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Gardenburger creator reinvents himself

Gardenburger inventor Paul Wenner has a new creation, a packed meal called the Gardenbar that's akin to a granola bar, but with a blend of vegetables as the primary ingredient.

Wenner, who rode Gardenburger from poverty to one of the hottest stocks in captivity during the 1990s, said financial hard times spurred his latest effort.

"I started buying real estate in Hawaii right before the whole thing shifted," said Wenner, who has a home in Maui, spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, but more often than not calls Portland home. "I had to recreate some of my fortune."

After more than three years of mixing and matching ingredients, Wenner began marketing the Gardenbar a few weeks ago. Market of Choice put in the first order, and in true entrepreneurial fervor, Wenner will visit each of the chain's Oregon locations over the next week, beginning from 1 to 8:30 p.m. today in Ashland.

"Usually, when you pay people to do demonstrations, they aren't very effective," Wenner said. "They may sell a few packages, but I've been known to sell hundreds and hundreds in a day."

Wenner developed 14 flavors before settling on five for production: American Savory, Japanese Savory, Indian Savory, Mexican Savory and Italian Savory. Starting with a neutral brown rice syrup base, the bars are a blend of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts with no dairy or animal products. They are gluten and GMO free.

"It's like an entree in your pocket," Wenner said. "They each taste like the vegetables you would expect with a particular style of meal."

Mexican, for example, would have bell pepper, tomatoes, olive, pepper and corn taste, along with grains.

"You can throw them in your suitcase and live of these bars and water," he said.

The cost is about $2.49 per bar, he said, and the shelf life is a year.

Wenner, 64, has had his ups and downs in the food world, starting with a gourmet natural food restaurant that attracted plenty of customers but under-priced itself out of existence.

"I didn't know I didn't know how to run a business," he said. "I had good prices and great food. I didn't know how to pay myself, but I knew how to entertain people."

But while running the restaurant, Wenner developed the Gardenburger and scored an economic hit with Wholesome & Hearty Foods Inc. In 13 years, he had a $100 million company with multiple locations and 300 employees. But when he tried to step aside and let a Quaker Oats veteran operate the firm, things soon fell apart.

"I went from having $30 million in the bank and no debt to having a company that went into bankruptcy in two years," he said.

Eventually, Kellogg Co. bought the rejuvenated Gardenburger Inc. and Wenner hoped to ride off into the Hawaii sunset.

But his real estate misfortunes dictated another course.

The latest round of products are produced in McMinnville by a third party.

"I don't want to have 300 employees this time around," he said. "They make all the bars to my specs so I can put all my energy into marketing and PR."

A skier doing a documentary in China for ESPN told Wenner he was stocking up on Gardenbars for his trek.

"I'm looking at sales to the military, vending machine companies," Wenner said. "And with Michelle Obama pushing healthy eating, it's perfect for college and high school."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

Paul Wenner, creator of the Gardenburger, is poised to launch the Gardenbar. His first distribution point will be in Market of Choice on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore