New to the Outdoors: Picky Bars takes energy bars au natural

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.
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Picky Bars are the energy bar for people who live freely … free of gluten, free of dairy, free of soy and free of GMOs.

“Our bars are the perfect combination of sports performance nutrition principles with whole food, all natural, allergy-sensitive ingredients. Combine super athlete with super foodie and that's us,” said Picky Bars founder and CEO, Jesse Thomas.

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The picky-eater-friendly company got its start five years ago in Bend, Ore. As the saying goes: Stomach problems are the mother of invention. Or at least they were for Thomas, a professional triathlete and winner of Ironman Wales 2015. His rigorous training schedule was forcing him to eat quick-energy foods on the run (sometimes literally), but none of them were settling right. All-natural food bars didn’t meet his endurance needs, while energy bars—and their high dairy, soy and “junk” content—led to digestional woes.

Conveniently, Thomas’s wife Lauren Fleshman, herself a professional runner, has a degree in science and athletic performance from Stanford. She hit the kitchen with her good friend, professional marathoner and celiac disease sufferer Stephanie Bruce. After much trial and error—and the untimely demise of 10 food mixers—Picky Bars was born. “[The brand] was founded by professional athletes looking to fill a void: an all-natural product, but also an energy bar,” said marketing manager Angela Shatting.

With flavors like “Ah, Fudge Nuts!” and “Cookie Doughpness,” Picky Bars might sound like the standard energy bar (albeit one with a knack for naming): a few quasi-healthy ingredients bathed in chocolate to up the “mmm” value. They’re not.

With Bruce’s dietary restrictions and Thomas’s stomach issues, gluten and dairy were banned from the recipe. Carbohydrates on the other hand were a must for their energy-value—no “low carb” offerings here—but the sugars come from natural sources like dates, dried nuts and occasionally a touch of agave or honey. Protein too is a vital Picky Bar ingredient, but one that’s carefully balanced with the carb content. “These are athletes. Their bodies are everything. What they put into it is everything,” Shatting said. “Food isn’t just a snack; it’s the gasoline for your machine. It’s what keeps you going.”

But the same high-energy, keep-you-going promises are made by every energy bar on the market. The key difference in Picky Bars is the company’s commitment to non-GMO, local ingredients. “There are environmental reasons and all of these other reasons, but it really comes down to the very simple fact that we really want to fuel our bodies, and we believe this is the best way to do it,” said Shatting. “You don't need preservatives to do it.”

That commitment to all natural ingredients isn’t without its problems. Bars must be made in smaller batches and shipped out more frequently. Ingredient sourcing is “a constant thing.” And while the company aims to spread into different forms of fuel, things like gels are hard to make without preservatives.

The price-point also inevitably goes up with locally sourced, organic ingredients. A standard 1.8-ounce Picky Bar retails for $2.75 compared to the 2.4-ounce Clif Bars often found for $1 at the supermarket.

But that boutique bar offering may be a boon for specialty retailers. “We like that we can be a product that they can sell feeling really good that their customers can’t go find it at the gas station,” Shatting said. “It’s something special for them to put on their shelves and feel excited about.”

In turn, those smaller, close-to-the-customer retailers are important for sharing the Picky Bar story. “Our specialty relationships are the core of our retail business. [They] are the best at educating our customers and providing our brand with in-sport legitimacy,” Thomas said.

--Courtney Holden

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