Kind post-Katrina Web comments lure Grab the Gold to Middle Tennessee
By Vicky Travis
It took 18 hours of driving to find a safe place to land after evacuating New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore down in August 2005.
Danielle Ontiveros had packed an overnight bag, a book and, of course, all the pets, thinking surely they’d be back home in Metairie, Louisiana, in a couple days.
Ontiveros, owner of Grab the Gold, had spent the previous day making the chocolate and oat nutrition bars until the last minute at her commercial kitchen in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb. In business for 14 years at that point, her sales were about $10,000 a month. She had orders to fill.
Hurricane scares were often just that, scares.
Finally settled in a pet-friendly hotel in Little Rock, Ontiveros, then 30, her mom and friends watched the unbelievable play out on television. “We watched levees break, watched areas flooding, watched houses go under,” she says.
The worst was not knowing. “It was horrible not knowing who was OK, who wasn’t.”
Hurricane Katrina blew onshore on Aug. 29, 2005. It resulted in 1,833 deaths and damage estimated at $151 billion, including $75 billion in the New Orleans area and along the Mississippi coast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Shock set in. Sad and overwhelmed at the magnitude of the hurricane and its aftermath, Ontiveros stayed in some denial and held hope that their condo and her business were intact.
Meanwhile, she checked her business email on the hotel computer. “Will this hurricane thing affect my order?” read a few from far-away states.
But her Nashville customers were different.
Hundreds of emails poured in from customers in Brentwood, Franklin and Nashville that said things like, “You don’t know me, but I buy your product at the gym. Are you OK? Do you need money?”
“Come to Nashville. We’d love this to be a Nashville product.” Ontiveros cried as she read them.
“It gives me the chills to this day,” she says. “I was scared, in shock, and to have these people reach out and ask what I need. It spoke of the heart of Nashville.”
Truth be told, after 20 years in New Orleans, the Ontiveroses had been thinking about relocating. Hurricane Katrina just forced the two into action.
“We had no reason to pick one city over another,” she says about choosing where to move.
But, the outpouring of support from Nashville-area customers made the choice clear.
“Customers offered to house all of us and our animals,” says her mother, Divina Ontiveros. “I’d never seen so much caring support in my life. It came straight from the heart.”
Hurricane Katrina would displace hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents. Many eventually moved back, but others put down roots elsewhere.
More than 81 percent of those who did not return to the county or parish where they lived relocated largely to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, while others made their way to Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas, Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
Ten days after the storm, a friend stayed at the hotel with the dog, cat, bird and rabbits as Danielle and Divina made their way back in bumper-to-bumper traffic for the one day residents were allowed to return.
“The smell. I’ll never forget the smell,” she says. Sewers had flooded and backed up, and her city smelled like death. It made the fear real.
“Smell just brings out a very primal feeling of destruction.”
Their condo had been hit by a tornado spun from the hurricane. Its roof blown off, rain had poured in. After 10 days in late August Louisiana heat, the door was swollen shut. Neighbors helped them break in, only to find black mold in thick patterns all over the walls.
Her business laptop was ruined. Business papers and records were in a wet, solid mass covered in mold. Clothes were starting to rot.
A suffocating stench from the mold made retrieval almost impossible.
“It was 100 degrees and humid,” Ontiveros recalls. “We would stand outside, cover our mouths and run in to look for something to grab. We’d start coughing and go back outside to catch our breath.”
The women knew then that they would never live there again. They would get what they could, some jewelry, some art from world travels, and head over to Kenner hoping to find the business intact.
Amazingly, the building was untouched. All the inventory she’d made and kitchen machines were unscathed. This discovery made all the difference.
“I processed losing personal things – all the photos and sentimental things I accepted as gone. The more important thing was my business. That was my income and my ability to continue my future,” Ontiveros says.
She loaded 250 boxes of Grab the Gold bars (24 to a box) floor to ceiling in her Ford Expedition and went back to the hotel in Little Rock.
Ontiveros had started her business at age 16, mixing ingredients until she created a chocolate-peanut butter bar she liked. Confident, she decided to sell it.
“She’s very self-motivated,” says her mother, Divina. “She’s learned everything herself and creates everything she does.”
The bars caught on, and loyal customers became her advertisers as word-of-mouth grew her business. At the time of the hurricane, Ontiveros was also making a living as a massage therapist with the New Orleans Saints.
On the road again
Back in Little Rock, with her inventory in the hotel room, she bought a new laptop and started portioning out the bars to customers, shipping from the local UPS office. Most customers understood their smaller orders and were grateful.
“She’s so down to earth, and is such an incredible business owner,” her mother says. “Customers are such a personal connection for her.”
After two weeks in Little Rock, the Ontiveroses and their friends came to Nashville.
In an extended-stay hotel, Ontiveros researched the Nashville area, first to buy a home and second to re-open Grab the Gold.
While she was anxious to get settled and start producing bars again, her mom urged calm and careful action.
“There’s a million things to eat and all kinds of nutrition bars out there,” Ontiveros says, who says she feared her customers might forget Grab the Gold and move onto something else. Divina was the steady support.
“She told me to maintain my faith; customers will return to you.”
From September 2005 to March 2006, Ontiveros lived off of her savings.
Forever frugal, she has no business debt and pays business expenses and improvements out of profit. She found a warehouse in Franklin and gives unending gratitude to its owner, who often paid for maintenance, repairs or anything she needed in those early rebuilding months.
She ended the lease on her commercial kitchen in Kenner and brought back her mixer and machines. Eventually, they would sell their condo after insurance helped pay for its restoration.
Once back in production, it would take another six months to build back her pre-Katrina sales of $10,000 a month. Now, at about $100,000 in sales each month, it’s safe to say Ontiveros’ business is 10 times better than it was 10 years ago.
“Even during the recession, we had 20 percent growth year over year for two consecutive years,” she says. Growth since has leveled to about 5 percent each year.
The gluten-free, non-GMO chocolate, peanut butter, oat bar has 11 grams of protein. Grab the Gold (grabthegold.com ) is sold in about 300 stores in Tennessee and more than 600 stores nationwide including several gyms and independent stores, Smoothie Kings, Fleet Feet and some Walgreens.
Online orders ship across the country and to a few countries, including a store in Lebanon.
Ontiveros calls her business plan unorthodox. “I certainly seek out opportunity, but what happens next is what comes to me,” she explains.
One of those good things that came to her includes Matt Hewett, assistant strength and conditioning coach at Tennessee Tech and CrossFit champion team member. His Cookeville-based CrossFit team Mayhem Freedom won the CrossFit games in California this summer.
“They’re a good protein-carb ratio for what I do,” he says. “I absolutely love the bars.”
He asked Ontiveros to supply him with bars, and he would share about them on social media and throughout the CrossFit world. He usually eats three a day, one for breakfast before a workout, one after his workout and one later in the afternoon.
Ontiveros has 10 part-time employees and, earlier this year, hired her first two full-time employees and moved to a bigger production and office space in Cool Springs.
“I spend lots of time researching, every morning,” she says. She reads food industry and manufacturing news, stays up on the gluten-free environment and what’s trending in nutrition. Then, she sets her intentions.
“I focus on what I’ll create. Basically, that’s focusing on the positive not the negative. What you think is what you create.
“It’s not wishful thinking, but putting the focus on the good you’ll create. This is where I’m going. This is my path.”
“One of things I’ve learned how to do well now is to make a decision and trust it. At that time (10 years ago) I’d hesitate.” What if? Is there a better choice?
“Now, I’m fearless as an entrepreneur and I make decisions with a lot of risk. I go to work with joy, excitement and gratitude.”