Lemon idea crystallized his success


WHEN DAVID Schleider was 8 years old, he would peel 2,000 hard-boiled eggs in a sitting to help out his father's catering business. By 12, he'd make hors d'oeuvres by the thousands.

"The idea of hard work, determination and sacrifice is what kept me going," Schleider said. "I might be the boss' son, but I could do as good a job or work as hard as anybody."

Now 39, Schleider is determined to take on a challenge far beyond kitchen work: He wants to change the way Americans think of, and use, the lemon.

Eighteen months ago, he launched a product that took him nearly three years to develop. He took fresh lemon juice and lemon oil, squeezed it, mixed it and turned the concoction into fine crystals. He put the crystals into bright yellow and blue packages and called it True Lemon, with the dream of making it as ubiquitous as salt, pepper and sugar. Sprinkle it in water, on fruit or in yogurt. Add it to your water or tea. Use it in cooking. [One packet equals a third of a lemon.]

"We want an open box in every pantry," said Schleider, who is president and CEO of Grand Brands in White Marsh. In January, the company signed a distribution agreement with Sugar Foods Corp., the company that distributes Sweet'N Low, Sugar in the Raw and Blue Diamond almonds. By the end of July, Schleider expects True Lemon to be in 15,000 stores.

"It has been quite a success," said Brad Vickery, vice president of sales and marketing and purchasing at Distribution Plus Inc. in Upper Marlboro, which has been distributing True Lemon for the past 12 months. "I think it has large potential."

"I think it is a great product," said Nancy Cohen, owner of Eddie's of Roland Park, which carries the product.

It may be the only product of its kind on the market. A spokeswoman for Cadbury Schweppes, said its product, ReaLemon, only comes in liquid.

Schleider, who is single, has dedicated his life to True Lemon. He scraped up $1.5 million over the years from family, friends and investors. He works seven days a week and has 10 employees, including his younger brother, Aleck.

"He is very focused and being focused is ... key to succeeding," says his father, Leonard Schleider, owner of Cameo Caterers and the Black-Eyed Susan dinner boat. "When you have the endurance and stamina to try to finish up what you start, that is kind of paramount ... to being successful."

It was only logical that Schleider would go into the food business. His father has been in catering for 45 years, and his three children followed.

By the time Schleider was 16, he was catering events for as many as 300 people.

His father expanded the company in the mid-1980s, catering large sporting events across the country including the Super Bowl, the Olympics and PGA tournaments, Schleider said. But the elder Schleider got out of the sports catering business in 1989, and his son left the company.

David Schleider hopped around, working for food distributors with operations in Maryland. He moved to Los Angeles and worked as a caterer there for a while, then briefly in corporate sales at Hertz, and then in the film industry in creative development.

In 1998, a friend who had bought 10 frozen drink machines at auction asked Schleider to go into business with him. They wanted to place the machines in sports arenas and concert halls and serve frozen margaritas. To convince clients that margarita sales would be strong, Schleider promised a novelty item - a straw coated with salt and crystallized lime juice.

It took him six months to whip up the concoction and make prototypes. But the straw fizzled - too expensive to mass- produce.

Schleider still believed the straws held promise, and he moved to Baltimore in 1999 to start a company in the beverage industry.

One day, at an Inner Harbor restaurant with his father, the two talked about the straw's problems. The conversation turned to the fact that there wasn't enough lemon in their iced tea. (Schleider likes three wedges, so there's never enough in anything he's served.) After dumping sweetener into his third glass of tea, the idea hit him: Why couldn't you simply tear open a packet of lemon crystals and dump them into your tea, just like sweeteners?

"I recognized no seeds, no waste, no messy hands, consistent flavor," he said. "I went home that afternoon and started playing around with it."

Schleider thought it would be easy to develop. He already had a start by turning lime juice into crystals.

"I thought it would be one, two, three, put it in a packet, start production and market it," said Schleider. "The closer you work with fresh lemon the more ... sensitive it becomes."

Sometimes the crystals clumped. Sometimes they spoiled. Investors grumbled when a big batch flopped in July 2003.

Two months later, Schleider tried again with a 2,000- pound run. This time, he reduced the heat and extended the time to turn the liquid into crystals.

"We held our breath waiting for all the unknowns," he said.

It worked.

Schleider began test marketing True Lemon at Ukrops grocery stores in Richmond, Va., and at Eddie's of Roland Park. People liked it. Now, it is sold in major chains including Giant, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Food Lion.

By October, he expects Grand Brands to break even. He is also working on True Lime, which he expects to roll out this fall, and a secret product designed for the coffee industry.

"Absolutely from head to toe every molecule of energy in my body and every thought in my day ... is about succeeding," Schleider said. "I simply can't separate myself from it."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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