1996: Let Them Eat Hemp

Let Them Eat Hemp. Hemp Times, Oct 1996, story by Peggy Matthews, photo by Dan Skye.

Pull quote: “My advisors even said not get into hemp—which of course led me to think that I should” –Richard Rose

Overnight successes usually aren’t. So when people wonder how Richard Rose got so successful so quickly, he laughs. “It happened real fast,” he says. “It only took 16 years!” For the last ten, he’s been guiding his own food products company, Sharon’s Finest, to dizzying heights: $3 million in sales last year, triple-digit growth and national recognition as one of the fast-growing firms of the decade. His unique food products include HempRella, a healthy cheese alternative, and the Hempeh Burger, which only looks like a hamburger. Both include hemp seeds. With their success, Rose has seen the need to start a new company in addition to Sharon’s Finest— The Hemp Corporation, to concentrate on developing and marketing new hemp-based foods. Rose donates 5% of all pre-tax profits to environmental foundations and provided over $70,000 in food to help with relief efforts for victims of the Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Andrew.

Why was it necessary to start The Hemp Corporation?

There are a lot of hemp products on our drawing board that don’t really fit into the Sharon’s Finest product line. We wanted to insulate Sharon’s Finest, because hemp is so different from ever thing else we do. It takes up a lot more time– my time.

Sharon’s Finest will continue to be the Rella line of food products– what it has been for the last ten years: marketers of TofuRella, AlmondRella, VeganRella, Zero-fat Rella and HempRella. The Hemp Corporation will market the Hempeh Burger. We’re going to be introducing a new hemp cheese which will be the most nutritious cheese alternative ever: forty-five vitamins and minerals and the essential fatty acids from the hemp seeds. We have about six to eight new products planned.

How did all of this evolve?

Sharon and l started in 1980 with tofu products and pioneered about seventy new soy foods. [When they divorced, Richard bought Sharon’s interest in the company and made her “very happy.” Richard is now the sole shareholder–Ed.] In the ‘80s, we were considered one of the most innovative and prolific soy companies around. But we stopped production to concentrate solely on TofuRella. That was 1986. When it became successful, we introduced more Rellas. HempRella arrived in September of 1994.

Was this the first time that you had considered developing hemp food products?

Yes. A couple years of earlier, I’d read Chris Conrad’s book [Lifeline to the Future], I learned that hemp seeds were in fact more nutritious then soybeans and were the best source of essential fatty acids known to man. They are almost as high in complete protein as soybeans and are far higher in fiber and certain vitamins and minerals.

When I aired the idea, literally everyone on my staff told me not to do it. My advisors and brokers even said not to do it, which of course led me to think that l should. When we introduced it at a Baltimore trade show in ‘94, our booth was mobbed the entire three days. Simultaneously, the largest natural-food distributing chain in the country said they would never carry this product in any of their distribution houses. The two largest retailing chains in the country said the same. Despite the prejudice toward hemp, it went on to become our most successful new-product introduction.

How do you describe yourself?

I usually don’t.

OK. You’re obviously a maverick of some sort. Your business is booming. To what do you attribute your success?

Busting my butt for the last 16 years. I got started doing this back in 1980. Most people in the hemp industry have been in business five years, at most, and are probably where l was 13 years ago. I have the success of Sharon’s Finest to build from. If l had introduced HempRella as part of a new, start-up company, it probably would have failed. Everyone would have thought it was a novelty or a fad. But it’s one of our best sellers.

How do the foods you manufacture help the environment?

By not harming it. Animal-based diets impact upon everything else we do. Did you realize that it takes 15 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat? Is it really necessary to cut down the Brazilian rainforests for cattle grazing so we can have our Big Macs? The collusion of government and industry is creating a situation where we have to find alternatives.

What motivated you to personally get involved in the health-food industry?

Years ago, I was really sick and discovered I was allergic to dairy. So l stopped eating dairy and discovered tofu in the late ‘70s. I saw an opportunity to make all these interesting foods from tofu like ice cream, dips, dressings and all that. We started making tofu in June of 1980 and eventually began developing new foods. I think l was in the forefront of that segment of the industry back then. I’m in a similar situation with hemp foods now.

Your Web site is pretty entertaining.

The Internet intrigued me immediately. It’s a new means of communication and marketing. I’ve pursued it because l enjoy it and because it has application and usefulness to our business and if I don’t do it, nobody will. People tell me your e-mails are always posted during the wee hours of the morning. I’m a night person, no doubt about it, probably because I’ve been a musician for thirty-three years. I play guitar and bass– rock n roll, jazz, blues, dance stuff. With the success of Sharon’s Finest, I’ve been able to pursue music steadily. I have a ball at business seminars. I’m usually the only longhair there. If any entertainment is provided, I’ll get up on stage and play with the band and surprise everybody.

I do things differently but I have a good time.

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