Steve Malone’s Chrysler Fury sold for a couple hundred dollars, and his mom chipped in $100. With another $100 from Ron Seibold's mother, the pair of entrepreneurs kicked off their new company.
That was 1976, in Hays. Now, Lawrence-based Pines International Inc. — aka “The Wheat Grass People” — is an international supplier of USDA-certified organic cereal grass supplements.
The company exports to about 25 countries, and there are bright green Pines labels in Vitamin Shoppes, Whole Foods Markets and other grocery and specialty stores in almost every U.S. state. Pines recently added outposts in other states and overhauled its Lawrence equipment to the tune of $4 million.
Nutritional supplements weren’t new when Malone and Seibold founded Pines. But their product was different — basically, simply wheat grass that's dehydrated, crushed and sold in powder form or pressed into tablets.
“People were getting away from synthetics and wanting whole foods,” Malone said.
In their first year, Malone and Seibold peddled the product to stores across 35 states, sleeping mostly at KOA campgrounds. Struggling to find financing in Hays — where, they said, banks seemed more comfortable with oil or livestock businesses — the two looked to Lawrence. After all, Seibold said, it was “the most progressive place in Kansas.”
Securing a small business loan in Lawrence enabled the pair to purchase equipment and set up shop here. Pines moved into its current production facility at Midland Junction, 1992 E. 1400 Road, in the late 1980s. The company employs about 20 people.
Two years ago, Pines invested about $2 million to build another plant in Iowa, where grasses grown organically on the surrounding 1,500 acres are dehydrated and processed. Pines is working to set up a similar growing and processing operation in New York.
About three years ago, Pines spent another $2 million to upgrade all the equipment at its Lawrence dehydrating facility to stainless steel, which Malone and Seibold said is the best and “cleanest” material for such operations.
Now, “The Wheat Grass People” produce more than just wheat grass. Other products include alfalfa, barley grass and beet juice powder, sold in stores and online at wheatgrass.com.
Pines had its first big break in the 1990s, when a company approached them to be Pines’ exclusive distributor in several Asian countries. But foreign-made products also have proven to be competition.
While consumers can find cheaper cereal grass supplements made in China, for example, Pines founders say their quality is unmatched. Not only is their product tested for safety and consistency, they said, Pines’ practices result in better nutritional content.
Most of those practices are based on the research of agricultural chemist Charles Schnabel of Cerophyl Laboratories, which once occupied the Lawrence facility Pines does now.
Among other things, Pines wheat grass is organically grown in the glacial soil surrounding the facility and harvested at peak nutritional value, even though letting it grow taller would produce more volume. Pines uses only glass packaging instead of plastic, which the founders said compromises quality and freshness.
Pines has sold a lot of bulk product but is looking to grow sales of supplements under its own label, Seibold said. He and Malone hope their quality will continue to stand out in the competitive market.
“We’ve always been able to produce the best,” Malone said.