In 1980, Joseph Semprevivo, now 34, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Several years later, he whipped up a sugar-free ice cream and, with his parents, formed a company to sell it. In 1986 the family switched to making sugar-free cookies, and Joseph's Lite Cookies was born. Semprevivo is president and CEO of the 44-employee, $79 million company based in Deming, N.M., and Sebastian, Fla. Joseph's now sells its sugar-free cakes, brownies, and maple syrup in 125,000 stores in the U.S. and 42 countries.
A WINNING RECIPE
I was just turning nine years old when I read a newspaper story about the symptoms of diabetes: excessive thirst and persistent hunger, among others. I thought, I have a lot of those symptoms. Sure enough, I had diabetes. At first the doctors told my parents I would be lucky to live to age 17. I went from being a little fat kid eating sweets all the time to not having anything at all with sugar.
When I was 11, my parents opened a sandwich and ice cream shop in Deming. After school, I was making ice cream that I couldn't eat, and I was just salivating. I tried making a sugar-free ice cream using the same base of butterfat that I used to make the regular ice cream but added an unsweetened strawberry flavoring. It worked. We launched a line of sugar-free ice cream, putting the pints in local stores and then expanding into stores in Texas and Arizona.
Four years later, I suggested we make cookies, because I couldn't take ice cream to school as a snack. So my dad developed a sugar-free oatmeal cookie. When my parents first gave it to me, I cried. It was the first cookie I'd had in six years, and it was delicious.
Our ice cream business was having some setbacks, such as when the freezers broke down and 1,000 pints melted, so we decided to focus on cookies. We converted the sandwich and ice cream shop to a 1,700-square-foot cookie manufacturing plant, with offices in the front.
Shortly after we launched the oatmeal cookies, we rolled out almond, coconut, lemon, pecan, chocolate walnut, and peanut butter varieties. We took samples to the 197 stores where we had sold our ice cream and asked the proprietors to try them. How could they turn down a 15-year-old?
But the early days were very difficult. Grocery store buyers didn't even know what a diabetic was. Also, most would ask to be paid for shelf space, and we couldn't afford that, so we just had to offer better-quality products at better prices.
We didn't have any money for advertising, so my parents and I did demonstrations in stores every Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. That was after baking cookies five days a week. I did that every weekend until I was around 24. Our break came when a buyer for the Skaggs Alpha Beta chain who was diabetic wanted to bring the cookies in because he realized how difficult it was for diabetics to find desserts they could eat. My father retired from the company nine years ago, but my mother is still involved, mostly doing research and development.
About 10 years ago the parents of a 12-year-old boy with diabetes contacted me. The boy was depressed. I met him and told him that he could live a normal life. He just had to take care of himself. Four years ago he graduated from high school with honors. I also get letters thanking me for helping people live with diabetes. That's the greatest. You feel like you're walking on a cloud. It makes every struggle worthwhile.
As told to Gay Jervey