Former CBS2 reporter starts applesauce business

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Posted by Bud on December 29, 2009 at 20:30:08:

Paralyzed Chicago cop Jim Mullen starts applesauce business

December 29, 2009

Jim Mullen has a saying: "When life gives you lemons ... well, I make applesauce."

The guy speaks from experience. On Oct. 16, 1996, Mullen was a plainclothes Chicago cop when a bad guy shot him in the face with a .357 caliber pistol. The bullet went through his cheek and lodged in his spinal column, leaving him a quadriplegic.

He needs a ventilator to breathe and around-the-clock care. He gets around by blowing into a tube that controls his motorized wheelchair.

Thirteen years later, Mullen says, he's still "healing in his head."

Still coming to grips with "the injury."

Still trying to live a good, happy life.

He finds joy in applesauce -- Mullen's Chicago's Finest Apple Sauce, that is.

That's Mullen's business these days -- hawking jars of sweet sauce full of apple chunks with a hint of peppery spice. It tastes like apple pie without the crust and comes from his mom's recipe.

He markets the golden jars from the Edgebrook home he shares with his wife, Athena, daughter Margaret, an eighth-grader he calls "Magz," and a revolving team of nurses who help care for him.

Mullen's applesauce is sold at Whole Foods, Treasure Island and a handful of independent grocery stores. It's also on the kids menu at Hackney's in Glenview. And you can get a scoop on the side with a sandwich at Mullen's Bar & Grill locations, a chain of bars named in his honor that are owned by a family friend.

When Mullen starts to talk about the applesauce business, he bursts with the energy and ambition of a young salesman. You almost expect him to suddenly regain control of his arm, slap you on the back and say, "You've gotta taste this, buddy."

"Because once people taste it, that's it," he says, launching into his sales pitch. "It's healthy and addictive and all-natural."

He also can't help pointing out, "There's actual chunks of apples in it."

Mullen, 44, works long days promoting his product. He travels to food trade shows, calls on current customers and talks up the sauce to shoppers at grocery stores. He also hopes to win over bigger chains.

He knows that part of the appeal of his product, at least at first, is his own story.

"People might buy it once because of my story or my situation." Mullen says. "But they don't keep buying it because of Jim Mullen, paralyzed police officer. They buy it because of Jim Mullen, kick-ass applesauce."

The inspiration for the applesauce business came while Mullen was getting a checkup at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. A technician conducting a scan of Mullen's heart told him about her family's barbecue sauce company.

"Immediately, I thought: Why not do this with our family applesauce?" he says.

Mullen found a manufacturer near Rockford to cook up 40 cases of his mom's recipe from a blend of Michigan apples for about $1,000.

When the first jars arrived that spring, Mullen gave them out as gifts. By fall, people were knocking on his door asking for more. He ordered another batch and got Happy Foods to put it on its shelves.

He's not making a profit yet, but that really wasn't his goal to start.

"It was more a tribute to my mother," he says. "I just wanted to get one store to sell it. Now, it's taking off. I'm in 60 stores."

Mullen dreams of making enough to donate cash to the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation and to other charities that have stuck by him after that bullet left him unable to care for himself so long ago.

"We all want to provide for our families," he says. "We all want to be successful. We all want to strive for these things, and that's what I'm working toward. It gives me this good feeling, a sense of accomplishment."

But if the Chicago's Finest Apple Sauce flops, Mullen says he won't go into a funk.

"You know what's more important than this?" he says. "Family. Family is everything. My wife is freaking wonderful. I don't know if I could be the person I am right now if it wasn't for my wife and the rest of my family."

Konkol's Korner, a blog about the interesting people and places of Chicago, is at blogs.suntimes .com/konkol.

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