Sweet Truth

Spanish speakers in Denver may be shocked by the impending invasion of Luscious Lulo ice cream, considering that "lulo" is slang in some Latin quarters for the female nether regions.

But the dessert, made from the Latin American lulo fruit, has already made a hit on Capitol Hill and is heading to the stores.

Scott Hardy didn't have the word "lulo" on his brain when he came up with the idea. (In fact, a worker at Hardy's Jaguar Rainforest Ice Cream was stunned when a reporter told him the slang definition of the word.) The start of Hardy's business was more mundane. He recalls a morning a few years ago that most business travelers can relate to: "I was traveling 224 days out of the year, and I woke up in a hotel room with this vision of being sixty years old, walking through an airport with my briefcase, my shoulder stooped from carrying my bag in one hand all the time, and still having to kiss butt." It was at this point that the 41-year-old knew he had to get out of the consulting business and into something else.

Last summer Hardy started Jaguar from a small office high in the rafters of Denver's Union Station. Despite his lack of experience in and exposure to the food business, he felt he could make a better living--with less travel--selling sweets.

But Hardy wasn't trying to get away from the hectic pace of business completely. "While I was still working as a consultant, I represented a few produce companies," says Hardy, "and I was really attracted to the vibrancy and absolute chaos of the business." Not only was he attracted to the action, but he felt that he and his partner, Stephen Hilgers, had a product they could cash in on.

During his years working in mergers and acquisitions for several consulting firms, Hardy met a Brazilian businessman who exposed him to some of the more exotic fruits native to South and Central America. These fruits, such as the caruba and the lulo, which are not readily available in the U.S., impressed him as the "kings and queens" of the produce world. But one question remained: how to present these jungle delicacies from Colombia, Costa Rica and Venezuela to the traditionally picky and unadventurous U.S. consumer?

Hardy's first idea was a line of beverages, but a few trips to the local supermarket convinced him that the drink market was oversaturated. His grocery-store wanderings eventually led him to the frozen-foods section, where he discovered a noticeable lack of "super premium" brands of ice cream. In fact, there were only two by his count--Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. Figuring there was room for another high-end brand in what he estimated to be a $10 billion-a-year ice cream industry, Hardy and his partner decided that was where they were going to make their move.

"We felt that ice cream was not only the easiest medium to convert these fruits into," he says, "but it's also a great way to get people to try them in the first place. Besides, everybody likes ice cream." Hardy, who looks quite a bit like Bill Clinton, adds, "Bubba will definitely buy it."

Hardy and Hilgers were still concerned that the other ice cream ingredients might overpower the non-traditional fruit flavors Jaguar intended to use. In order to find out, they launched a summertime experiment and crash course in ice cream.

Meeting up after work and on weekends, the two concocted batches of the ice cream at a Capitol Hill confectionery where the owner was willing to offer such experimental flavors as Luscious Lulo and Andean Blackberry to his customers. "That was our test market," says Hardy, and the flavors were popular enough with customers to give the pair the confidence to carry on. By the end of the summer, they had formulas for eight flavors.

The next hurdle was selling it. They had to beat out 44 other companies competing for the King Soopers shelf space they coveted. Each company had twenty minutes to sway the Soopers buyers, but after staying up most of the previous night hashing out details and then showing up for the presentation disheveled and exhausted, Hardy didn't think his company had much of a chance.

"The day after the presentation, the distributor working for Soopers called me up and asked me how I thought I did," says Hardy. "I told him that, truthfully, I didn't think I did very well and that I couldn't even remember most of what I said. The guy then tells me that they were impressed and that one of the buyers even described me as a 'heat-seeking missile.' And after we got Soopers, everything else fell into place." Safeway, among others, has also picked up the ice cream for its stores.

After convincing supermarket chains to carry Jaguar, the process of importing the fruit pulp to Miami, trucking it to Denver, mixing up the secret recipes and distributing the product to stores has begun in earnest. The phones at the three-person Jaguar office ring constantly. But even as the two other employees rush in and out of the office taking care of last-minute details before this month's rollout, Hardy appears remarkably calm as he smokes an unfiltered cigarette and orders letterhead.

As for his old job, Hardy says he doesn't miss it. "In consulting, you're constantly worried about everyone else's problems," he says. "This job has given me the opportunity to worry about my own.

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Tony Perez-Giese