Robert E. Groth

Age 57 Founder of the Flying Fruit Fantasy fresh fruit shake business, an early Harbor Place tenant.

July 28, 2008|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

Robert Egan Groth, an entrepreneur and retired owner of the Flying Fruit Fantasy fresh fruit shake business, died of a stroke Saturday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson. The Pikesville resident was 57.

Mr. Groth grew up in Wantagh, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, and attended American University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science.

He managed two prominent restaurants in Washington in his early adulthood, the Gandy Dancer and the Biltmore Ballroom. But building the Flying Fruit Fantasy business with his wife, the former Georgia Bacas, was his true passion, according to friends and family. The marriage ended in divorce, but the two remained friends.

Mr. Groth's former wife, who now bears the last name of Martin, recalled how they bought an old U.S. Postal Service truck, painted it yellow, and began selling Mr. Groth's fruit shake concoctions at fairs and festivals around the area.

They hit the big time in July 1980 when they set up shop as one of the first tenants at the newly opened Harbor Place marketplace in Baltimore. The icy drinks proved popular with the throngs of visitors drawn to the festival marketplace.

"The first day, we did $3,000 in sales, which was unheard-of," Mrs. Martin laughed. "We were throwing $1 bills up and down in the hotel room."

They would later open Flying Fruit Fantasy locations at the restored Old Post Office in Washington; Jax Brewery in New Orleans; and other locations. They also developed portable equipment so the fruit drinks could be sold more easily from sports stadiums, cafeterias, conventions centers and similar locations.

Paul Montague, who was director of operations for Flying Fruit Fantasy for 10 years, beginning in 1984, said he learned a lot about running a business from Mr. Groth.

"Bob was just a tremendous businessman, a great salesperson," Mr. Montague said. "He was very skilled as a negotiator. He's very well-known in the Baltimore business community and has received numerous awards."

Mr. Montague and others said Mr. Groth had an infectious smile and laugh, and a zest for life.

Bill Osche, a friend of nearly 30 years, said he opened a business called the Kite Loft at Harbor Place when it opened in 1980 and got to know Mr. Groth as a fellow vendor.

"We were mentors for each other in business and in personal matters," Mr. Osche said. "He had two sons he was a wonderful father to. He's going to be missed sorely."

In Baltimore, Mr. Groth worked with a program to provide jobs for disadvantaged youths, teaching them business skills. They sold fruit shakes at Camden Yards. A savings account was set aside for them, equal to their wages, that was awarded upon successful graduation from high school.

The Flying Fruit Fantasy business was sold after Mr. Groth and his first wife separated in 1994, although the Camden Yards location remains in operation. Mr. Groth stayed involved with that enterprise.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson.

Survivors include his wife of nearly three years, Gale Arden; two sons, Byron Groth of Baltimore and Evan Groth of Pikesville; a stepson, Jason Drapala of Chicago; two sisters, Kathryn Calabrese of Atlanta and Mary Elizabeth Thorsen of Waldorf; and two step-grandchildren.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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