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Posted: March 01, 2011

Executive Edge: Udi Baron

Food entrepreneur strives for tastes that evoke old memories

Lynn Bronikowski

ExecutiveEdge_Mar11.jpg

All Udi Baron wanted was a good cup of espresso, breads and pastries reminiscent of those served in Europe. Little did he know his craving would lead to Udi's Foods - a multimillion dollar Denver-based food empire known for artisan breads, granola and gluten-free products.

A native of Israel, Baron grew up in the small farming community of Hayogev, where his family raised chickens, cows and grew their own vegetables.
"My parents were intellectuals who had to flee Austria, so when they got to Israel, they had to start all over," Baron said. "Their farm was diversified, so if something didn't work, you had something else to fall back on."

When Baron moved to Denver in 1980 with his American-born wife, Fern, he longed for the farm-fresh foods of his homeland.
"I had this memory of the farm, and I craved what I thought was good," said Baron, 62. "It's not that it was so much more tasty, but it was the memories I had."

After working as chief financial officer for an insulation manufacturing company and later becoming a financial planner, Baron built up "a nice book of business, and I was able to walk away because I had enough to survive for a few years."

He used that time to cook for friends and spent a year learning to bake before opening Udi The Sandwich Man in 1994, a small sandwich business that has since grown into six family businesses, including Udi's Bakery, a catering company, six cafes and two national companies - Udi's Gluten-free and Udi's Granola.

"I was obsessed and found myself going all over the city to find ingredients to make a meal for myself," said Baron, who would land Costco as his first customer for his artisan breads. "I was trying to recreate all the food that I loved."

He set himself apart by focusing on sandwiches, stayed conservative and paid his vendors in cash. And he grew his business slowly.

"I believe good business people are risk averse, so even though I was taking risks, it was always calculated," he said. "Unless you are really lucky, it's managing the risk that is the most important thing in managing your business."

In 2005 he moved into a 13,000-square-foot facility - just after commissioning a national market analysis of the granola market. Udi's Granola went national in 2006 after building the distribution infrastructure.

But it was 2008 when baker Chadwick White brought a gluten-free bread to Udi's that would make all the difference.

"We took the bread to a workshop of people with celiac, and the reaction to our product was so emotional that people cried," Baron said. "It was like going to a music event with teenage girls going crazy. So we realized immediately that we had something special."

King Soopers became Udi's first customer for gluten-free products.

"Within days it was a huge success, and we never, ever looked back," said Baron, who would not disclose figures but said Udi's became the No. 1 gluten-free bakery in the nation and "sales went into the tens of millions within two years."

Today he's working on expanding the bakery, introducing a pita bread to supermarkets, opening a few more restaurants and developing new products. His son, Etai, and daughter, Robin, run the company.

"It's really heartwarming to see my name on products," Baron said. "Udi's Gluten-free has more than 70,000 Facebook fans, and now wherever I go in the United States, it's just amazing the reaction I get. It feels special that people know who we are, and that's all very good."
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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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