Chuck Casano first encountered pitaya while working for a nonprofit in Nicaragua.
He describes the fruit as looking like a flaming pink artichoke and loved it so much that he started blending it up every morning while he was there. When he came back to the U.S., he realized the fruit wasn’t available at any local juice bars. Casano then realized that there was a need for the fruit in the U.S. and decided to start Pitaya Plus.
He realized this was also a great way to promote organic farming and to provide job opportunities in Nicaragua for single moms, or as he calls them, “super moms.”
The first person he hired was Ben Hiddlestone and for the first few years the two drove around to every juice bar they could find in California to sell Pitaya Plus. Now after five years they have helped more than 300 farmers get USDA organic certification and last year created more than 150 jobs at their processing plant in Nicaragua. Their pitaya/dragon fruit smoothie packs are raw, never cooked, heated or pasteurized and can be found in Safeway, Sprouts, select Whole Foods Market locations and juice bars in North America, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Australia.
Q: The biggest misconception on Pitaya Plus?
Casano: The biggest misconception is the difference between pitaya and dragon fruit, and to be honest it is pretty confusing. Pitaya is the indigenous name of the fruit that is native to Central America. A long time ago missionaries brought the fruit to Asia. Asians started cultivating the fruit and made up a story of the fruit coming from fire breathing dragons and thus renamed the fruit “dragon fruit.” However a big difference between 90 percent of the dragon fruit from Asia and the pitaya we source from Nicaragua, is that ours is beautiful magenta color when you cut it open, and most dragon fruit is just white and pretty bland. We call our fruit pitaya because that is what everyone calls it down in Nicaragua where we source it from.
Hiddlestone: People get confused as to whether it’s dragon fruit, cactus apple, prickly pear or something similar. It’s pitaya.
Q: If you could be a superhero who would it be and why?
Casano: I think Superman makes the most sense because who wouldn’t want to fly around the world at anytime?
Hiddlestone: Probably my wife! Raising our children takes some serious super powers that I would like to have more of! But if I had to pick from the comics probably Superman because he flies, has super strength and speed and gets to be a regular guy at the end of the day.
Q: Company that you admire and why?
Casano: Dr. Bronner’s soap company. We are friends with a few guys that work there and have surfed with David Bronner a few times. It is unbelievable how much they give back and take care of every one of their employees. There are so many brands in the natural foods/products industry that shout out how socially responsible they are, but Dr. Bronner’s is the real deal.
Hiddlestone: Patagonia: Environmentally conscious, transparent, realists, and their pursuit to be a “responsible company” is something we should all be striving for.
Q: CEO you would love to have lunch with and why?
Casano: James Dole, the founder of Dole fruits. He isn’t alive today, but I have read his biography a few times. It is crazy to see how some of the issues he had 100 years ago starting Dole are so similar to problems we face, and he did it all without an iPhone!
Hiddlestone: Sir Richard Branson: Entrepreneurial genius and loves to have fun. Life should always be fun and he’s been doing it even before he was a somebody.
Q: Describe your most perfect day in San Diego?
Casano: Wake up early and check the surf down at Windansea with my wife and our new 4-month-old daughter. Jump in the water for a quick surf and then over to Seaside Smoothie in Bird Rock for a pitaya bowl. Head up to Torrey Pines for a round of golf, and spend the late afternoon hanging out by their pool and having dinner with my family.
Hiddlestone: The most perfect day in San Diego would consist of a couple of friends and me surfing 8- to 10-foot Black’s Beach all day with no one around.
Q: Best part about doing business in San Diego?
Casano: I grew up on the East Coast and 99 percent of all my friends work in finance. It sounds cliché but there really is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in San Diego. It is always interesting to learn about new small businesses in the area.
Hiddlestone: For a health and wellness company there is no better place. The demographic here was the testing ground to see if our concept would work. Health and wellness in Southern California is a lifestyle and we are fortunate enough to be a part of it. It constantly educates you and promotes personal health. It’s hard not to like that.
Q: Besides pitaya, what food can you not live without?
Casano: Is espresso considered a food? Even if it is not I would trade it for food. I have about two or three shots a day, just straight nothing added. It’s a habit I picked up while living in Spain for two years and I can’t do without it.
Hiddlestone: Chocolate. I’m still trying to kick the habit.
Q: Three things you would take on a deserted island with you?
Casano: My wife, daughter, and my surfboard. Even if there were no waves it would be give me hope!
Hiddlestone: My wife and two boys. (Hopefully we find some food...?)
Amber Mesker is an entertainment and lifestyle reporter for DiscoverSD. She loves providing readers updates on Hollywood gossip, San Diego fashion and cool weekend events. You can follow Amber and laugh at her fun, crazy life at @ambermesker