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George Hill finds his sweet spot in sauerkraut company

Cavaliers guard is a minority stakeholder in Cleveland Kraut

CLEVELAND — A tall guy who looked and sounded like Cleveland Cavaliers guard George Hill sat in the Cleveland Kraut booth at the Natural Products Expo West Convention. The nametag confirmed it was indeed Hill, a minority stakeholder who spent an off day in Los Angeles in March pitching his healthy probiotic sauerkraut to prospective buyers.

“They were just asking me why was I sitting in a Cleveland Kraut booth,” Hill said. “And I just said, ‘It’s something I like doing and something that I invested in and believed in.’ And it’s going well. Everyone who’s tried it, their first bite, they’re always like, ‘This is totally different than regular sauerkraut. It’s fresh, it’s crunchy, it’s flavorful.’

“That’s the big thing. It’s hard to get a really flavorful kraut, and no matter which one you get, you’re gonna get a lot of flavor in it.”

Hill has netted $68 million in salary over 10 NBA seasons. He said he has been wise and frugal with his money. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder said he has built a reputation among teammates in San Antonio, Indiana, Utah, Sacramento and Cleveland of “being cheap.” He recalled a teammate once buying a Rolls-Royce before he secured his new contract that ended up being for much less than expected.

Hill is not into buying fancy things, and he drives a Tesla.

“I’m not going to buy a Rolex. I will buy a $100 watch. It tells the same time,” Hill said.

While Hill has made some money marketing investments, he said Cleveland Kraut was the first company in which he invested. Sauerkraut, often used on hot dogs and sausage, is cabbage cut fine and fermented in a brine made of its own juice with salt. Hill became a fan of sauerkraut through a family friend as a kid growing up in Indianapolis.

“There was a family that used to help me when I was a little kid, and the [father] loved sauerkraut,” Hill said. “So he used to always make a sausage with sauerkraut, or pork loin with sauerkraut. That’s how I first started to like sauerkraut, and he made this pork loin with sauerkraut that I liked. The pork loin was just so good, with regular sauerkraut. I just always said, ‘Hey, can you make the pork loin and sauerkraut?’ ”

Cleveland Kraut, according to its website, was born after brothers-in-law Drew Anderson and Luke Visnic learned they shared a love for sauerkraut and had their own recipes. After collaborating to make sauerkraut, Anderson and Visnic began selling different flavors in wooden barrels to local farmers markets and restaurants in Cleveland in 2014. Retail stores in 2015 began buying the sauerkraut in wooden jars that were made in a 2,500-square-foot facility.

Prior to joining this venture, Anderson was a Cleveland State analytics graduate who worked for a bank. Cleveland Kraut’s CEO said he liquidated his life savings into the company, lived in the warehouse to make ends meet and faced relationship issues in the process. Anderson said Visnic, the chief operating officer of Cleveland Kraut, and Anderson’s brother, chief marketing officer Mac Anderson, also liquidated assets to pursue their sauerkraut dream.

“You kind of drink your own Kool-Aid at some point. You’re like, ‘All right, man, this is going to be something,’ ” Drew Anderson said. “There was an Iron Chef in town who was using it on his menus. People were demanding it at grocery stores. We found that there was a market for probiotics and healthy, real food. Healthy snacking, tasty food. Ours is so crunchy and vibrant that it just blows everyone else out of the water.

“We were like, ‘We’re going to do this. But if we do this, we’re going to go all in.’ We liquidated our savings, went all in and built it.”

Visnic and the Anderson brothers first met Hill through his agent Matt Ward during a charity event in Park City, Utah, when Hill played for the Jazz in 2016. The Cleveland Kraut executives served their sauerkraut on sausages they grilled at the event. They later found out that Hill was a big sauerkraut fan and loved their product as he taste-tested their seven flavors. Hill loved the energy and hard work he saw with the Cleveland Kraut guys and connected with them quickly.

After spending more time with the Anderson brothers and Visnic, Hill loved their vision, trusted their business plan and decided to invest as a minority stakeholder in the summer of 2017.

“They were great guys. They had a vision. They wanted to do something great,” Hill said. “They just didn’t want a handout. They want the work and to do hard work. So I was like, ‘Why not help somebody outside that helped me out?’ Try to do something special.

“We all became like friends and family. This is an investment. This is one of my first businesses I’ve had other than stocks or things like that. But this was my first investment idea to reach out to like a business. It was just because I trusted it, it felt right. If I don’t trust it and I don’t feel right, I roll. I don’t care what you said it’s going to bring in. It doesn’t matter.”

Said Drew Anderson: “He’s family-oriented like us. He has a sense of humor like us. We get along very easily.”

Hill’s investment in Cleveland Kraut appears to be a wise one, as the product’s store presence has grown by 400 percent, according to Drew Anderson. It sells in stores in 20 states and can be purchased online. Michael Symon of Iron Chef America fame uses Cleveland Kraut in some of his Cleveland restaurants. Cleveland Kraut was also one of five brands accepted into the Kraft Heinz Springboard Accelerator, a new arm focused on brand growth.

Drew Anderson returned from Chicago on Tuesday after meeting with Kraft Heinz. Cleveland Kraut plans to move into a new 16,000-square-foot Cleveland Food Hub Facility before year’s end. Drew Anderson said there are fewer than 10 investors, including Hill and former New England Patriots defensive lineman Armond Armstead.

“We’re in a fantastic spot,” Drew Anderson said. “We’re growing incredibly quick. That latest round of capital really helped us out.”

Hill was often seen wearing Cleveland Kraut hats and beanies during postgame interviews while playing for the Jazz and also the Sacramento Kings this past season. Hill said Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic and other teammates raved about Cleveland Kraut’s popular spicy “Gnar Gnar” sauerkraut when he put it atop a sausage in a sweet bun with sweet barbecue sauce.

Cleveland Kraut’s executives certainly took notice in January when rumors surfaced that Hill could be traded to their favorite team, the Cavaliers. The rumors became reality on Feb 8. when Hill was acquired from the Kings in a three-team trade.

Hill’s business partners were certainly ecstatic to have him not only playing for their beloved Cavaliers but also nearby so he could visit on a regular basis. Hill visited the factory on the night he arrived in Cleveland.

“They were one of the first ones who texted me saying, ‘You’re coming home to Cleveland,’ ” Hill said.

Said Drew Anderson: “It’s awesome to have him playing here. This is going to be great for our team. This is going to be great for our business. And we get to hang out. It’s super cool seeing him with the Cavs. It’s like seeing your buddy out there.”

Hill wears Cleveland Kraut swag to Cavaliers games and said he is extremely proud to be part of the company. Media and other followers quickly learned it was more than just some free gear.

“The crazy part is everybody thought that someone just gave me a Cleveland hat,” Hill said. “They’re like, “Who gave you the Kraut hat since you came to Cleveland?’ I was like, ‘I’ve been having this hat before I came here.’ ‘So why Cleveland Kraut?’ I’m like, ‘I’m kind of invested in it.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah. We love it.’ People I’ve talked to about it here love it. I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”

When Hill needs to relax his mind, he may show up at the factory to put product in jars. During a visit Tuesday to the factory in midtown Cleveland, Drew Anderson showed Hill the new biodegradable plastic packaging in which the product will be packed in the coming months.

The Cavaliers showed love to Hill’s involvement in Cleveland Kraut by having it available during a team barbecue. Anderson said Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cavaliers, also opened an account to buy and use Cleveland Kraut after Hill was acquired. Hill has two more years and $40 million remaining on his Cavaliers contract, with a team option on the second year.

Hill said it made him feel good that the Cavaliers organization would support him by buying products from Cleveland Kraut.

“You’ve got an organization willing to be respectful of what you’re doing, help you out a little bit. … You’ve got their approval. So they’re pretty solid,” Hill said.

What do his NBA superstar teammate LeBron James and others think about Cleveland Kraut?

“Sauerkraut is for everybody,” Hill said. “It’s productive when everybody loves it. … A lot of our strength coaches and trainers really love it because they are so into the healthy probiotics stuff. So Kyle Korver and his wife are big-time healthy, healthy eaters. LeBron’s a big-time healthy eater. You have all your foreigners who always, everything is guacamole — until the sauerkraut. I mean, everyone who’s had it loves it.

“LeBron? He likes it, but he’s not a sauerkraut guy. He’s like, ‘I really like it. I don’t really eat sauerkraut.’ ”

Korver, a Cavaliers sharpshooter and self-described health nut, said sauerkraut is great for dieters. He also thinks it’s great that Hill is involved with Cleveland Kraut.

“I haven’t tried it yet. [Hill] has been telling me about it,” Korver said. “I know its nutritional value is very good for you. As you get older and you’re trying to stay fit in the NBA, you go through the diet world to see what fits for you. How do you stay healthy? How do you stay fit? Inflammation. What is best for you? How do you feel good? Sauerkraut has natural probiotics in it. It’s one of those foods you can’t eat a lot of, but you have a steady bit of it in your diet.

“I was surprised. I didn’t know George Hill was involved. I think it is great. It is kind of interesting to see what players dive into when it is businesses and investments because you have to be passionate about it or you are not going to do a very good job. … I want to try some.”

Hill expects to be heavily involved in the marketing of Cleveland Kraut in the offseason, which could come as early as Saturday if Hill and the Cavaliers do not defeat the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night. The Warriors own a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Drew Anderson said one of Hill’s greatest qualities is his ability to be honest about Cleveland Kraut’s food and its direction. Hill honestly described the Cavaliers’ situation as a “must-win or season’s over” before practice on Thursday.

“The only thing you can do is focus on Game 4,” Hill said. “We can’t get to Game 5 unless we take care of Game 4, so that’s all that needs to be said.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.