Publicity Bonanza Puts Business Plan In High Gear

July 30, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Dr. John's Candies, a small business started 13 years ago by a Grand Rapids couple, had been growing steadily over the years. Earlier this year, some very good publicity in the U.S. and Great Britain upped the tempo at Dr. John's. Then came the morning of March 14, when Diane Sawyer popped a Dr. John's herbal lollipop in her mouth on the “Good Morning America” show.

The next day, John and Debra Bruinsma and their new business partners were scrambling to put together a much larger company called Sugar Free Specialties.

"We had to form a team instantly back in that second week of March," said John Bruinsma, a dentist. He and his wife, who is a dental hygienist, have owned and operated Beckwith Family Dental Care in northeast Grand Rapids for decades. Although they still own that business, much of their time and efforts now are on formation of Sugar Free Specialties with partners Dave Allen, Ed Oliveira and Steve Warmington.

Before “Good Morning America” did a brief, lighthearted report on the anti-cavity lollipops, Dr. John's was "just Deb and I. Since then we've had about six to eight people working on it," said Bruinsma.

Dr. John's came about by happenstance back in 1995.

"I had been giving out sugar-free candy in our office for quite a few years and I just didn’t care for it at all," said Bruinsma, 49. The patients didn't think much of the taste of sugar-free candy back then, either.

One day, the Bruinsmas were traveling through southern Michigan when they passed a candy manufacturing company with a factory store. They had been looking for a lollipop for their daughter, so they stopped. The factory did produce lollipops, which happened to be sugar-free — and they tasted good.

The Bruinsmas learned the factory wasn't marketing its sugar-free candy to dentists.  "We saw a need," recalled Debra Bruinsma.

They obtained samples from the factory and took those to a dental convention, to see if there was any interest in sugar-free candy for dentists to give out as treats to their patients. There was, indeed.

"We got back home and started receiving calls," said John Bruinsma.

Soon the Bruinsmas were marketing their sugar-free candy brand over the Internet, with sales directly to individuals and to dental supply companies. Diabetic patients were also very interested in a sugar-free candy that tasted good.

The Bruinsmas don't divulge Dr. John's sales volume or revenue, but by 1997, their little company was getting so busy that Debra decided to put her dental hygienist career on hold to run the sugar-free candy business. John still tries to put in at least three days a week at Beckwith Family Dental.

According to Debra, Dr. John's Candies was voted one of the top products in dentistry in 1997 by Clinical Research Associates in Provo, Utah.

The Bruinsmas used a major gourmet and specialty food distributor to get the Dr. John's brand into grocery chains but felt their products were more appropriate for either the diabetic supply area or the HBC area of stores and pharmacies.

In 2002, the Bruinsma's were contacted by C3 Jian Inc., a life sciences R&D company in California headed by Maxwell Anderson and Wenyuan Shi. Shi, a researcher at the UCLA School of Dentistry, had isolated a chemical extract from a Chinese licorice plant that appears to kill the bacterium that causes tooth decay. The anti-cavity power of the licorice herb had been known by the Chinese for thousands of years but Shi's work to identify and isolate the extract was revolutionary.

Anderson and Shi had contacted the Bruinsmas because they were looking for a certain vehicle to deliver the herb extract in a manner that was effective. The vehicle, they had decided, would be a lollipop. A lollipop is kept in the mouth and dissolves slowly, whereas other forms of candy would be chewed up and swallowed before the extract had enough time to kill the caries bacterium.

With the focus being on dentistry, obviously Anderson and Shi wanted sugar-free lollipops.

"Apparently, they found Dr. John's Candies on the Internet, and gave us a call," said John Bruinsma.

Dr. John's Candies became licensed to sell the patented anti-cavity herbal lollipops. News of a lollipop that might prevent cavities started to get out after there was an article about it and about Shi in January in a UCLA publication.

On Feb. 2, the Times of London ran a story about the herbal lollipops.

"As a result of that, it became global," he said. The lollipops are now selling in the UK, China, Germany, Japan — "and Nebraska," said Bruinsma, jokingly.

However, he is careful not to make unsubstantiated claims for the anti-cavity nature of the product, as it is subject to Food & Drug Administration regulation. He readily concedes that the herbal lollipop is not yet scientifically proven to prevent cavities.

"Our claim right now is that one Dr. John's lollipop in the morning and one in the evening for 10 days temporarily defeats the primary bacteria that cause decay, for three to six months, depending on certain factors," he said.

Dr. John's Herbal Lollipops were added to the Dr. John's Web site about the time the Bruinsmas began detailed planning of the larger company with Allen and the other partners. Only a day or two before the short feature was scheduled to air on “Good Morning America,” C3 Jian Inc. told the Bruinsmas about it, and they immediately shipped lollipops overnight to New York for the show. The name Dr. John's was mentioned on-air and the packaging was shown, along with footage of the lollipops being made. The lollipops were a big hit with Sawyer.

"We quickly set up a shipping fulfillment center in Grand Rapids, with a Web site geared to handle the potential onslaught of orders we anticipated the ‘GMA’ piece would generate," said Debra. They also hired Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc. to help with publicity and marketing.

"We had over one million hits on our Web site in the four weeks following the spot on ‘GMA.’ It has been nonstop ever since then," said Debra.

Sugar Free Specialties will be an umbrella company, with Dr. John's Candies part of it. Bruinsma said the southern Michigan factory (which he declines to identify) is still producing Dr. John's Candies but a new manufacturing site will be set up. Debra Bruinsma said in late May they did not know where the new plant would be but "Grand Rapids is certainly on top of the list."

John will be president of Sugar Free Specialties, Debra will be vice president, Allen will be chief operating officer, Oliveira chief financial officer, and Warmington will be involved with production.

Allen, who is a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Education, was the founder and executive director of Lighthouse Communities Inc. in Grand Rapids until he announced in late February he was leaving that organization to join the Bruinsmas in Sugar Free Specialties.

Ed Oliveira has about 10 years in the finance industry, specializing in residential and commercial markets. He reportedly owns a consulting and development business that focuses on international manufacturing and distribution and commercial development.

Steve Warmington is founder and owner of Warmington Industries, a distributor of fasteners and other products in Grand Rapids.  HQX

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