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Fruit of His Labor

Cool Fruit Sensations’ handmade drinks refresh Don Harding Jr.’s bottom line. Two lucrative upcoming business competitions, meanwhile, just might juice his New Orleans–based business even more

AS SALES PITCHES GO, Don Harding Jr.’s is elegantly simple: “Who down South, with our blazing heat, would turn down a refreshing fruit beverage made by hand, right in front of you, using fresh fruit?” he asks. Hey, search us. We’ll take one — and we’re not alone.

Harding’s company, Cool Fruit Sensations, has been in business since late 2008. It’s headquartered in Harvey, Louisiana, just south of New Orleans, and the product is straightforward: strawberry, kiwi, pineapple, watermelon, orange, blueberry, mango or peach are variously combined with lemon, lime or tea to create one of a possible 25 drink combinations. It’s healthful, it’s refreshing . . . and it’s selling like mad.

“My wife, while bored at home, started playing around with different fruit combinations,” Harding says. “We introduced a couple at a farmers’ market, and the response was ridiculous. We started out making $200 at farmers’ markets; now we gross as much as $10,000 for a two-day festival.”

His solid track record has begun to pay off: In March, as part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, Harding is competing in a business-pitch competition sponsored by Idea Village, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship in the Crescent City. First prize? $70,000. If he wins, two days later, he’ll participate in an even larger competition whose top prize is $100,000 in cash and services.

Harding and his wife (who run Cool Fruit Sensations along with Harding’s brother) are born entrepreneurs: They also run a staffing agency, Know-It-Alls, from which they’re able to hire additional help whenever they need it. They might soon need plenty; Harding’s immediate goal for 2012 is to open his first physical retail space. “We’re constantly bombarded with the question, ‘When are you guys going to open your first location?’ ” Harding says. “The next step is to do exactly that.”

Once it opens, Harding is probably correct to assume even greater sales. Healthy, top-quality ingredients, expertly prepared, it seems, are a hit wherever they’re offered. “All our drinks are made individually by hand, using real fruit,” Harding says. “We’ve competed with alcohol, water, soft drinks, yogurt, popsicles, smoothies and beer. Nothing has been able to sell next to us.”

•••

How did you get involved with the Idea Village business-pitch competition?
We were one of 20 local [New Orleans] small businesses, chosen from a pool of over 600, to compete in the Idea Village pitch contest. The opportunity is tremendous, and very real for us.

Did your experience with 100 Urban Entrepreneurs help prepare you for this?
My participation in the 100UE pitch contest was invaluable. Because of our confidence in winning at least one of these contests, and the way our sales have been going at various festivals and markets, we’re looking to open our first location in late March or mid-April. We also do multiple fruit combinations now. This means that in addition to Strawberry Lemon and Pineapple Lemon, you can now get a Strawberry Pineapple Lemon drink. This has expanded our menu to almost 100 drink combinations without expanding our inventory.

You’ve also appeared in an Iberia Bank ad as one of the New Orleans entrepreneurs the bank vows to help support. What does that entail?
We were referred for the Iberia Campaign by Idea Village as well. Iberia was looking for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, and turned to Idea Village. As far as I know, this is as far as Iberia Bank is going with this. Having said that, though, that exposure, coupled with the exposure we’ve gotten from 100UE, has been tremendous for Cool Fruit Sensations.

What lies ahead in 2012 for Cool Fruit Sensations?
We’re looking to take it to the next level. In addition to opening our first location, we are hoping to be included in this year’s French Quarter Festival, as well as venturing into the Houston and Atlanta festival markets. We’d like to follow the same blueprint that we followed in New Orleans: develop a following through the festival market, then ride the wave. Cool Fruit also lends itself to franchising; however, that’s two to three years down the road.

Especially since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans seems to be a hotbed of entrepreneurship, as well as a place that’s getting a lot of outside help. So many want to see the city reborn. Is that an accurate assessment?
The opportunities are definitely here. Having said that, this is still a town where being connected goes a long way. The key if you’re not connected, however, is to commit and grind until you get where you want to be. I don’t concern myself with anyone else’s path. There are so many organizations that want to help if they detect that you’re qualified and all-in. What 100UE, Idea Village and many others have done for Cool Fruit Sensations is priceless. •