Health-conscious diners around the world can thank Paul Wenner for one of the most popular “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. 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. He received 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 to Gardenburger, Inc., in 1985, 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 Cuisine.”