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A North Carolina developer of aloe vera-based nutritional supplements and skin care products has completed its move to Ellsworth and is scheduled to finalize the purchase of its new headquarters on Dec. 4.
Desert Harvest is on track to buy a downtown building at 192 Main St. that’s locally known as the Maine Grind building. In addition to the company’s CEO, Heather Florio, nine of 15 employees moved from its Hillsborough, N.C., facility to Ellsworth.
The company plans to hire five to seven additional employees in the coming weeks, for shipping, customer service and marketing positions.
Additional hiring is expected in 2021. Desert Harvest also plans to expand its operations into Canada.
The relocation came about due to a personal need, Florio told Mainebiz. Her husband had cancer and was told by doctors that North Carolina’s climate could exacerbate his lung problems. The two are originally “cold climate” people: she was from Colorado, where her parents started Desert Harvest, and he was from Vermont.
“We decided to look in New England,” she said. “We have a lot of family up here.”
The company considered Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The Desert Harvest staff voted and unanimously chose Maine. The staff vote came about because the company maintains a tight-knit culture and even quarantined together throughout the pandemic, she explained. The staff wanted to be near the ocean, so they all started looking at areas along the Maine coast.
Maine & Co., a nonprofit economic development operation in Portland, helped navigate the search for a new location, locating potential development zone opportunities and local business relationship logistics. Desert Harvest was approved for the state’s Pine Street Development Zone program, which provides tax incentives.
Drawn to Hancock County, Florio and employees visited in July to look at commercial properties in the Ellsworth, Bangor and Blue Hill area. They happened to drive by the Maine Grind building and noticed it was for sale.
“We looked at it and all our employees said, ‘There’s a coffee shop in that building. Let’s buy it and let the coffee shop stay,’” Florio said with a laugh.
The coffee shop is Flexit Cafe & Bakery.
The company brought a tractor-trailer with furnishings and equipment from North Carolina and moved in as tenants a week before Thanksgiving. It occupies the second floor and basement. The third floor is unfinished, but Florio expects to finish and occupy it in the future.
Renovations will be minimal, except for the design and installation of a ramp to the basement, which is already operational as the company’s fulfillment center. Investment in renovations, including finishing the upstairs, is expected to be about $200,000.
“We’re fully operational now,” Florio said. “For instance, my office doesn’t become available until one of the tenant leases ends at the end of December, so I’ve got a little desk that I put in an employee’s office.”
Employees also found houses to buy and closings have begun, Florio said. Two are lifetime North Carolinians who never left the state before, she said.
“Our first stop for those two was L.L.Bean, to outfit them with winter gear,” she said.
The tight-knit culture is in part due to employee benefits that “go above and beyond,” she said. In addition to competitive pay; medical, dental and vision insurance; 401(k) with a 4% match; and maternity/paternity leave, the company has helped some employees with things like the down payment for their houses and educational reimbursements.
“We don’t want our employees to struggle,” she said.
Desert Harvest started in 1993, in Colorado Springs, Colo., to help a family member with a chronic condition called interstitial cystitis. It moved to North Carolina in 2014.
The second-generation, family-owned e-commerce business focuses on developing beneficial health care products using a proprietary aloe vera extract in products that are paraben-free, non-GMO, and have no fillers, artificial ingredients or artificial preservatives. It works with organizations and health care professionals worldwide to help educate and advocate for patients with the condition.
Interstitial cystitis is an understudied disease suffered by millions of people, said Florio.
“It’s debilitating,” she said.
After trying conventional treatments without success, the family member tried aloe vera and had immediate relief, Florio explained.
Aloe is a gel-like substance derived from a cactus-like plant that grows in hot, dry climates.
Florio’s mother, Pat Criscito, is an entrepreneur who, in the 1970s, developed a business offering secretarial services, then expanded to writing executive-level resumes for clients in over 40 countries, along with books and articles.
Pat Criscito and her husband Mike, who was in the U.S. Air Force, saw an opportunity in their family member’s experience with aloe vera. They tapped a chemist friend to formulate an additive-free product using aloe vera for those with interstitial cystitis. The chemist had a friend who helped with encapsulating and bottling.
“Today, we work with organic farms all over the Caribbean,” said Florio, who took over as CEO after her parents' retirement in 2012. “We choose specific areas because we want to find high-nutrient volcanic soil.”
One bottle containing 180 capsules bottles uses 89 full-grown aloe leaves.
To maximize the plant’s nutritional benefits, the company sets up processing on the farms. From there, the processed material is imported to encapsulation and bottling plants, partly owned by Desert Harvest, in Texas and Florida. Fulfillment and administration were conducted in North Carolina and are now in Ellsworth.
“What we keep here is a just-in-time inventory,” said Florio.
The company works directly with doctors who recommend the products to patients, and patients order online directly from the company.
“We work with doctors all over the world,” she said. “We have a distribution center in the U.K. to handle European distribution, one in Asia and one in New Zealand.”
The company sells hundreds of thousands of bottles of its aloe vera capsules per year, she said.
Patients also take the supplement for general immune support and for urological, women’s health issues, sexual health issues, radiation oncology therapy, and more, she added.
Other products include topical skin care to relieve radiation dermatitis among patients undergoing radiation treatment, introduced in 2014. This year, CBD products were introduced.
The 11,508-square-foot Maine Grind building, dating back to 1934, went on the market in 2018 at $1.1 million. It got its name from a popular coffeehouse that was once there.