Look at a pitaya fruit for the first time and you’re struck by its otherworldliness. It looks like something a character on Star Trek might eat. Seriously, check out the above picture. The pitaya grows on a cactus, out of a large, white flower that only blooms at night. It’s the only fruit in the world pollinated by bats. Cut it open and you’ll find juicy, reddish-purple innards that resemble those of a kiwi and are packed with antioxidants and omega-3’s.
More than likely this is the first you’ve ever seen of the fruit, found naturally in Central America, Colombia, and Mexico. But if you’ve tried dragon fruit—its more common Asian cousin and a popular Bacardi rum infusion—it’s pretty close. The pitaya, however, has never gotten any traction in the U.S.—aside from a small number of farms in California that grow and sell it at an exorbitant price in boutique grocery stores. But California-based Pitaya Plus, the company that's begun to bottle the juice of the same name, is about to change all that. Whole Foods, the natural and organic grocery store chain, has just agreed to carry Pitaya Plus as a test in its Colorado stores.
According to founder Chuck Casano, 32, the fact that pitaya has similar antioxidant levels as other superfruits, like pomegranates, but is lower in sugar and calories, gives it a leg up. The pitaya is also known as a natural digestive aid. “If you talk to anyone who grew up around this fruit, mostly in Central America or northern Mexico, and ask them what they know about Pitaya, they’d say, ‘Actually my mom would give that to me when we couldn’t go to the bathroom,’ ” says Casano. “It really flushes you out.”
Casano discovered the fruit while working for a nonprofit in Nicaragua. “Every day after work I would stop by the local fruit stand on my way home,” he explains. “There were always new and exotic fruits that I had never seen before. The pitaya fruit jumped out at me, first because of its color and unique look, and second because of its health benefits.” He also liked the taste, “It felt like a raspberry was having a party in my mouth and invited some wheatgrass to join in.” The company’s product line focuses primarily on pitaya juice, but also includes smoothie packs and dried pitaya snacks.
Pitaya Plus also operates with a commitment to social and environmental responsibility. “They are the foundation and spirit of my whole project and brand,” says Casano. “I personally work with all of the farmers and factory workers involved. There is not a single pitaya that goes into any one of my products that comes from a farm where I haven't shook the hand of the farmer.” In addition, Pitaya Plus’s processing factory is solar powered and only hires single mothers. “You walk around down there [in Nicaragua] and you find the people that are looking for jobs and you see the people that need the jobs the most. It was the perfect fit for our mission," says Casano.
Casano is the first to admit that creating and running a fruit juice company wasn’t exactly were he thought he’d be a few years ago. After receiving his MBA at the end of 2007, he went looking for a job on Wall Street. Unfortunately, 2008 wasn’t the best year for the financial industry. “I was interviewing with people who were about to lose their jobs and get their whole life wiped out,” says Casano. “They spent like thirty years working at some bank and have nothing to show for it. It forced me to think, ‘Build something on your own, something that’s tangible and will be long lasting.’ ”
A Company with a Conscience
After spending time in Nicaragua working with socially responsible entrepreneurs, Casano knew that he wanted to create a company that would help the people of Nicaragua. “Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, yet [the people] are extremely generous,” he explains. “Even though they don’t have much, they are always willing to share what they do have. Ironically, even though there is such extreme poverty, it is the safest country in Central America. They are generally very happy, and are happy with what they have. They value the important things in life, such as family and friends.”
When asked about his company policy, Casano says, “I like to think of it as a ‘feel-good insurance policy.’ Even if the worst case scenario happens and my company doesn’t make any money, there will be some people who benefit from it no matter what.” According to Casano, Pitaya Plus is focused for the moment on sales. He will be flying out to Colorado to spend the next few weeks in Whole Food stores and talking to customers about the benefits of drinking Pitaya Plus. If all goes well, and the company manages to keep to its three-year plan, they’ll be breaking ground on a new factory that will be even more environmentally friendly—utilizing waste from the juicing process into renewable biomass fuel—within the next 12 months. “I want to source everything I do in the most ethical and sustainable way,” Casano says, adding, “the more success pitaya has the more I can invest in creating a zero-carbon footprint factory down there.”
Casano credits the economy for changing his career path from Wall Street to Nicaragua. “It forced me to rethink my career goals and aspirations,” he admits, but adds that it also changed his attitude toward running a business. “I think this last economic crisis taught us all a lesson,” he says. “Your wealth can be gone in a flash, so it's time to start doing things with benefits beyond your bottom line.”
So how does a Pitaya Plus taste? Pretty good actually. Casano’s description holds true. The juice has a berry tang with a slightly earthy taste, giving it a less sugary feeling. And after a few weeks of holiday celebrating and over-eating, it does seems to help give a healthier disposition. But knowing that you’re enjoying a product from a company that values its social responsibility? That’s truly refreshing.