type of person who does really well starting their own business. They’re not afraid to take chances, they learn quickly from their mistakes and they have to be extremely enthusiastic about their product. Russ is all of those things, and he just exudes it.”

Within two years, Bruhn’s products were selling in 18 states and three countries.

While Bruhn created, packaged and shipped his products abroad, he bypassed stores in San Diego County that had never heard of him.

“I started thinking, ‘Why am I chasing stores around the country when I don’t have stores in my own backyard, and San Diego is a nice backyard to be in,’ ” Bruhn said. “So I decided to stay local for a couple of years and then really take the nation by storm.”

Bruhn may have dropped several out-of-state clients, but he’s picked up plenty of local business to replace them. His products are sold at more than 50 locations and in nine Costco stores in San Diego County.

His top three sellers last year — Strawberry Pomegranate Spread, Strawberry Honey Mustard Salad Dressing and Carlsbad Chronic Bar-B-Que Sauce — brought in more than $250,000, with Strawberry Pomegranate Spread sales making up more than half of that amount.

Strawberries aren’t the only local ingredient you’ll find in Bruhn’s products. He uses lavender from the Lavender Fields in Valley Center to make lavender spread, and beer brewed at Pizza Port Brewing Co. in Carlsbad, Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido and Green Flash Brewing Co. in Vista for his barbecue sauces, mustards and hot sauces.

His product line has expanded from his original Strawberry Spread to about 30 salad dressings, barbecue sauces, spreads and mustards. He creates a new product about every six weeks and experiments in his kitchen before he takes his recipes to a rented lab in Oceanside.

He developed his Stone Ruination IPA Curry Mustard Grilling Sauce at a picnic on July Fourth while camping out with his family.

“My brother said, ‘I don’t like tomatoes,’ as I was about to add the tomato paste, so I made a mustard-base barbecue sauce instead,” Bruhn said.

Bruhn plans to introduce between 12 and 15 products this year.

Bruhn’s passion for his work is easy to see when he heatedly talks about his humble beginnings and his plans for the future.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have my own food company, I probably would have laughed, but now it’s just my passion,” Bruhn said.

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