Chris Mittelstaedt is the Founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, a service providing fresh fruit to businesses and their employees. In this interview, he talks about what inspired him to found the company and some of the health challenges facing American businesses.

What prompted you to start 
A friend and I came up with this idea during the dot-com boom in the San Francisco Bay area. We went around to some of our friends that were working in offices and asked them what they needed. What we discovered was that many of the companies were providing junk food for their employees, but they were not providing healthy alternatives. So we looked at it and realized that one of the oldest and healthiest snacks around is fresh fruit. It’s the original prepackaged, ready-to-go, healthy snack. You can grab an apple and go. You don’t have to prepare it.

That’s where the idea came from. We actually didn’t even have a name when we started the company. On our first delivery, people literally gathered around the kitchen and said, “The fruit guys are here!” We realized that this was just a great name, and stuck with it.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, obesity has doubled since the ’70s. How has this development impacted American businesses?
In March 2005, the California Department of Health Services came out with a report about obesity. The study found that the obesity epidemic is costing California businesses $21.7 billion per year. That includes factors such as workman’s compensation costs and absenteeism. Businesses are in a unique position to encourage healthy behavior, and by doing so, they benefit from a bottom-line standpoint. By encouraging healthy diets and exercise, they are reducing the costs associated with obesity.

Also as you pointed out earlier in the previous question, businesses have already been contributing for many years to poor or unhealthy habits by providing junk food on site.
A lot of it is because businesses want to provide convenient snacks for their employees, so that they will be able to stay in the office and work. That’s a real motivation for companies.

When I developed the FruitGuys, I realized we had to make this easy. Junk food is convenient. It’s packaged; it’s easy to use. So we’ve tried to develop boxes that can be shipped all over the United States. These boxes are designed to be their own point of distribution display so you open the box and it folds up in a way that people can use it immediately. The fruit itself has to be stuff that can be eaten out of hand quickly, so that it’s a “grab-and-go” kind of thing.

A recent study has predicted that nine out of 10 men and seven out of 10 women will eventually become overweight. Do you agree with this estimate and would you say that Americans are trending toward healthier lifestyles or away from them?
Our country has a lot of challenges around health issues right now. We are beginning to become aware of these unhealthy trends, which is an important first step. Now the challenge is providing people with alternatives – giving people the ability to choose a healthier diet and lifestyle. That’s the battle that we’re fighting right now. You see it all over the news all across the country. I just attended the Governor’s BC Summit in Sacramento where they’re talking a lot about how to change activities for students in schools and how to change nutritional standards at schools. People are now starting to think about these issues across the board, not just workplaces.

What are some of the employee wellness best practices that you’ve heard about or are seeing at your customers’ places of business, aside from the FruitGuys program?
We received a wonderful testimonial letter from a company talking about why they liked The FruitGuys’ service, but they talked about it in the context of trying all sorts of things to keep their employees healthy, especially during the flu season. For example, they were doing things such as flu shots and providing employees with hand sanitizers.

I’ve been at companies that encourage employees to become more physically active through stair-climbing campaigns or they’ll have people wear pedometers and walk 3,000 miles as a company. I’ve seen healthy eating clubs and diet clubs onsite. I’ve seen companies with onsite workout facilities, so employees can work out on their lunch breaks. Companies, again, are starting to realize that promoting healthy lifestyles is a win-win situation: healthier employees mean a healthier bottom line.

Anything you would like to add?
Obviously, The FruitGuys are in the position of selling fruit to workplaces and trying to make a difference in the workplace, but it’s not just a workplace issue. People leave the workplace and go home. They can’t just eat healthy at the workplace; we have to try to encourage a culture that’s going to affect them both at the workplace and at home and their kids at school, so that they will be healthier. If we can do that, then it will ultimately affect the business positively, but it’s going to take marketing and work and the company being behind them to do that.