The GEM Organic Juice Bar Co-Founders

Leslie Needleman and Mary Kathryn Bass

Leslie Needleman and Mary Kathryn Bass, cofounders of The Gem, have built a business focused around health, joy, and deliciousness. These tenets seep into everything they do, from their life philosophies to how they approach their business. After experiencing a period of personal difficulties ten years ago, the friends quite literally turned lemons into (healthy) lemonade. Learning more about what was a new category of healthy eating and living, Bass and Needleman organically created The Gem to fulfill a void that they saw in their own lives. We were honored to be able to chat with both of these female entrepreneurs to hear more about the story behind The Gem.

Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds – what you did before The Gem, where you grew up, etc.

Mary Kathryn:  I grew up in a small town in west Texas called Slaton.  My dad was a farmer, and we composted.  And so I grew up around farming and composting, and even when young, I really felt strongly about all-organic composting and farming but really had no exposure to healthy living in my small town.  

I moved to Dallas as an adult and started a family, had two kids, and I met Leslie when our children were 3 years old. And I just slowly got more interested in eating better.  I started eating gluten-free, and I met Leslie, and then Leslie got sick when we were 40, and that really [set everything in motion].

Leslie:  I grew up in a very small town, same size town as Mary Kathryn's, but in South Georgia.  I met Jason [Needleman] in college in Florida and moved here to Dallas.  After about a year here, I started working at Peacock Alley.  I worked in marketing and PR/Product development for 17 years.  That’s my professional background. 

At 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  [The cancer] had spread to my lymph nodes, and at the time, I had two six year olds and an 8 year old, and it was a major sucker punch.  It really was the reason that everything changed for me.  There was so little I could control (chemo, surgery, radiation, all of that), so I immediately went home and started searching for other things I could do.  I very quickly saw that you could make a difference with food and mind/body/habits/thought habits.  All of your lifestyle can have an impact.  One change brings another change and it becomes a positive shift.  

For me, that change was a 90-degree turn.  I started a plant-based diet.  I went out and bought a Vitamix and a juicer.  I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I just started making changes.  I’d spend hours in the aisles of Whole Foods, and it was a very much a self-taught thing.  There were still people out there who [knew about healthy eating] but this was 10 years ago.  So much has changed since then.  

I also wanted to change my career at that time, so I went and got a degree in nutrition counseling.  I wanted to create this positive, healthy environment.  My friends were super supportive, and Mary Kathryn was a key part of that.  They would come visit and I’d make them drink green juice.  

MK:  I was here [pointing to the kitchen] making lentil soup and kale salad.  And the lentil soup is still what we serve today.  We started juicing here, and Leslie taught us how to do it.  And the juice we started with is the green glow that we have had since the beginning.  

L:  I’d drink 64 oz of it everyday.  It was what helped me get out of bed and what got me going before my kids got home from school.  

MK:  And Leslie was changing her mindset too.  She was working to improve her thought patterns, and I really was particularly sunny, so Leslie and I worked on that together as well.

So how did all of this lead to starting The Gem as a real business?  

L:  We started The Gem in 2012 inside the sub-leased space from the women who owned Shinsei:  they had a retail space next to them, and we rented a space there.  We opened in February, and our menu consisted of kale salad, hummus, lentil soup, a couple of smoothies, and a few juices.  And that was what we opened with! 

We had never done a business plan before, which is funny because in a business plan you have sections that address things like competition.  Talk about competition.  There was no competition!  There was no one doing this in Dallas.

MK:  We didn’t have anyone to copy or look to when we started.  

L:  This concept existed in LA and NYC but it wasn’t here.  We didn’t let fear overtake us.  It was not in our wildest expectations that it would have been so well-received when we opened.  It was truly amazing to see that in a city where people had never really had this kind of healthy option to be exposed to this.  It was really fun.

MK:  We were in the store everyday and talking about healthy lifestyles, and how living that life includes organic juice and food and that can change the trajectory of your whole life.  

L:  I learned from the degree that there was not one thing, that everybody is different and what works, for one may not work for others; and I started educating on those ideas.  The main foundation was all about eating a healthy, clean, nutrient-dense diet.  It had become our lifestyle; and while we were doing it at home, we wanted a place to go to do it as well.  And that’s how we started!  

MK:  And we made sure the store reflected this too.  It’s a happy colorful environment.

L:  We want people to feel better when they leave than when they come in.  

How do you decide what ideas make it to the menu?  What’s the process?

MK:  We are still in charge of the innovation and creation of all new products.  Leslie and I stay at The Gem all the time and we eat there everyday.  Our employees eat there while they’re at work, and we’ll say “Wow, we need a new soup!”  The ideas are organically generated based on things we want to see on the menu.  So we test and create in the kitchen.  Over eight years, the menu has grown to include 65-70 items.  The menu only had 10-12 things on it when we opened.  

L:  Yes; when we started, we thought, ok, for juices:  we need a green one, a brown one, a red one, a yellow one.  The food was very simple.  And now we have so many other options.  We offer French-pressed coffee with cashew milk, we have matcha and turmeric lattes, and all of these new items have been based on what we want to see and what we like.

Importantly, I think what’s really set us apart is [our authenticity] – the food we serve is of the highest quality, the words we say, the energy - we really adhere to a level of quality for every product that we put out there because we won’t eat it or drink it if it’s not that quality.  Our customers know that we’ve vetted the product and that we’re not jumping on a trend band wagon.  We’ve often been presented with things that are trendy; and people think “you need to try this!” but our process is slow and steady.  It’s a lifestyle; it’s not a magic pill.

MK:  Yes, those words “organic” and “plant-based” and “nutrient-dense” are key.  We could have made brownies…(gluten free brownies!), but we’d rather have other things on our menu.  There’s nothing wrong with gluten-free brownies, but it’s not The Gem.  And after 8 years, the word trust comes up a lot.  People trust us.  We are living this lifestyle in a normal way.  We’re not on the far side being super strict/rigid in our lifestyle, but we adhere to the 80/20 rule.  

How do you divide responsibilities for the business?

L:  Mary Kathryn handles a lot of the operational things: she’s really good in the kitchen in terms of working through the process and she’s really good with people/HR.  We are complimentary.  I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve gotten along so well.    

I am focused on the branding and the messaging.  We both are involved in the development of product.  

MK:  Leslie does a lot of the social media and branding.  But in terms of meeting the customer face-to-face, we are both there.  You can’t always find that in places today.  And the last key is we’re eating this way, and we feel so darn good because we worked out and ate well, and then we slept well, and then we’re terrific to each other.  It’s a cycle of habits.   

And we have trust in one another.  The way we view the business isn’t [with the lens of economics].  We put those ingredients in each item because they help boost your health, and they have benefits that we feel are so important that we don’t skimp on that.

What has been the most surprising thing since you opened GEM? 

MK:  I think the degree to which people need a place to go that is customer-service based and full of good energy.  And it’s been amazing to see how that’s been magnified and multiplied by others; we’ve never had to advertise because people want that connection.  “Good vibes” was cutting edge when we started.  

L:  Yes; “Good Vibes” wasn’t ubiquitous the way it is now.  When we started this, I only wore black and taupe!  [I was lucky in that I had this reason to change everything about my life.  I  don’t know that people would have embraced me as much in my neon pink wig, holding a green juice.  But after my diagnosis, it was easy -  people could say “she’s wearing a pink wig because of the sickness.”

The biggest surprise has been how well-received we’ve been.  Never would have dreamed this.  I’m still surprised by the amount of positive changes that we have been able to be a part of.  That’s so amazing, and it’s a beautiful place to be when you come in and people come into your space.  They want this to be a very positive change for them.  I would have killed to have a place to go during the time I was sick.  I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to.  I remember calling a dear friend, and she was the only person I knew who lived a really healthy lifestyle, and I called her in tears, not knowing what to eat.   And now we are a place where you can go and know that everything on the menu is good and safe and healthy.  

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And we have trust in one another. The way we view the business isn’t [with the lens of economics]. We put those ingredients in each item because they help boost your health, and they have benefits that we feel are so important that we don’t skimp on that.

How do you define healthy?

MK:  Organic food with low amounts of sugar and plant-based.  It goes beyond the [ingestion of food as well.]  We send 150 tons for composting.  The compost goes to a worm farm, and we invest and pay to have our compost taken away. If you’re going to serve organic, it would be hard to not recycle and not compost.  

L:  It’s also mental.  We provide a very positive place for our employees, and we work to help them with their own positive changes and mantras.  And make sure that they are able to eat Gem Food during the day.  

What has been a particularly challenging period for you both as co-owners/founders?  

L:  In the beginning, just perfecting and learning our processes.  Building those processes and hiring were really hard in the beginning.

MK:  HR is still the biggest expense and the hardest part.  It’s hard to keep great people.  It took years for us to get to where we are today - to be able to offer this to our employees, and by this I mean full benefits, support from us.  We’ve gone from part-time employees on our team to full-time.  Our whole team is primarily full-time now, which is great.

L:  It’s so great to watch the transformation they’ve made.  Employees who now have blossomed with confidence because of the team and the environment.  We all embrace each other.  And differences to how a lot of them understand what healthy food and lifestyle can bring to them.

Summarize your life philosophy in one word.

L:  Strength

MK:  Joy

What is the best entrepreneurial advice you’ve received?

L:  Don’t accept what others say.  Don’t listen to the naysayers!  

MK:  And another we always say: don’t ask don’t get!  And get yourself a good posse.

Any good books or podcasts you’ve recently read or listened to?

L:  I love super soul conversations podcast by Oprah (my favorite).  And a good book I love is called The Anatomy of Peace.  It’s about relationships and how you can choose to treat someone as an object or as a person and how you have to really put yourself in their shoes to understand where they’re coming from.  This helps the cycle of having a productive/rewarding relationship.  

MK:  I love Tim Ferriss for podcasts.  He does this five bullet Friday email.   For books, the Dalai Lama’s Universe in a Single Atom.  He talks a lot about quantum physics and the universe and how science and spirituality can coexist.  He never would have had that opportunity without that.  

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We provide a very positive place for our employees, and we work to help them with their own positive changes and mantras. And make sure that they are able to eat Gem Food during the day.

Last meal on earth:  what do you eat?

L:  Shinsei fried rice without the egg!  And also the crab claws I make at Christmas time.

MK:  Spicy fish tacos!

Must-have cosmetic item for deserted island

L:  Eye balm

MK:  Lip balm

Favorite Mi Golondrina piece

L:  I love the Valentina top; I’m going to be wearing it with leather pants this fall.

MK:  Yes, the Valentina.  I also love a deshilado Mi Golondrina piece I have in pink and green.  It is such a happy piece.  

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