Forest Flavors

help sustain the rain forest

By Bruce Robinson

A LOT OF ENTREPRENEURS relish a challenge, but businessman Doug Stewart takes them on by the scoopful. The founder and owner of Howler products, Stewart has developed a line of exotic sorbets flavored with rain forest fruits, an endeavor in which he is trying to educate the American palate, support native agricultural cooperatives in Brazil, create a model for “green trade” in Amazon rain forest products, and, oh yes–make enough of a profit to sustain all the other objectives.

All with fruits that are totally unknown to even the most adventuresome California palates. But the same flavors are hugely popular in their homeland, and Stewart remains confident that they can find a following here, too.

“When I was [in Brazil] for the first time, I had a roommate who had been raised in a forest family,” Stewart, a Sonoma native, recalls during a quiet moment at the Howler processing facility in San Francisco. “The first thing he did was take me to a fruit shop and show me all the 50 different fruits he was raised on.

“They have an incredible variety, but they don’t appeal to everyone.”

Stewart was in Brazil as a researcher, working with one of his Stanford professors to document the rapacious rate at which the rain forest was being destroyed. That work was ultimately published as a book, After the Trees: Living on the Transamazon Highway (University of Texas Press, 1994). But it also sowed the seeds for his move into eco-capitalism.

“My research was looking at how people were using the rain forest, and they were generally using it destructively. I was looking at what would be a more sustainable, ecological endeavor than cattle, and one way would be to maintain a forest and manage it for fruit production,” he says. “Don’t cut it down, just plant stuff under it.”

The leap from theory to practice was not a big one, as Stewart explains it, even if he did have to quit his job teaching history at a Palo Alto middle school and max out his credit cards to get the new enterprise started.

Rain forest fruit sorbet is “the most obvious thing in the world if you’ve been there,” he shrugs. “It’s not a novel idea. They sell ice cream like the dickens.” He reports that “scoop shops” offering a wild array of flavors are everywhere in Brazilian towns and cities, “sort of like 31 flavors, except it’s 78 flavors.”

So why not bring the same idea back home? “A lot of people had thought of that,” Stewart says, “but nobody ever did it.” He soon found out why. The key was “infrastructure: how to get the fruit here at a reasonable cost. If we have a niche, it’s that we know how to do that,” he says, citing his discovery of a cooperative farm outside of the Brazilian city of Belém that provides consistent, quality fruit products.

Then there is the question of creating a market for something that most people have never heard of, much less experienced. “It’s a large uphill battle,” Stewart concedes cheerfully. “We sell a lot more mango and passion fruit than we sell cajá or cupuaçu.”

In deciding which of the multitude of rain forest fruits to export, freeze, and market, Stewart used two basic selection criteria. “I picked the ones that I liked most, just for starters. Secondarily, I picked the ones that were the most popular in the Amazon.”

That led to an immediate setback, when his favorite fruit, the açai (which he likens to a cinnamon-cassis taste) was coldly rejected by Bay Area consumers. “I thought the market was ready for a wild, complex thing, and it wasn’t,” Stewart says resignedly. He is now working on a new blend, pairing the açai with raspberries.

He has also made an effort to identify the new fruit flavors in terms that consumers can more easily digest. The bright citrus Cajá is now presented as “Tropical Tangerine,” the vitamin C­rich Acerola is identified as “Caribbean Cherry,” and the piña colada­like taste of Cupuaçu is emphasized. Other Howler flavors currently in production include Passion Fruit, Guava-Berry, Primal Scream Coffee Bean, and Guanábana, which Stewart predicts “is about to bust into the mainstream over the next five years.” Leading the charge in that popularization is Jeanette Stewart of Sebastopol–Stewart’s mother, staunchest booster, and the spearhead of his marketing department.

Now produced at a recently acquired gelato plant in San Francisco, the Howler line (named for the small, fruit-eating monkeys that swing through the rain forest canopy) is impressively smooth and creamy, despite being both fat-free and 100 percent non-dairy. Pints are sold at independent food stores throughout Sonoma County and the Greater Bay Area, along with individually packaged Howler bars–a sorbet pop on a stick.

With their new facility came the ability to produce 1.5-gallon cartons for restaurant use, something that opened up another eager market. “Right now we’re selling more product in restaurants than we are in pints,” Stewart says, since word of mouth among chefs has spread quickly and positively.

Among the Sonoma County eateries offering Howler sorbets are Topolos’ Russian River Restaurant and the Willow Wood Market Cafe in the west county, Lo Spuntino, Piatta, and the Bear Flag Cafe (co-owned by Stewart’s brother, Peter) in Sonoma, and, curiously, Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa.

From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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