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Black history in the making: Clevelander Ethan Holmes and the rise of an applesauce empire
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Ethan Holmes


Black history in the making: Clevelander Ethan Holmes and the rise of an applesauce empire

By Michael Collier

Even as a young child growing up in Shaker Heights, Ethan Holmes knew that he would someday start his own business.

“I had a huge interest in entrepreneurship,” says Holmes, 28, “and was inspired to start a legitimate kind of business, to grow from raking leaves and lemonade stands.” The idea for what exactly that business would be, however, didn’t come overnight.

In 2005 at the age of 15, Holmes launched his first venture from the family kitchen: Holmes Made Foods. “I had to do a chocolate bar,” he says. “I’d always tell people that I was going to be the next Willy Wonka of Cleveland.” But it didn’t take long for Holmes to see that this endeavor was not his golden ticket.

“I realized pretty quickly I can’t bake,” he says with a laugh. “People just didn't want to buy my chocolate.” Yet despite this early setback, Holmes remained undeterred.

“I decided to pivot.”

Growing up, Holmes found much inspiration in his grandfather’s culinary skills and entrepreneurial spirit. “He lived with us and made a lot of great food from scratch,” Holmes says of his grandfather, Elmer Buford. Among his many specialties was applesauce, and in 2008, Holmes asked Mr. Buford to teach him the recipe.

Holmes wasn’t initially sold on the taste of the applesauce — for months he experimented to try and make a good thing even better. “I did some innovation, my own R&D, creating my own formula,” he says, eventually creating a flavor-packed, all-natural product. At the same time, Holmes, still in high school, took note of a nationwide shift towards health-conscious consumerism. Whole Foods was rapidly expanding its footprint, organic products had become a hot trend, and First Lady Michelle Obama was working to improve school lunches across the country.

Holmes saw a real opportunity.

“I looked at applesauce as a product that was eaten by different age groups from young to old,” he says, “and I thought ‘how could I elevate this?’”

After perfecting his recipe, Holmes Mouthwatering Applesauce was launched in 2014 at the Cleveland Culinary Kitchen. Within a year, Holmes’ products had made their way to store shelves across the region, including Whole Foods, Heinen’s, Dave’s and Giant Eagle.

Holmes has since expanded across the Midwest and the company has continued to grow, with Holmes raising approximately $800,000 in capital from sales, investors and accelerator programs like Cleveland Chain Reaction and the Chobani Incubator, of which Holmes was selected as one of five participating companies in 2020. (In 2017, Holmes was of two winners to top the initial Chain Reaction competition, receiving $130,000.)

In 2021, Holmes decided to give the brand a refresh and launch a more competitive line of products to help expand the growing company beyond local and regional markets. Shortening the name simply to Holmes Mouthwatering, the company has shifted from a small, local production facility to a global contract manufacturer in Chile, though the headquarters will remain in Cleveland.

The new production facility specializes in applesauce pouches — Holmes’ latest product — and produces roughly 50 million pouches per year. When it launches its new product line in the summer of 2023, Holmes Mouthwatering will be the first pouched applesauce brand on the market containing chunks of real fruit.

And it’s not just his product, but Holmes himself, who continues to blaze a trail.

In 2022, Holmes Mouthwatering was chosen alongside a handful of others to participate in a fellowship program with the US Apple Association, with Holmes being the only minority selected in the history of the program.

“There are a lot of challenges being the only Black male in that room,” says Holmes. “ That pressure is on you, and you have to work three times, four times harder to make a good impression.”

But Holmes faces those challenges head-on and is determined to make the most of it, both in his own journey and inspiring those who may wish to follow in his footsteps.

“You can't be scared to tell your story, to take risk, and to just be unapologetically you.”

In further helping to inspire the next generation, Holmes also launched a social arm of his company, the Holmes Entrepreneur Initiative, working with nonprofit organizations to connect with educators and provide programming, internships, and workshops. This, he believes, is but one small step in helping them see what’s possible, and that ideas shouldn’t be limited by expectations.

“There’s something special about each one of us,” says Holmes, recognizing his own unlikely journey. “I’m a young, Black male from Cleveland that makes applesauce. I think that says a lot about what’s possible.”