Calling John Gradoville’s path to becoming the owner of Graddy’s, a hydroponic growing operation, non-linear would be generous. He started out in dental school before dropping out because, as he puts it, he realized why a lot people don’t become dentists.
Ultimately, he graduated with four degrees — biology, finance, chemistry and marketing — from Creighton University. From there he went to work for Target, and worked there for years before deciding to open Graddy’s in 1999 after hearing about hearing about an available greenhouse at just ther right time.
Now, 17 years later, Graddy’s sells its tomatoes, salsas and a few other crops to farmers markets, supermarket chain Hy-Vee and other retailers in Iowa and Nebraska from his operation in Carroll, Iowa. To date, he’s still learning and adapting his business, just like he did back when he bought the greenhouse.
“Everything was kind of self-taught,” he says. “I just kind of fell upon this.”
Ending up back at home
When John graduated from Creighton, he took a job in Phoenix, Ariz. His family moved a few more time before he and his wife, Kay, seemingly settled in Pittsburgh, Penn. At that point in their lives, John and Kay were 855 miles away from their shared hometown of Carroll and didn’t think they’d ever move back to Iowa.
But on a visit home right after Christmas in 1998, John — who had no experience in horticulture before opening Graddy’s —heard about a small, four-bay greenhouse that was left in limbo after the owner died around a year after it opened. As it happened, his brother had installed the heating and irrigation systems and was able to give him a tour of the house. After visiting the greenhouse on New Year’s Eve of that year, he went back to Pittsburgh with opening a growing operation on his mind.
Over the course of six weeks, he talked to produce departments at local grocery stores as he tried to understand the market. As he did his research, he used his experience with Target to make a plan for the selling side of the business while attempting to learn the basics of growing.
“I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” he says. “I went back and talked to the widow, and made a handshake deal and went back to Pittsburgh to put a house I had just built up for sale. Two months later, I moved back [to Carroll] and got in the hydroponic tomato business.”
When you have tomatoes, make salsa
Graddy’s hydroponically grows its crops in greenhouses by CropKing. The company grows orange tomatoes and some cocktail tomatoes, but about 90 percent of their output are varieties of red tomatoes. They also sell basil that grows in pots in-between the tomato rows. But many of Graddy’s tomatoes also go toward making salsa, which they sell under the Graddy’s name at farmers markets and stores.
“I learned quickly that not every tomato is perfect and great,” Gradoville says. “We are able to take all of our seconds and our smalls and grind them into something else.”
John got the idea to make salsa from one of his younger brothers. Late on a Friday, about a year after opening, they sat up all night trying different salsa recipes to take to the farmers market the next day. Between three or four trips to the store, they finished a batch of 25 salsa containers to sell the next morning. Within the first hour, all had sold out. A week later, they made around 80 containers to sell and again sold out at market.
“From that point forward, we were off and running,” he says.
Graddy’s now makes their salsa in a kitchen on-site, although they do have to buy some tomatoes from the local growers to help meet demand. As of this year, they sell four flavors of salsa, as well as bruschetta. Currently, 25 percent of Graddy’s business comes from their salsa, and that number is only growing.
While Graddy’s fresh tomato market reach extends as far as Omaha, Neb., they pride themselves on being a local business. Even as their products end up on grocery store shelves, Graddy’s still sells at farmers markets around Iowa and puts a personal touch on their store displays. For instance, at Hy-Vee locations, a card featuring their story is placed on the display. The hope is that a shopper will connect to their product because they’ll see who grew it and where it came from. It helps, too, that his older son, Ben, has joined the business. He’s the one most often visiting stores and putting the Graddy face to a name.
Graddy’s commitment to personal touches are part of their broader motto of adjusting to what’s happening around them. As they did with salsa, John says it’s been important to avoid sticking with what works just because it’s comfortable. From the day John and Kay left Pittsburgh to open Graddy’s, anticipating what’s next has been in the operation’s DNA.
“I think you have to continue to change with what the market is telling you it wants,” he says.