09/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
WITH HIS PREFERENCE FOR POLO shirts and running shoes even during office hours, Richard Worth, 42, doesn't always look like the company CEO that he is. He doesn't always talk like one either, and someone hearing him for the first time might take him for a hip, aging space cadet. "I was born Frooked up and had a relapse," he says of his manic approach to life. "I'm slightly into the next stratosphere."
Frooked up? That comes from Frookies, a brand of cookies developed by Worth and his second wife, Randye, 38, and sweetened not with table sugar but with concentrated fruit juices. They are now available at over half the nation's supermarkets, in 18 flavors, including oatmeal-raisin and mandarin chocolate-chip.
Admittedly, Frookies were not the first or the only fruit-sweetened cookies to hit the market. And not every nutritionist is persuaded that they live up to their billing as "the good-for-you cookies." Still, just three years after Frookies first went on sale, Worth's New Jersey-based company, R.W. Frookies Inc., is taking an annual $17 million bite out of the $7 billion cookie-and-cracker industry, which is dominated by such giants as Nabisco and General Mills. That up-from-nowhere success has gained for Worth a reputation for being a pretty smart cookie himself.
"An entrepreneur's job is to see a vision and execute it," Worth says, though his earliest visions hardly included baking. Born into a well-to-do family that ran a women's-wear retail store in Boston, he grew to scorn the country-club life of suburban Brookline, Mass. By 1972, when he got his degree in psychology from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., Worth was fully into the counterculture. He had a 'cosmic desire to live with nature," he says.
To that end, he married classmate Suzanne Marcotte right after graduation, and a year later the pair lit out for Canada, where they paid $9,500 for 100 acres and an old farmhouse in rural New Brunswick. For a time he also sold real estate locally, making enough to expand his own holdings to 2,000 acres. In 1975. Worth and his wife began to farm in earnest—crops, livestock, the works. He soon discovered that living his dream involved back-breaking toil. Then early in 1978, their son, Jonah, was born at home, and though Suzanne was attended by a doctor, it was a difficult birth. For 18 anxious hours Richard thought he might lose both his wife and his son. It was then that he had a complete change of heart. "My country-culture style was baloney," he decided. "That year I made only $3,500 with a 20,000-pound blueberry crop. I wasn't going to leave my kid, who fought so hard to get here, nothing but a farm."
Already deeply into organic blueberries, Worth set up a home cannery and went into the jam business under the Sorrell Ridge Farms label. "I can do anything," he said; then he proved it. When he sold the business in 1985, Sorrell Ridge was grossing $8 million a year. Yet even as the Worths prospered, their private life collapsed. In 1982, not long after the birth of their daughter, Naomi, Richard and Suzanne split.
While attending a food fair that year, Richard met Randye Rappaport, a registered dietitian with a master's in nutrition from New York University. Together they began experimenting with sugarless cookie recipes, first in a New York City apartment and then in a Tudor-style Long Island home they built after marrying in 1986. Two years later they brought forth the world's first Frookie.
Frookies cost more than most cookies, but Worth claims that fruit-juice sweeteners are more costly than sugar and that Frookies are harder to bake because of this key ingredient. Are they healthier than regular cookies, as Frookies' good-for-you slogan suggests? Sarah King, a researcher at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, says concentrated fruit juice (fructose) is acceptable for diabetics, though table sugar (sucrose) isn't. But Richard Kahn, chief of the American Diabetic Association's scientific and medical office, has found that fructose-sweetened cookies have much the same impact on blood-sugar levels as cookies sweetened with sucrose. Frookies may be lower in fat, Kahn says, but no less calorie per gram than other cookies.
Whatever the case, Worth's business clearly has profited from Frookies health-conscious image, though Worth's own net worth is something he won't talk about. And his new vision is a turnabout from his old. Now that Frookies are in 60 percent of supermarkets across the land, he aims to expand his market share with new products—new flavors, fresh-baked cookies, no-fat cookies. "Capitalism is beautiful," he says. "Freedom is from wealth, and I," he adds proudly, "am a capitalist pig."
PEGGY BRAWLEY in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.