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A Juicy Line of Work

By Minda Zetlin

In 1992, 31-year-old Doug Levin was in the throes of a mid-life crisis. He had abandoned New York City and the advertising industry for a simpler life in rural Maine, and a job delivering alfalfa sprouts for his mother-in-law's home-grown sprout business. But after two years, he says, "I got very panicked about my future. What had happened to me? How did I wind up a sprout delivery guy when I thought I was going to be something more than that?"

Levin decided he wanted to be a photojournalist, so, after talking it over with his family, he sunk his savings into a top-of-the-line camera and headed out cross-country to take pictures. "Terrible pictures," he says now.
Dejected, Levin returned to Maine, and, in a Portland supermarket, he had what he calls his "carrot juice epiphany." 

"I turned a corner in the produce department, and I saw a cooler with this little 8 oz. bottle of carrot juice," he recalls. "It was the most brilliant orange I had ever seen." Drinking it was even better, he says. "It tasted like chocolate milk to me."

Levin went back to his parents in law. "I know you think I'm just a hopeless wanderer," he told them. "But this is going to be big, I know it." And so, when the tiny carrot-juice company was offered for sale a few months later, they cashed in a life insurance policy to help him buy it.

Armed with a 1975 Volvo, two coolers, and a new name--Fresh Samantha, for Levin's daughter--Levin took his fresh-squeezed juice on the road. At first, he says, his juices received a lukewarm reception. The problem was that he was selling the product in Maine, where frugality and lengthy winters made people reluctant to spend $2.75 on a bottle of fresh-squeezed gourmet juice. He headed south, and eventually hit Boston, where a more sophisticated, urban population was eager for fresh juice, and where sales began to soar.

Levin soon began offering fresh-squeezed orange juice as well. One day it occurred to him to combine his two juices, and Carrot Orange juice was born. Next came flavors like Banana Strawberry Smoothie, Raspberry Dream and Mango Mama, then, in response to consumer requests, "nutraceutical" juices like Desperately Seeking C and Super Juice with Echinacea (an herbal cold remedy). Each bottle is brightly decorated with a squiggly drawing of a small girl holding a fruit (created by Abby Carter Levin, a graphic designer and Levin's wife), and advises drinkers to "shake it up, baby."

Once Fresh Samantha took off, there was no stopping it. From $300,000 in 1994, the company's first full year, sales have more than doubled each year, reaching $15 million in 1998. Many entrepreneurs would be content with such growth, but Levin wants more: he's aiming for $38 million in sales by May 26, 1999, his 38th birthday. If the target is met, he has promised to take the entire company and their spouses, some 400 people, on a cruise to Nova Scotia. How confident is Levin of reaching this goal? He's already made arrangements for the boat.

One secret to the company's rapid growth, he says, is that it distributes its own juices, in its own Fresh Samantha trucks. This is an unusual--and very expensive--choice in an industry where using a distributor is the norm. But, Levin says, it allows Fresh Samantha to add new accounts quickly. Often, all that's needed to sign a new account is for a driver has to do is wander into a store, and offer a taste of juice. It helps that the company offers a no-risk deal: Fresh Samantha will buy back any unsold juice.

For now, Fresh Samantha is a regional product, sold in East Coast cities and a few college towns as far south as Washington, D.C. Levin says he plans to go national in the future, and may consider acquisition possibilities as well.
Selling fresh juice is not without its risks. In 1996, the young industry got a bad shock when unpasteurized fresh apple juice sold by Odwalla, a California-based fresh juice maker was linked to an outbreak of E. Coli in Colorado, Washington and Western Canada. Sixty-five people fell ill, and one, a 16-month-old, died. 

How is Fresh Samantha making sure its juices are safe to drink?
Even before the crisis, Levin says, the company had stringent food safety processes in place. Still, after the E. Coli outbreak, Fresh Samantha commissioned a Cornell University study to determine how the company could eliminate germs without affecting the taste or nutritiousness of its juices.

As a result, the company now uses "flash" pasteurization, a process in which juices are heated to lower temperatures and for less time than in traditional pasteurization. "We found that flash pasteurization really doesn't affect the taste--because we did blind taste tests and nobody could taste the difference," he says. "It really provides a backup on the safety issue. And the nutritional component is only minimally affected."

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