By Arthur Lightbourn
Michael McGrath was bitten by the travel bug early in his life.
Blame it on his family.
He often traveled with them to Baja California and later to Europe.
And they introduced him to new, diverse and exciting foods, at home and while traveling.
His father was an engineer and start-up executive and his mother was and is a gourmet cook.
“I learned to cook in my mother’s kitchen,” McGrath said.
So, it’s no wonder that these days, McGrath is president of M5 Corporation, Inc., a thriving family-owned import company specializing in unique gourmet foods from Chile, Ecuador, Italy and soon from Spain.
McGrath started the business four years ago in his parents’ garage in Rancho Santa Fe.
We interviewed the 41-year-old entrepreneur in his 4,500-sq. ft. combination office/warehouse facility located in an industrial park in San Marcos where the company moved when it outgrew the family’s garage. M5 now has eight employees on site and is represented by 60 independent brokers placing M5’s imported product line with local, national and boutique retailers, and higher-end chefs throughout the U.S.
Locally, M5’s products are available at Jimbo’s, Whole Foods and World Market.
M5 also offers its products to customers online (www.m5corporation.com).
Despite the recession, the start-up has experienced continual growth, except for a one-quarter slowdown in 2009.
“I think luxury spending has actually increased in the U.S.,” he said.
Yet, at the same time, people are entertaining more in their homes with fine foods. “And, the reality-based TV cooking shows have had a big [positive] impact on our industry.”
McGrath is 5 ft. 10, 180 pounds and keeps in shape surfing, biking and running.
He was born in Redondo Beach. His father, Elgie, is a retired engineer. His mother, Mary, is an avid gourmet cook. The family moved to Rancho Santa Fe in 1973 when McGrath was 4 years old.
After graduating from Torrey Pines High School where he began what has become a fluency in Spanish, McGrath attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, earning a degree in geological sciences in 1993.
But instead of immediately starting his professional career, he signed on as a commercial diver for abalone along the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara.
“Just out of college,” he recalled, “it was a good way to save and to be able to afford and outfit a boat and have enough funds to take a cruise on it. I knew I couldn’t start a career and then do it. It doesn’t work that way.”
The boat he purchased was a 38-foot sloop that he lived on board while outfitting it; and the cruise was for two years in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez with a girlfriend and his “all fury” boxer/Akita guard dog, Brisa, who helped discourage drug-runners who approached McGrath’s vessel while at sea.
Returning to the U.S. in 1997, he joined a local company doing habitat restoration at the Picacho State Park on the Colorado River and subsequently worked as a project manager with the environmental engineering firm SECOR International, focusing on ground water and soils remediation.
When SECOR was sold to a larger company, McGrath decided it was time to start his own business.
A trip to Chile convinced him that Americans would welcome the high quality of Chilean products.
He was particularly impressed with the “cleanliness” of the food products because of very limited use of pesticides. “The reason for that is because they are very isolated. They have the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert isolating them [from the bordering countries of Bolivia, Peru and Argentina] so they don’t have a lot of influx of infestations.”
Also Chile’s Pacific Ocean waters with almost 4,000 miles of coastline are clean, cold and unpolluted, he said.
The first Chilean products he imported were, in fact, Geomar organic seafoods, wild-caught, fresh-packed and canned razor shells, razor clams, abalone, sea conch, king crab.
Now, from Chile, M5 imports kosher and organic extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil, merquén spice produced by Chile’s Mapuche people, bottled or dry-packed carica fruit, and bottled wild baby pears which one New York bar uses in its pear martinis.
Plans are in the works to co-brand the wild baby pears with a new luxury vodka from Slovakia.
From Ecuador, M5 carries Galapagos Islands organic shade-grown coffee and Republica del Cacao chocolate bars.
And from Italy, M5 offers the Mussini line of aged balsamic vinegars, glazes and compotes, extra virgin olive oil by Cufrol, Bello ready risottos, risotto rice, black rice, and artisanal Marella pastas hand-made by the women of Puglia, Italy.
Beginning in January, in an exclusive partnership with the Vega Carabana company of Madrid, Spain, M5 will introduce to the U.S. market an extra virgin olive oil called PequeOliva made specifically for children.
Amy Baklund, M5’s executive vice president of marketing, said PequeOliva is pesticide-free, low in acidity, easy to digest, and has a dominant apple flavor that kids love.
It contains more oleic acid than regular extra virgin olive oils, and is high in Omega 3’s and vitamins that contribute to bone growth, brain and nervous cell development in children.
In Spain, the association of pediatrics recommends the consumption of extra virgin oil as part of children’s diets.
“In Spain,” Baklund said, “as early as six months, doctors recommend you put a teaspoon of olive oil in children’s food because it helps with digestion and bone growth.”
M5 hopes the idea will be adopted in the U.S. to change the way children eat and to help curb obesity.
“As a company,” McGrath said, “we are focused on educating people about high quality, pesticide-free foods and how to use and incorporate them into their lives for a healthier life.”