Pop Entrepreneur

Doug Foreman Makes Bucks in Junk Food and Television

There are scores of accomplished entrepreneurs in Austin, but only a few can claim crowing rights in the national press. Doug Foreman, a 39-year-old junk food lover who hit the big time with his Guiltless Gourmet line of fat-free snacks, is one of them. This time it's not food, but NPrint, a slick syndicated TV show about books, that is winning him this current round of media attention [see accompanying story]. And Foreman admittedly is eating it up, much to the dismay of his former business partner, Drew Westbrook, who probably cringes whenever he sees Foreman's name in print. Drew who? We don't recall reading about him during Guiltless Gourmet's salad days. "That's the way Doug wanted it," says Westbrook, who was the company's vice president of sales. "Doug is very good at promoting himself."

Neither ex-partner is willing to elaborate on events leading up to the split that prompted Foreman to buy his friend out of the company for several million in 1992. "You know what they say about friends and partnerships..." is all Foreman will say. Today, Westbrook is still bitter. And Foreman -- well, Foreman is still wheeling and dealing.

His biggest windfall came in June 1994 when he sold the remainder of his Guiltless Gourmet shares to Barq's Root Beer, Inc., for scads of money -- somewhere between $10- and $20-million, although both sides say they are sworn to secrecy on the exact amount. That's not a bad price for a guy whose precursor enterprise, Doug's Burgers, got its start with cash maxed out from two credit cards he pulled from his wallet.

There's been other Foreman start-ups along the way: Doug's Deli, Roses to Go, a traffic reporting service that he provided after learning to fly helicopters, and, after selling Guiltless, a syndicated television program called Good Living, designed for a health-conscious America.

Fast forward to 1996 and Foreman still has a hand in a number of concerns -- Proteus nightclub, the Old Alligator Grill, Austin Humidor, and more recently the Ranch, a dance hall-turned-soundstage that opened this year in Northeast Austin. These days, those enterprises seem mere side dishes alongside NPrint, Foreman's main squeeze. And he isn't shy about explaining the new show's marketing niche: It's not for the serious reader; rather, it's for the serious couch potato who, instead of perusing the newspapers on Sunday mornings might instead cozy up to the tube for some light patter on books.

"Do you have to be serious to talk about books?" Foreman asks. "We don't claim to be serious and we don't want to be. Nobody would watch us." Foreman has a point, at least where the attention span of television audiences are concerned. His marketing pitch appears to be working. So far, 170 television stations across the country have signed on as subscribers, proving that in this business, entertainment, not esoterica, is key. In Austin, the weekly show made its debut this past Sunday on KEYE-42.

While Foreman's earlier ventures were borne out of his love for food (he has a Clintonesque appetite for junk food and a like physique), this latest creation satisfies his long-term production interests that date back to his early days spent in Houston and Port Arthur, where Foreman grew up and left as soon as he could. He arrived in Austin in 1976 where he attended the University of Texas "occasionally." At once, he began dabbling in several areas, soaking in the local entrepreneurial nectar that has gained Austin its reputation as a top spot for starting a business.

He worked at the Night Hawk, Austin's venerable (and now defunct) restaurant, where he filled various positions as host, cook, and furniture upholsterer, a skill he learned after taking a class at Austin Community College. After one or two other jobs at eating establishments, Foreman landed the big one -- his very own hamburger joint. He named it Doug's Burgers. Then he sold the burger place and used the money to open Doug's Deli. Then he closed the deli and repurchased Doug's Burgers. Sounds like something that could easily demolish someone's credit rating, but such is the restless nature of entrepreneurs who thrive on the business of growing businesses.

So busy is he nurturing enterprises that Foreman unabashedly states he doesn't have the patience for literature, but he is a voracious reader nonetheless. In fact, it was a single line in one book that caught Foreman's eye and planted the seed for Guiltless Gourmet. It said simply, "Try baking tortillas instead of frying them." Foreman practiced baking the chips in his oven at home and, several trial batches later, sold his first bag to Whole Foods. Foreman built the company into sales of $30 million and got his face on the cover of Inc. magazine. While he used to be something of a reveler, Foreman eventually settled into family life. He and his wife, Cindy, have two children. "Selling Guiltless gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. But that doesn't mean I can just sit back and rest on my laurels. I've got to keep working," he says.

Foreman's business lawyer, Winston Krause, wants him to keep working, too. "He has an incredible depth of knowledge about every field he goes into because he completely immerses himself in projects," says Krause, who has been on the receiving end of Foreman's good fortune since the early days of Guiltless Gourmet. Krause believes Foreman has an uncanny ability to identify voids in the market and create a niche. "The ideas he has are intuitively reasonable; they're not outlandish," Krause says.

Indeed, in a town that has built its global reputation on semiconductors, it's nice to have someone like Foreman to keep us grounded -- or couched, for that matter. Fat-free chips and a TV show, after all, are refreshingly tangible. n

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