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Health-conscious diners around the world can thank Paul Wenner
for one of the most popular so-called “health foods”
in modern history: the Gardenburger.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Wenner became aware of his eating
habits and how they affected his health and well-being. He
briefly trained for the Air Force, then he left the armed
services and taught cooking classes and spoke at healthy eating
seminars. He began to dream of opening his own restaurant.
In 1981, he realized that dream, establishing The Gardenhouse,
a vegetarian restaurant, in Gresham, Oregon. The Gardenhouse
opened to great reviews.
Wenner was faced with a common challenge among restaurateurs:
how to use up the leftovers. One day he experimented with
a mixture of leftover vegetables and rice pilaf. He added
a few ingredients and made the mixture into a loaf, which
he served as an item he called the “Garden Loaf Sandwich.”
He then thought he would try slicing up the mixture and serving
it on a hamburger bun — this he called the Gardenburger.
To his surprise, the Gardenburger became a huge hit, soon
accounting for nearly half his customers’ lunch orders.
This non-soy, vegetarian alternative to the hamburger was
tasty and satisfying, but, made from a mixture of oats, cheese,
mushrooms and rice, it was also low in fat and cholesterol.
In 1982, Wenner began to realize the Gardenburger might find
a market outside of his restaurant. He began offering it to
other food outlets. He also sold the Gardenburger at festival
food stands and delis.
In 1984, Oregon went through a recession, and Wenner made
the difficult decision to close The Gardenhouse. But by then
the wheels in his mind were turning as to how he might turn
the Gardenburger into a business of its own.
He began working with a former customer, Allyn Smaaland,
who said he’d help him to sell Gardenburgers. Then he
got financial backing from the CEO of Louisiana Pacific, Harry
Merlo, who he contacted on the advice of his sister, an LP
employee. Wenner estimated that his new company, which at
first he called Wholesome & Hearty Foods, Inc. and changed
in 1985 to Gardenburger, Inc., would be profitable in 13 months.
To grow the business, Wenner and Smaaland visited restaurants
all over the country and took lots of rejection at first,
but ultimately, the Gardenburger won hundreds of accounts.
Wenner’s “big break” came in 1986 during
the Natural Food Expo Show in Los Angeles, where he arranged
to have the Gardenburger served in the cafeteria at the Expo
Center. It was a hit — and orders began pouring in.
Wenner had been right on the money with his prediction: the
company turned its first profit of $300 shortly after that
— exactly 13 months after his initial meeting with Merlo.
Gardenburger went public in 1992, and within a year it had
become one of the fastest growing publicly traded companies
in America. Wenner, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has added
vegetarian meatballs, wings, cutlets and riblets to Gardenburger’s
product line and wrote a vegetarian cookbook called “Garden
Gardenburgers are now available in 14 countries in more
than 35,000 food-service outlets around the world. Today,
the company says over 400 million Gardenburgers have been