Inside Track: Dentist seizes business opportunity
John Bruinsma’s passion for patient care led him to create herbal suckers that battle tooth decay.
John Bruinsma never would have guessed the artificial taste of a sugar-free lollipop would one day lead to the taste of a $2,000 bottle of scotch.
But more than 20 years after launching Dr. John’s Sugar Free Candies, on a visit to China with potential clients, Bruinsma was presented a bottle of 30-year Macallan; he and his wife and partner, Debra Bruinsma, were invited to drink as much as they’d like.
“In a million years, I never thought it would turn into what it is today,” John Bruinsma said. “But that’s where it’s taken us, and it’s been a fairly wild ride.”
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Bruinsma always had a passion for science. After graduating from high school ahead of schedule, he went on to continue his education at Grand Rapids Community College.
At the time, Bruinsma still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for a career. What he did know was the human body always had fascinated him, and he loved to work with his hands. He had his Eureka! moment one day while driving home from class. On the commute home, Bruinsma passed his family dentist’s office.
“I sort of looked at the sign and thought, ‘Huh — that combination works,’” Bruinsma said.
Bruinsma enrolled in dental school at the University of Michigan, where he would meet his bride-to-be, who was studying to be a hygienist. He graduated in 1983, married Debra shortly thereafter, and the newlyweds moved back to Grand Rapids, where Bruinsma got his start working at his father-in-law’s practice.
After a year and a half, Bruinsma was ready to start his own practice. For about a decade, he enjoyed the daily experiences of working as a family dentist, finding fulfillment in taking on a new challenge each day.
“I always enjoyed the challenge, and I still do,” Bruinsma said. “Every person is different, every case and every mouth is different and I really like figuring out how to meet the different challenges that come with each case. I had no idea how rewarding it was to meet those challenges on a day-to-day basis.”
But that didn’t stop Bruinsma from wondering what his life would be like if he took a different path.
“I didn’t want to, one day, be 65 years old and think back, ‘I wonder what it would have been like if I’d done something else,” he said.
In 1995, Bruinsma saw an opportunity to do just that.
At his practice, Bruinsma always had a bowl of sugar-free lollipops out for his patients. On occasion, he would grab one on the way home from his office, pop the sucker in his mouth and promptly toss it out before he got halfway home.
“They were awful,” he recalled. “And I put these out for my patients?”
Then on one fateful afternoon, John and Debra Bruinsma were driving back to Grand Rapids after a trip and were issued a directive from their daughter, who had fallen and cut her head while they were away. All she wanted from her parents was a giant lollipop — a search that took the Bruinsmas to a small town with a candy factory outlet.
They entered the factory, and as luck would have it, the workers were in the process of making large, sugar-free lollipops. And to John Bruinsma’s shock and delight, they tasted great. He asked the workers if they ever considered marketing to dentists.
“Not long after, we were headed out to an (American Dental Association) convention, and we brought samples with us to hand out,” Bruinsma said. “We didn’t even have a company name, but people started buying us up — we got our first order for 2,000 pounds of candy.”
Bruinsma continued to practice dentistry while he and Debra grew Dr. John’s Candies as a side business, with Debra eventually taking on the day-to-day operations, working from the house.
“The toughest part came from becoming knowledgeable about our own product,” John Bruinsma said. “We just sort of threw it over our shoulder and went for it.”
For several years, Dr. John’s operated out of the family home, selling sugar-free candies to dentists and at trade shows. Around 2002, the Bruinsmas began making an herbal lollipop, which connected them to Dr. Wenyuan Shi, one of the world’s top microbiologists working at the University of California, Los Angeles. Shi also had been working on developing an herbal candy that not only was sugar-free but contained ingredients to battle tooth decay. Bruinsma calls that one of the company’s inflection points.
“We started making the herbal lollipop, and that’s what changed everything,” Bruinsma said. “That took us from doing sugar-free candy from our house — which everyone was doing, but ours tasted better — into a whole new market.”
The relationship with Shi paid dividends in 2008, when the UCLA scientist and Dr. John’s Candies were featured on Good Morning America. Suddenly, the phone was ringing off the hook.
“That really was a cart before the horse scenario,” Bruinsma said. “We didn’t have the human capital at the time, and we were taking calls from CVS and Walgreens. Good Morning America changed everything; it got us to where we are now, owning the manufacturer and having our own distribution facility.”
Not long after, Bruinsma discovered another use for the healthy candies. In addition to fighting tooth decay, the sugar-free properties of the candies made them a perfect treat for children who were undergoing treatment for diseases like cancer. Recently, Dr. John’s launched a new product line, THRIVE, a natural candy loaded with tooth decay fighting ingredients xylitol and erythritol and packed with five grams of fiber.
Bruinsma is enamored with the science of his own product and said he’ll continue to experiment and innovate and develop new product lines that address medical concerns across a wide spectrum. His passion hasn’t dwindled one iota in his long career.
“If the focus of your practice becomes money instead of patient care and doing what you love, you’ve lost it,” he said. “If you really can stick to your values and do things the right way and not lose your heart, that’s the key to being successful.”
Since 1995, John Bruinsma has been pulling double duty, still practicing at Beckwith Family Dental Care while also managing Dr. John’s rapid growth. Peers and patients have recognized his dental work, as he was named one of West Michigan’s top doctors four times. Debra Bruinsma said 34 years into his career, she’s still blown away by her husband’s attention to detail and his drive to grow the family business.
“What John’s doing, no one else can do,” she said. “You have to have the dental background to know what dentists are looking for in these candies, and you have to have access to a candy lab and know what you’re doing.”
Still, it’s her husband’s pride in his work that truly sets him apart in her eyes.
“Even 34 years in, he takes his time and really prides himself on what he does,” she said. “He’s special.”
At 58 years old, John Bruinsma spends less and less time at the practice, transitioning to spending more time with the retail business. His two daughters now work in the family business as well, and they recently moved into a new office and warehouse in Comstock Park.
Bruinsma doesn’t know how much longer he’ll continue to practice dentistry, but he now knows that no matter what, he’ll never have to wonder what life would have been like if he’d tried something else.