He took a step back, drastically altering his lifestyle in 2006. Gruno switched to a raw-food diet and dropped 40 pounds. But he still craved junk food.
"This new way of eating didn't leave me without cravings for my snack food favorites, so I decided to create a crunchy but raw solution," Gruno says.
He began experimenting in his kitchen, blending flavors of vegetables and spices. His goal was to make a snack that wasn't baked or fried, but still retained that signature crunch. After much trial and error, Gruno created crispy, flavorful chips using dehydration at temperatures less than 115 degrees -- a process that preserves the nutritional benefits of raw food.
He was soon selling his new product in local specialty stores and at Whole Foods Markets. He left construction and began working full-time on his new endeavor.
Brad's Raw Chips are now sold by more than 500 retailers nationwide, and 52-year-old Gruno says his company pulls in $2 million in sales per year. The healthful snacks are made from veggies grown in Bucks County, Penn., where Gruno lives and the chips are produced. His flavors include sun-dried tomato, sweet potato, cheddar, kale, red bell pepper and beet.
Last week, Gruno's kale chips were featured on the Today Show when host Hoda Kotb proclaimed that the snack changed her life. "I was feeling run-down and icky," she says."If you have no energy and your system isn't moving the way you'd like it to move, trust me when I tell you these chips are the cure."
SecondAct caught up with the healthy chip mogul to discuss how he found his second career and created a raw snack company.
'Aha' moment: "When I went to a 'Go Green' convention and met a man selling raw salsa. He invited me to the next conference in NYC with my chips. Everyone at the show loved the chips and wanted to talk to me about them. I was getting so much attention, the man selling the salsa asked me to take my chips off the table because his salsa wasn't getting any notice. I knew I had to start selling the chips full time at that point."
Getting started: "I was making chips in my home for myself, and then after the convention I went to friends with an organic farm and converted their one-car garage into my kitchen and started selling chips at farmers markets. I did that for six months. Once I got enough confidence and realized it was a viable business, I went to smaller stores and then Whole Foods, asking them to carry my products. The next thing I knew, I was selling $14,000 in chips a month out of one Whole Foods store in Princeton, N.J., alone."
Greatest challenge: "Raising capital was the biggest struggle getting started. The startup money came from the same support group that got me started on the idea of turning my homemade chips into a business and larger production: my friends and family. The first loan I ever got was from Whole Foods. They have a Local Producer Loan Program that offers low-interest loans of $1,000 to $100,000 to small, local producers."
Work philosophy: "Work hard. If you're doing something you're passionate about, you really aren't working hard, but running a successful business [takes] a lot of work and a lot of time."
Inspired by: "The enthusiasm of all the people I talk to. I love hearing about how much they love the product. I also enjoy hearing people say how good the chips taste. That kind of feedback always picks me up and gets me on track."
Up next: "I have two books coming out about following a raw-food diet. I want to take the idea of eating raw foods global and get more Americans eating raw. I want to be able to share my experiences of not only how a raw diet has affected my life, but also my experience in business. I want to be an example to other small-business owners, proving to them that hard work, persistence and passion can pay off -- even today."
Words of advice to others making a midlife career change: "Find something you're passionate about. There are a lot of people making a midlife career change right now out of necessity, so don't go out there and just find a job. Find what you love, and success will usually organically happen from there."