Franco Harris is working to change the way we think about doughnuts. The Hall of Fame running back's goal is to create a healthy image for what most people know as a comforting hunk of fried dough. "Selling a nutritious doughnut in a market of totally unnutritious doughnuts—I love that challenge," says Harris, the owner and president of the Super Bakery, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company whose most popular product is the wholesome Super Donut.
Super Bakery's products, which are sold mostly to schools—hospitals, summer youth programs and airlines are some of its other big customers—in 49 states, get their nutrition and their flavor from the company's secret ingredient, NutriDough. The Super Donut, as well as the Super Bun and the lower-fat Ultra Donut, has a low fat-as-a-percentage-of-calories ratio, and all three have been fortified with vitamins, minerals and protein. Both the Super Donut and the Super Bun conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's child-nutrition-program specifications.
New Age though it seems, the Super Donut has actually been around for a while. In 1972 Prestige American Foods, a food-sales business based in Cleveland, began working with schools to come up with a wholesome breakfast food that didn't require cooking. They hit upon a nutritious doughnut.
Harris learned about it in 1988 while he was selling FrozFruit juice bars throughout the Midwest. "I got a phone call from Joe LoConti and Sandy Goldfarb [the owners of Prestige American]," says the 43-year-old Harris, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s. "They said they'd heard about my success in the frozen-food business and wanted to know if I'd be interested in selling doughnuts. I told them that I wasn't, because they weren't a type of food I'd feel comfortable asking a kid to eat."
After talking with LoConti and Goldfarb a little longer, however, Harris learned of the doughnut's nutritional value and agreed to meet them for lunch. "I was totally amazed at how good it tasted," says Harris. "But I told them they had to get rid of the artificial coloring and all the preservatives."
Prestige American Foods complied, and within a few months Harris left FrozFruit and began selling Super Donuts. He bought the company in 1990 and changed the name to Super Bakery.
Under Harris, Super Bakery, which has a staff of eight, has expanded its product line and is making a profit. The bakery's success is due in no small part to Harris's unusual blend of dedication, business acumen and social consciousness. Indeed, Harris's business strategy starts not with profits but with customers' needs. "To me, the most important thing is how the kids like the doughnuts," says Harris, the father of a 14-year-old son, Dok. "A hungry kid won't learn very well in school."
Harris grew up in a family of nine children. While most of his brothers and sisters were playing games, Franco was shining shoes and bagging groceries. "I have always told myself," he says, "don't be afraid to start at the bottom." While selling FrozFruit bars he personally stocked a warehouse and delivered products from the trunk of his car for several years before finally hiring help. He still occasionally hand delivers Super Bakery products.
"The thing that impresses me about Franco is that his fame isn't something he plays up at all," says Tom McGlinchy, director of food services for Philadelphia's public schools. "He's really worked hard, and it shows. He makes you feel at ease, and it's a pleasure doing business with him."
Harris attributes much of his business success to a love of learning he developed after retiring from the NFL. His house is littered with business books, magazines and trade journals. "I can't learn enough now," says Harris, who is also a part owner of Score, a trading-card company, the owner of a professional cycling team in the National Cycle League and a part owner of Defiant, a new comic-book company. "I wish I had known reading and gathering information was this much fun."
Harris's diligence has helped him develop several thriving ventures. But more impressive than his financial success is the ease with which he has made the transition to life after sports. "They say if you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life," says Harris. "Today my passion is business."