The power of caring
words and photos by Alissa Danckaert-Skovira
Evan, a graduate of Walsh Jesuit High School, earned his undergraduate degree in business from Cornell. He had entered his first year as an MBA student there when he decided to leave. Evan traded his classroom at Cornell for a two-year stint in the rainforests of Suriname in South America with the Peace Corps.
He knew he would eventually commit to social enterprise, a business model that focuses on social responsibility along with profit.
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Evan returned to Ohio to launch Peaceful Fruits in 2013. The first step was coming up with a marketable product that would not require a great deal of capital. His father, Michael Delahanty, came up with the idea for the dried fruit — fruit leathers — based upon fruit sustainably harvested in the Amazon but processed and packaged in Akron, Ohio.
Many cooking experiments commenced in the Delahanty kitchen until Evan found just the right recipe. He took his product to a local farmers’ market and began urging people to taste the fruit leathers, asking if they would buy such a product if it were available.
“Week one of Peaceful Fruits, I literally went to a farmers’ market near my parents’ house in Peninsula and handed out my product from a Ziploc baggie,” Evan recalls. “One of the people who got super excited about it was a young man named A.J. who has severe Down syndrome and is about my age.”
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Evan found it easy to talk to A.J. and his mom, Peg, a retired Spanish teacher who had traveled extensively around South America. Peg was intrigued by Evan’s pitch and told him, if he ever got past the “Ziploc baggie stage,” to give them a call.
Six months later, Evan did in fact give them a call. He wanted to make them a part of the endeavor for which they had shown such enthusiasm — particularly A.J. He thought A.J. could join the burgeoning business, labeling the packages.
“At first we sat around the kitchen table and put labels on the product,” Evan says.
Over time, A.J. learned to put the labels on by himself, and he was promoted from volunteer status to a paid employee. Peg then mentioned the Blick Center, which services children and adults with physical and mental challenges, and told Evan there were 15 people there who would love the opportunity to do what A.J. was doing. A.J. was a client at Blick, so Peg knew the organization and its people well.
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“We have 29 people with disabilities engaged on our projects through Blick,” says Evan, “but some of those people are only able to work an hour a week; some are able to work four hours a week.”
Decades ago, A.J. was the first baby The Blick Center worked with. Occupational therapist Bonny King was one of his first contacts. Today, Bonny works alongside A.J. who is now in his thirties and the other Blick Center clients who work with Peaceful Fruits.
“She is a phenomenal process consultant,” Evan said of Bonny. “For us, when I went to Bonny, I told her I need help patching orders. A couple days later, Bonny produced a poster board, a checklist, and a how-to guide, and 18 pages of documentation.”
“Everyone is pretty much cross-trained to do any of the jobs,” Bonny King said of her clients.
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Heat sealing, doing inventory, applying labels, unmolding, washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen are part of their daily responsibilities.
When asked about her favorite job at Peaceful Fruits, employee Tish replies, “I would have to say heat sealing.”
Another employee, Jayda, says, “We get paid good money, we get to work for him [Evan], and be part of a team.” Jayda is quick to add, “We’ve been on Fox 8 News, too.”
Beyond Jayda and Tish, Evan has five employees in digital marketing, production and other areas.
Evan has received a fair amount of publicity, most notably when he appeared on Shark Tank a year and a half ago. In 2016, sales at Peaceful Fruits were between $20,000 and $25,000. The Shark Tank appearance caused an explosion in online sales. Even though they didn’t secure funding from the Sharks, Evan says, “We tripled our annual volume in a weekend and sold $75,000” in the days after the episode aired.
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Though spikes like that are rare, Evan remains optimistic about the future. The company says its staff doubled and production capacity quadrupled during 2017. Peaceful Fruits will be moving into a larger production facility in Barberton next year.
What Evan is most excited about are the all-natural, vegan, gluten-free snacks. They come in eight flavors, and they boast exotic flavors such as acai, mango, acai and pineapple and more. They are also launching dried apple spirals.
Evan says Peaceful Fruits does about half of its sales online at Peacefulfruits.com and the other half in stores, including Kroeger, Acme, the Mustard Seed Market and Whole Foods.
Peaceful Fruits, the founder hopes, will allow people in the rainforest to maintain their way of life and people in Ohio to find meaningful employment.
This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.
Alissa Danckaert-Skovira teaches writing at Kent State University. She has a background in English and history, and she enjoys anything and everything to do with research and writing. Her interests include historic preservation, politics, gardening, and all things Akron.