Jake Sweeney started chewing tobacco while working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. When he decided to quit, he found several non-tobacco alternatives on the market to help people give up their habits.
Now the 41-year-old Danvers resident is in the business himself.
A graduate of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Sweeney was until recently a partner in his father's greenhouse business in Beverly. But he saw an opportunity in providing a mint alternative to people wanting to quit the tobacco habit. The result is Jake's Mint Chew, which is made of mint, comes in six flavors and is available at www.jakesmintchew.com in addition to a few stores.
Sweeney, who said an estimated 5 million people chew tobacco in this country, talked with us about his business.
When did you start Jake's Mint Chew?
Just under two years ago. It was one of those things you fall into, as if it was meant to be. It was a turning point in my life.
What year did you start in the wholesale business?
I started Jake's Greenhouses back in 2000. I had worked for my dad, about a year out of college, then went off and did some traveling in my 20s. He started off wholesale and switched to retail in the late '80s. I decided I'd go full force and start up the wholesale end of it.
What were you growing?
I was growing bedding plants and hanging baskets, some perennials, mostly annuals, and selling them to garden centers, landscapers.
How was the wholesale business?
The price of oil affected everything — plastic pots — and the greenhouse is pretty much the most inefficient installation known to man to heat. The cost of goods sold pretty much went through the roof, fertilizer especially. Natural gas went up a huge amount at one point. They use a natural gas derivative to make fertilizer, and that went through the roof.
How did you start chewing tobacco?
When I was fishing in Alaska, that was pretty much the only outlet of joy — to take some kind of tobacco break. That's when my addiction started.
Is chewing tobacco common among people who work outdoors?
You could say it's blue-collar, but a lot of golfers chew tobacco. It's increasing because people can't smoke anymore.
When you decided to quit, is that when you got the idea for the mint chew?
I saw there are a lot of tobacco alternatives made with mint, herbs. Being in the greenhouse business I thought, I'll grab a few leaves and see if it replaces the same feeling from tobacco. And what I found out is, it actually did.
How did you develop the mint chew?
I spent the next three months growing mint plants in my greenhouse. I soon realized one plant yielded half a tin of mint. You don't get the yield you would think. So we get it from mint growers in the Pacific Northwest. We've been able to keep everything USA-grown. It's already dried, in 35-pound bales, which would take up 3 acres of greenhouse to create that amount.
And I understand you no longer have the greenhouse?
Last winter, we had one of the worst winters. We had a lot of snow. That greenhouse — 11,000-square-foot greenhouse — got leveled to the ground. It was kind of a devastating time. It pushed me to focus more on the mint chew than the greenhouse operation.
Do you treat the mint in any way?
We hydrate it with water and add an organic flavoring. If you're chewing on mint leaves, the flavor is lost quickly, so you have to amp it up. We have flavors that complement the flavor of mint, six different flavors of organic flavoring. We use natural vegetable glycerin and a natural preservative.
How are you marketing the mint chew?
The fall of 2010, we went live with our website. We mainly are on Google AdWords. We use different affiliate sites, quitdipping.com, killthecan.com, quit sites to help people.
But the goal is retail?
Our main question from customers is, where can I buy a single can? When you're trying to quit, you want something now. That's our goal this year, our second year, to break into the retail market. We did the New England products trade show last year to link up with stores, and we got a few mom-and-pops here. Health food stores seem amenable.
How are sales to date?
We've done thousands of units a week. As a side note, which is kind of bizarre, my mom actually developed mouth cancer. This is the winter of last year. That wasn't the reason why I started this, but it seemed to pull things in perspective.
Did she ever use tobacco in any form?
She quit smoking 25 years ago. It was like looking at the beast I'm trying to combat right in the eye. You hear all these stories, then some days you have an actual experience.
How's your mom doing?